Photo: John Shearer/WireImage.com
How The 50 Cent, Kanye West "Beef" Of 2007 Was A Hard Reset For Hip-Hop
Since 2001, the date Sept. 11 has been solely reflective of one pivotal moment in American history, though a decade ago music fans' attention was temporarily redirected. It was all thanks to hip-hop, as 50 Cent and Kanye West willfully entangled themselves in September 2007 in a playful beef that attracted major headlines.
Both were at turning points in their respective careers; both were dropping their all-important third albums. 50 Cent was geared to release Curtis on Sept. 11, 2007. West was readying Graduation for a Sept. 18 release, though he bumped it up a week to set the stage for what was perhaps the biggest nonviolent event in hip-hop history — as the two duked it out in a contest to see who would take home a bigger haul of album sales.
Of course, we all know the results: West's Graduation won with a staggering 957,000 units sold, while 50 Cent topped out at 691,000 units. The effects of this epic matchup, however, have reverberated to this day, as hip-hop music made a hard left and hasn't returned since.
Prior to Sept. 11, 2007, anything hip-hop related never really echoed on a grandiose scale, save for the tragic losses of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. in 1996 and 1997, respectively. When a beef would casually surface or a rapper was rolling out a new project, it was hip-hop's little secret. Sure, communally speaking it was a big deal, but the rest of the world lacked enthusiasm despite hip-hop's growing popularity within the mainstream. The year 2007 was perhaps the tipping point for the crisis hip-hop was going through two years prior.
In 2005 50 Cent released his monumental sophomore effort, The Massacre, giving Fif a significant feather in his cap with what would be the second best-selling album of that year, trailing only Mariah Carey's The Emancipation Of Mimi. In the first week alone, The Massacre moved 1.14 million units (ultimately selling more than 5 million copies in the United States).
West was still riding high off the fumes of his 2004 debut, The College Dropout, so by that following year his sophomore work, Late Registration, gave him an impressive 860,000 sales in its first week on its way to more than 3 million copies sold.
These figures alone indicated that while 50 Cent's breed of "street rap" that nearly carried him through the early aughts was arguably still thriving, something different was brewing by necessity.
"You couldn't out-thug 50 Cent. Nothing street was gonna come next that was gonna eliminate him," explains Vanessa Satten, editor-in-chief of XXL Magazine. "That was as street as we could get."
The shift became more visible in 2006. Lupe Fiasco released his debut, Food & Liquor, and was met with rave reviews. Jay Z would poke his head out of post-"retirement" to release Kingdom Come, as the industry collectively questioned whether that was the idyllic return to form for the rapper-turned-president of Def Jam. By the close of 2006, Nas would declare "Hip Hop Is Dead" on his eighth studio album.
Entering 2007, the crumbling framework of the old guard was too blatant to deny. DJ Drama was arrested that January for selling mixtapes, a huge indicator that every aspect of rap was changing. Dr. Dre didn't release Detox, which he had been working on since 2001; Raekwon didn't release Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II as planned — though it did drop two years later; and Eminem ducked Relapse — any combination of which would have suggested that hip-hop's current character was still somewhat in tact.
That spring, 50 Cent earned a cool $100 million as a minority owner of Vitamin Water through Glacéau's $4.1 billion sale to Coca-Cola. By the time the feud with West rolled around, it wasn't money that motivated him; it was principle. But he was too late.
"My theory is we were coming up on a time period where the internet started taking over," Satten says. "The Kanye success and moving away from the streets came with the internet, giving the nerdy person who was obsessed with fashion — which wasn't the cool person back then — the opportunity to have a voice."
"I feel like fashion was pushing it," adds Kris Ex, writer and co-author of 50 Cent's 2005 memoir, From Pieces To Weight. "The ascension into super high fashion was already happening, and Kanye tapped into that. He's kind of the harbinger of that."
Kanye West and 50 Cent at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 9, 2007
Photo: Jason Squires/WireImage.com
Ye's July 2007 release of "Stronger" with Daft Punk only punctuates that claim. The single veered away from traditional hip-hop, accented with visuals that further reflected West's infatuation with Japanese art, particularly that of Takashi Murakami (the Japanese artist behind the Graduation cover art) as well as high fashion. It was synesthesia at its best.
"I remember sitting in Joe Levy's office when the publicist came by and played us ['Stronger']," recalls former Rolling Stone Associate Editor Evan Serpick. "We just looked at each other like, 'This s*** is phenomenal.'"
Serpick penned the piece breaking the story on the Curtis/Graduation competition — having interviewed both artists — a week before Rolling Stone would roll out its double cover story pitting Ye and Fif face-to-face. He describes the genesis of the phenomenon as fascinating.
"[The competition] reminded me of when boxers have sort of that fake press conference and talk trash for the cameras," Serpick says. "To varying degrees, I think they both saw it as a marketing opportunity, to be honest. I think Kanye especially likes to think of himself as this center of the universe. For him, this was just a classic heavyweight battle, and he loved to set it up that way. 50 was happy to play it up."
