To be a successful critic is to be a contrarian. When you're handed a story line by a publicist or manager, you're skeptical, and you immediately look for weaknesses in the story you're being sold.
So it was with the massively hyped September 11 releases of Kanye West's Graduation and 50 Cent's Curtis. The contrast, and the official perception, could hardly be more clear: Kanye is the smart, artistically brilliant star who should be lauded for trying, with his ambitious third album, to push hip-hop into a new age. The former Curtis Jackson, however, is interested only in sales and chart position, a fact reflected by his simplistic, derivative latest. Yet it couldn't really be that simple, could it?
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Well, another part of being a successful critic is knowing when things really are exactly as they seem. That is not to suggest, as the ever-modest Kanye already has, that Graduation is one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. It might not even be the best hip-hop disc of 2007 (El-P's I'll Sleep When You're Dead certainly deserves consideration), and it's not without significant missteps. (Dear God, hasn't the statute of limitations on Chris Martin collaborations run out?) But the ways in which Kanye's ambition has served him before continue to elevate his game. He is the only artist who can not only assemble such a diverse guest list (T-Pain to Daft Punk, via sample), but can also make the results cohesive. He is the only artist with the stature and the savvy to give a rhyme called "Barry Bonds" the far-reaching cultural references it deserves. He is the only MC whose tributes to others — Jay-Z on "Big Brother," the MIA Lauryn Hill on "Champion Sound" — are more than just treacle. For all his excesses and tiresome boasts, he's on a Stevie Wonder-esque run of consistently intriguing pop music. Can you say that about any other hip-hop artist of the last twenty years?
You can't say it about Fiddy, nor would he expect it. Seldom has an artist delivered so precisely what was expected — and in that sense, you could almost call Curtis a success. Millions of fans probably will, since the disc is a pop-hook-packed recap of every chart-tested move 50 has made thus far. The one difference is that in many cases — "Ayo Technology," featuring Timbaland and Justin Timberlake, or "Follow My Lead," with gentle crooner Robin Thicke — the star is content to cede the spotlight, neatly sidestepping the question of his own involvement or growth. The query gets answered anyway, though, on "Fully Loaded Clip," a weak rewrite of 50's true, pre-fame classic "How to Rob." He must now resort to lampooning fellow MCs and their famous girlfriends; instead of imagining ripping off other rappers, he's content to rob himself. The theft is understandable, but it also illustrates why the conventional wisdom about these two very different albums was, indeed, very wise.