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Kanye West (left) and 50 Cent
From left: "Graduation" is Kanye West's third CD; 50 Cent's latest disc is titled "Curtis."
CD Reviews

After the hip-hop hype

Kanye offers something more, 50 Cent more of the same

The illusion is that Kanye West's "Graduation" and 50 Cent's "Curtis" actually have something to do with each other aside from today's release date.

They don't.

"Graduation" is not just West's third album, another journey in sound that takes him from 1980 to 2080 via Daft Punk samples, animé porn, and glitch-in-the-matrix Max Headroom sound effects. "Curtis," taken after the rapper's given name, Curtis Jackson, was also supposed to be 50's third release, another one of his odes to violence that made him so popular in 2003.

But it was never just about the music. It's about the marketing and the hype it created. And West (the college dropout) and 50 (the walking bullet wound) have always been master marketers. Yet somehow a simple release date has become the day the nerd fought the bully, soulful hip-hop fought gangster rap, and good fought evil all at once.

It's a great marketing strategy. So great that the albums are no longer mutually exclusive. Not to Best Buy, which promoted the albums on the same poster in its music sections. Not to Rolling Stone, which put the rappers nose-to-nose on its latest cover with the headline "Smackdown."

Not even to the artists themselves, which makes no sense because Kanye and 50 are completely different. As an artist, West has the ability to experiment in ways that 50 can't. 50 can't reach out to Coldplay's Chris Martin without looking silly. 50 can't stop rapping while producer Jon Brion allows harps and pianos to wander aimlessly for measures at a time, such as on "I Wonder." He can't sample Daft Punk and still rap about homicide.

That said, in all likelihood, West will never be shot. The street cred that created the myth of a bullet-riddled 50 Cent is the same cred that West admits to not having.

However, as West raps on "Graduation," it's also what made him successful. Over the simplest boom-baps, piano strums, and scratches from DJ Premier, West raps, "I never rocked a mink coat in the wintertime like Killa Cam/ Or rocked some pink boots in the summer time like will.i.am./ Let me know if you feel him, man/ Cuz everything I'm not made me everything I am."

Despite a conscious effort to leave out other rappers to prove his worth as an MC, "Graduation" is probably the best example of West as a musical thinker.

He carved out his own soulful sound on his debut, 2004's "The College Dropout," then sought Brion to add richness to it on his follow-up, "Late Registration." DJ Toomp adds the same accent marks to "Graduation," overdosing on synths to give the album the futuristic feel that was West's aim.

The album has flaws with recycled tracks like "Bittersweet," a song with John Mayer that was meant for "Late Registration" but didn't fit the sound, and "Homecoming," on which West takes a song from a four-year-old mix-tape and awkwardly rides heavy drums and piano taps with Martin replacing John Legend on the hook.

But on the whole, "Graduation" reaffirms the notion that West doesn't duplicate sounds. Every album's a new adventure.

Meanwhile, 50's "Curtis" abandons experimentation in favor of a proven formula. It's as creative as you can get trying to make an album by picking the most frequently played voices on the radio: Akon, Mary J. Blige, and Nicole Scherzinger from the Pussycat Dolls.

50 isn't doing anything that hasn't been done before. Actually, he mastered it, which is why "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," his breakthrough album from 2003, was seven times platinum. But after using it on his first record, then again with the G-Unit album, then with Lloyd Banks, Young Buck, and the Game, the formula wears itself out.

Even Robin Thicke can't jolt life into the soft-voiced, love-the-ladies template that 50 introduced on "Get Rich" with "21 Questions" and beat into the ground on every album to follow. When Thicke crooned high-pitched mumbles about being held hostage during a bank robbery on Lil' Wayne's "Shooter," it was a surprise. When he appears on "Follow My Lead," you already know why he's here.

With "Ayo Technology," 50 doesn't seem to expand his own sound as much as he benefits from the sound Timbaland and Justin Timberlake created on "FutureSex/LoveSounds." The song would be just fine without 50. Tracks like "My Gun," "Man Down," "I Still Kill," and "I Get Money" could be bullet points rather than song titles. It's not that the music is bad, it's just boring.

The dilemma in the marketing strategy is that there has to be a winner when, really, the two albums aren't competing. Artistically, West is always moving, while 50 is at a standstill.

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