September 11th is seared into collective public memory as the day that completely altered the global political scene and heralded years of unthinkable violence, brutality and the death of thousands. To me, however, it signals another type of ending: the death of gangster rap in hip-hop.
The early 2000’s were a time when hip-hop was emerging as more than just a gimmick in the American music scene. Rap and hip-hop culture were beginning to find mainstream acceptance. The Nineties made it clear that this genre was a profitable investment with a large and active fanbase, and the new millennium showed that it was here to stay. Gangster rap was hip-hop’s dominant language and no one spoke that language better than Curtis Jackson, a.k.a 50 Cent. Jackson had grown up in Queens, New York as a hustler trying to make the American dream his reality, while living and rapping like each day was his last. He had the midas touch and he was able to infiltrate the mainstream in unparalleled fashion with the release of two record breaking platinum albums (Get Rich or Die Trying and The Massacre) back to back. His protégés Lloyd Banks, Young Buck, Tony Yayo and The Game (before they fell out) all found some form of mainstream success too.
On July 19th, 2007, Kanye West announced that the release of his highly anticipated album, Graduation, would be pushed from its initial date in August to one in September, already pegged as the hip-hop superstar 50 Cent’s release date. Despite being a clear marketing gimmick to push sales of both albums, it was sold to the fans as a heavyweight matchup for hip-hop supremacy. Celebrities were asked who they were backing at every industry event, following a Rolling Stone cover with 50 cent as the reigning champion and Kanye West as the underdog. It was the great Hip Hop referendum.
50 Cent and Kanye couldn’t have been any more different, and this made the competition all the more exciting. 50 was the drug-dealing gangster from Queens who’d been shot 9 times and lived to rap about it, while Kanye was a college dropout cum super producer for Rocafella whose near-fatal car accident inspired his breakout single. Beyond their differences, however, adversity was a theme they both returned to in their music.
50 very publicly underestimated his competition, even going as far as proclaiming that he would retire from rap if Kanye outsold him. Despite the fact that these were most likely empty threat to encourage sales, it gave the faceoff an edge as there were now stakes attached to a potential loss. That fateful day arrived and Kanye destroyed 50, selling 960k records (his best ever release) to 50’s 690k- (his worst ever showing at that point).
Curtis showed that although 50 could still make a hit, he hadn’t evolved as an artist; at least not in the way his fans wanted. The opening line on his lead single ‘I Get Money’ went “I used to sell bottled water for just a few bucks, Coca Cola came and bought it for billions what the f***!? Have a baby by me, baby, I be a millionaire, I write the cheque before the baby comes who the f*** cares?” 50 Cent had became rich and bougie before our very eyes. Perhaps the disconnect with his fans stemmed from the fact that he was in a completely different space in his life. He was rubbing shoulders with Fortune 500 companies and making terrible straight to DVD movies. He wasn’t Curtis Jackson, the gangster who rapped because he wanted his fans to help him get rich. He became 50 Cent the mogul whose primary objection was to make money whilst rapping on the side. All the singles off Curtis felt monotonous- I Get Money and Piggybank just served to show that 50 was telling us “I’m rich and you’re not. Deal with it.”
On the other hand, Kanye became the patron saint of the dreamers with the opening line “Wait till I get my money right/ Then you can’t tell me nothing right?” on his first single off Graduation, Can’t Tell Me Nothing, Kanye spoke to the 15 year-old me and made me believe that I could achieve anything I put my mind to if I just worked at it. I still listen to that song at least 3 times a week because, to a large extent, I’m still that 15 year-old trying to get out my dreams. On Stronger, the second single, he was still spreading the message of positivity. Keeping in line with his creed of inventing and molding new sounds, meshing the record with dance music legends Daft Punk’s old work proved a masterstroke. Both records sounded very different and had appeal to different crowds. The Young Jeezy sample on Can’t Tell Me Nothing was for the streets and served as Mr. West’s first proper Urban classic while Stronger was for the white (read; ‘mainstream’) audience that West had cultivated after touring with U2 and setting out to make what he described as “Stadium Rap”.
Kanye winning that battle gave him way more cache to be experimental with his music. How else do you explain that he released his most successful experimental album till date with 808’s and Heartbreak? (I would throw in Yeezus but that album pales in comparison to 808’s. Debate me on Twitter but I probably won’t answer you). Kanye had always been one to chop up soul samples and transform them into something completely magnificent but his music since Graduation has accelerated his ascension to one of modern day hip hop’s demi gods. Just go listen to his albums and get back to me.
50 Cent losing to Kanye made him mortal. Can you imagine being the hardest gangster on the planet to getting beat by a man that was wearing polo tops and backpacks? It was also his first major loss in the music industry in a while. This was a guy who single handedly masterminded the downfall of Ja Rule and the entire Murder Inc. Empire. It must have been a major blow to his ego. Till date he has never had another platinum album or single. In retrospect 50 Cent had his hands full with his music, numerous movie appearances and business deals. Something had to give. Unfortunately, it was the music.
It’s amazing to see how one event and its ramification changed the course of hip-hop history. Had 50 won, gangster rap would probably not need a Drake cosign to gain relevance. Maybe Drake isn’t the juggernaut he is today. If he isn’t the juggernaut he is today then maybe One Dance doesn’t exist. One Dance doesn’t exist and Wizkid is probably turning up in Sip instead of Hollywood. The possibilities are endless.
Kanye winning this battle showed that evolution is inevitable in all cultures. Rappers went from rapping about guns to rapping about heartbreak. The tone of hip-hop since 2008 has undeniably been molded in Kanye West’s image. From the vulnerability in the lyrics to the clothes the artists wear. 50 Cent unwittingly oversaw Kanye’s ascension to being one pf Hip Hop’s most influential figures.
Life is compromised of monumental moments that shift society’s paradigms. I like to believe that those moments contribute to growth and evolution of the zeitgeist. I also like to believe that on September 11th 2007, Kanye West not only grew the culture, he killed off a part of it too.
Adé for the Blasé. @