Both Kanye West and 50 Cent were at a crossroads, where their beginnings were nearly parallel in a bizarro sense. Each artist was known for his enormous personality, stemming from surviving near-fatal traumas that would ultimately self-crown them as Teflon: 50 Cent's was shot nine times in 2000 and West survived a serious car accident of 2002.
Both were archetypes of candor in their own minds, making them both caricatures.
However, in the money game, only one would be the victor, and it all came down to safety. Sure West didn't hold back his opinions, evidenced by his bold "George Bush doesn't care about black people" declaration during a nationally televised telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005. 50 Cent, though, had a bark with a bite to match. His rift with G-Unit ex-pat The Game grew nefarious, as did the violence stemming from his beef with Ja Rule. While both 50 Cent and West were tantrum-prone, only one was a real liability.
"The labels were aware of that," Kris Ex adds. "You always knew 50 was smart and had tricks up his sleeve, but it was starting to become a Def Jam Vs. Interscope battle. 50 wasn't in the best place with Interscope at that point. It was not something that he was ever going to win from jump, because he was going machine after machine."
Kris Ex also points to Def Jam's history of making first-week sales a win when they needed to. Jay Z's historical issues with 50 Cent were another factor, plus Hova was wrapping his tenure as Def Jam president, so a West win would be the swan song.
"Jay was the battery in Kanye's back," Satten says.
Sonically, Kanye was in tune with hip-hop's changes, while 50 Cent was only partially invested. In addition to "Stronger," the pre-Graduation first single "Can't Tell Me Nothing" showed Ye diverting from his chipmunk-tinged soul samples and looking toward the future. Meanwhile, the pre-Curtis offerings of "I Get Money" and "Ayo Technology" with Justin Timberlake didn't exactly scream evolution.
"50 was kind of just sticking to his guns," adds Kris Ex.
The 50 Cent-Kanye West matchup's stakes were raised substantially when the former claimed he would stop rapping upon defeat. The competition became lighthearted to the point of almost cartoonish, the aforementioned Rolling Stone cover being proof of that. The two would flank each other onstage at BET's "106 & Park," giving the public what they wanted: nonthreatening rap personas vying for audience participation. By Sept. 11, 2007, it was clear who the real winner was: it was both of them.
Kanye West and 50 Cent appear on BET's "106 & Park" on Sept. 11, 2007
Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images
"Kanye put his money where his mouth was, but at the end of the day it was good for both albums," says DJ Premier, who collaborated with West on the Graduation track "Everything I Am."
While the following week's sales figures proved West quantifiably won, 50 Cent was able to pivot from the "scary" street persona that made him a figure of consternation. Still, it solidified rap's new direction and placed it directly in the hands of Yeezy.
"The impact was tenfold because ever since that day, hip-hop has moved in the direction of Kanye," says Sickamore, senior vice president and creative director of Interscope Records. "Kanye literally influenced everything after that. I don't think people really realize that."
By the milestone 50th GRAMMY Awards telecast, the change was set in stone. Graduation was nominated for Album Of the Year (ultimately losing to Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters) and took home Best Rap Album honors. "Stronger" would win Best Rap Solo Performance, topping 50 Cent's "I Get Money" and even Jay Z's "Show Me What You Got." "Good Life" won Best Rap Song, beating himself ("Can't Tell Me Nothing" was also nominated) and 50 Cent's "Ayo Technology" in the process. West also won best Rap Performance By A Duo Or Group for the track "Southside" with Common.
GRAMMY scoreboard: West 4, Fifty Cent 0.
"A lot of people said hip-hop was dead, not just Nas. A lot of people just said the art form wasn't popping like that anymore. I wanted to cross the genres and show people how we can still express ourselves with something fresh and new. That's what hip-hop has always been about." — Kanye West, Best Rap Album GRAMMY acceptance
Many have argued that West's wins were the sole identifier in rap's switch being flipped, though the warning signs were there. A year later we would be introduced to Kid Cudi, and Drake a year after that — arguably the purveyors of what Kris Ex calls the "Kanye-lite" sound. Though he won his own GRAMMY two years later, 50 Cent would never return to reclaim the rap throne, though his business portfolio — including his recent win as an actor and producer for the hit Starz series Power — could easily be a delayed right hook to West's ego.
One thing remains certain: Hip-hop became the zeitgeist of pop culture after this fateful feud, and nothing has been "Stronger" since.
(Kathy Iandoli has penned pieces for Pitchfork, VICE, Maxim, O, Cosmopolitan, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Billboard, and more. She co-authored the book Commissary Kitchen with Mobb Deep's late Albert "Prodigy" Johnson, and is a professor of music business at select universities throughout New York and New Jersey.)