Where's the Beef?

Stick that beef in the freezer with Sean at [email protected]

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Nearly a year after the fact, and people are still asking the big question of Nas’ album Hip Hop Is Dead: Well … is it? At first glance, tomorrow’s chart war between Kanye West’s Graduation and 50 Cent’s Curtis would point to “no”—it is, after all, the biggest hip-hop event in a quiet year, and the most polarizing topic for fans since Nas’ own beef with Jay-Z over who would reign supreme over New York.

All of that makes for great excitement, and even greater publicity. Take 50 Cent: After a tumultuous year of record label troubles (including an almost unprecedented music video leak) and general disrespect (MTV would have you believe that the much-hyped Lil Wayne has pushed Ol’ Fiddy off), the MC has plenty to prove. West, on the other hand, is the underdog—he’s sold less, but he’s a critical darling, and he’s got more than enough ego to turn his fans into believers. But all of the anticipation is even better for the Universal Music Group, the media giant that owns both rappers’ respective labels, and the real winner of this week’s chart battle.

As such, it may be easy and tempting to write it all off as little more than a marketing scheme designed to sell albums and push magazines (see the slightly sensationalist cover of the latest Rolling Stone, featuring both rappers). From Universal’s perspective, this is smart business (almost a no-brainer), though the black and white choice it presents is decidedly less concerned with good taste. Consider that many a hip-hop beef has used album sales as a point of assertion, but the game is really about proving oneself as an MC. This is where Kanye West and 50 Cent’s squabble breaks with tradition: Save for maybe a subliminal diss or two, neither album makes explicit reference to the other. Instead, this rivalry is one of style over substance, with each participant representing a clear—and as Universal might like you to believe, opposing—aesthetic choice. Call it “backpacker versus gangsta” if you really want to break it down into the condescendingly reductive terms befitting of this spectacle, but it’s that same reductive nature that has allowed implications of masculinity, class and authenticity to color tomorrow’s competition.

The result is a curious kind of rivalry that does not find its closest reference point in hip-hop at all, but rather the chart war between Blur and Oasis in the mid-’90s (where it was more than gently suggested that a listener’s class and upbringing should be reflected in their musical taste). The common theme is image: Where the British press pitted Blur, the middle-class boys with pin-up looks, against Oasis, the unibrowed, blue-collared lads, so does the American media with Kanye and 50.

It’s easy marketing: Consider that West is often recognized as a unique figure in hip-hop by his own admission of never having hustled. Born middle-class, dressed like a college slacker and with an unabashed ear for pop, it’s easy to position him as the antithesis of 50 Cent: the bullet-riddled alpha male who went from selling crack to having his own flavor of Vitamin Water. 50’s story lends itself a bit more to mythologizing (see 2005’s “Get Rich or Die Trying”), and it’s perhaps his most significant advantage. It’s also probably why West’s ambitions to be a pop star don’t sit as well with him. As 50 told San Diego radio station 93.3 KHTS, “Kanye sucks … he sounds like a robot, he has a robot record.”

That “robot record” is of course West’s “Stronger,” the hit single that impeccably milked the resurgence of Daft Punk’s popularity this summer by sampling the group’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” And West’s co-opting of the Parisian duo hardly seems coincidental: they are every bit the toast of the hip this year as producer Jon Brion was in 2005 when West enlisted him for Late Registration. West’s cred may come from being the man behind the boards on albums like Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, but his ability to channel the cool into mass appeal is what seals the deal for him as a solo artist. It’s a genius form of appropriation from one point of view; a domestication of a traditionally subersive genre from another.

Unsurprisingly, Curtis is a more conservative affair: songs deal with familiar themes of hustling and getting money and the guest list has familiar faces like Timbaland, Dr. Dre and Eminem. 50 may have fewer notes to play than West, but they are notes that echo with a bit more history, following in the footsteps of the gritty story-rhymes that made rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. famous. Either that, or you could accuse him of exploiting the same themes that have turned his predecessors into martyrs.

The point is that there is no conversation inherent between Graduation and Curtis. Each is typically a product of its maker, making perfect sense in the career tracectories of their respective authors, and having little to do with the other’s. It’s not going to sell very many magazines, but the truth of the matter is that there’s nothing keeping each rapper from prospering independently of each other as they have been until now, save for the fact that the public has demanded one winner and one loser.


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