Even in a business where beefs are mandatory and showdowns are commonplace, this one is a biggie. On Tuesday, two of hip-hop's biggest stars, Kanye West and 50 Cent, will release new albums, pitting the innovative artist versus the swaggering entertainer against a backdrop of an industry in freefall.
As musicians and people, the two men anchor opposite poles in the rap world. 50 Cent, born Curtis Jackson, is a streetwise former crack dealer who famously survived nine gunshot wounds and has sold millions of albums celebrating thug life. West is a born-again Christian from a middle-class home who has become a critic's darling by stretching the boundaries of rap music.
West is considered a revolutionary, 50 a by-the-numbers superstar. West wins Grammys. 50 moves units.
The competition flared in July, when West announced that he had shifted the release date for "Graduation" by a week, to the same day 50 Cent's "Curtis" was set to drop. Speculation about opening-week sales heated up, and 50, a perennial provocateur, upped the ante with a vow to stop releasing solo discs altogether if his album didn't outsell West's.
That's a brash promise and a great PR stunt. The blogosphere is abuzz, not to mention the corridors at Billboard magazine - where the staff is watching with interest to see if this Super Tuesday (as star-studded release days are known) will give the record business a much-needed boost.
"We're all fascinated," says Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's director of charts. "I happen to think Kanye could sell bigger, but some bright people here think I'm nuts. Certainly, a lot more people are paying attention and we hope that this will invigorate the market."
No matter who lands in the top spot next week, plenty of folks are hoping that "Curtis" and "Graduation" will be the rising tide that lifts all boats. Album sales are down 14 percent from a year ago, and during the last decade, sales have declined in all but one year. Rap sales, according to Mayfield, are down by an astonishing 30 percent from a year ago, although judging by rap's domination in ringtones and soundtracks, the genre's popularity hasn't waned.
But this isn't just a hip-hop contest. While he doesn't have the pop-culture cachet (or the virtual ink), Kenny Chesney is releasing "Just What I Am: Poets and Pirates," also on Tuesday, and considering that the country singer's last four albums have debuted at No. 1, he's a strong contender for the first-week crown. Moreover, there isn't a competing country star coming out that day to divide consumers and diminish Chesney's sales.
As for the stakes, they appear to be highest for 50 Cent, and not because anyone thinks he's going to make good on his threat to retire. (Once upon a time Jay-Z was retiring, too.) 50 measures his success in commercial clout - he has consistently outsold West - and his very identity is based on bragging rights. Not surprising, then, that on "Curtis" he's sticking with the formula. "Ayo Technology" features Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. Other collaborators include Dr. Dre, Akon, Mary J. Blige, and his mentor, Eminem.
West, by contrast, is more invested in his creative achievements. His new single, "Stronger," samples the Gallic electro-duo Daft Punk, and elsewhere on "Graduation" West's choice of collaborators (among them Coldplay's Chris Martin and Mos Def) and samples (Steely Dan and German art-rockers Can) underscores the artist's experimental streak.
Earlier this week, "Stronger" was living up to its name: West's song was No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on iTunes, while "Ayo Technology" lingered at No. 21 and 19, respectively, on the same charts. Both are in demand among listeners at Boston hip-hop station JAM'N 94.5. The station's music director Geespin predicts that 50 Cent, "the bigger brand," will outsell West the first week but have a bigger drop-off, while "Graduation" will enjoy greater longevity. Neither, Geespin says, will do as well as the artists' previous albums.
"Expectations need to be scaled down a bit. It's been an incredible run for the last five or 10 years, but like the stock market, everything evens out," Geespin notes. "Hip-hop's not as hot as it was two years ago, and the kids who like you today forget about you tomorrow. You won't see either of them doing a Rolling Stones-type tour 20 years from now."