50 Cent's Curtis: The Death of the Formula?

home_of_the_brave.jpgHave a baby by me, baby, be a millionaire

As entertaining as the alternately friendly and unfriendly competition for sales-dominance bragging-rights between 50 Cent and Kanye West has been, it's also a pretty egregious example of hype-manipulation. 50 and Kanye, after all, are both on labels that come under the umbrella of the Universal Music Group, and Universal stands to profit no matter who wins. So I wonder if it's a coincidence that both Graduation and Curtis leaked on the same day last week. Maybe the same disgruntled Universal employee leaked both of them, maybe competing departments within the same company tried to fuck each other over by leaking each other's records, or maybe it's all part of some grand marketing scheme that I can't even begin to comprehend. And here's another weird thing about those leaks, one that has nothing to do with halfassed conspiracy theories: both leaks were in their edited-for-radio forms, and I can't imagine why. In Kanye's case, it's really not a big deal; the only place where the cuts negatively impact the listening experience in any tangible way is during Lil Wayne's verse on "Barry Bonds." (That Wayne verse is still depressingly lazy either way, but it's a lot more fun when you can hear him cuss.) In 50's case, though, it's a much bigger problem; with all their bleep-silences, parts of Curtis are virtually unlistenable. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the abridged version of album-opener "My Gun Go Off": "We call it putting [silence] in / Leaving [silence] hurting / [silence] lurking / My [silence] go off." It's not hard to figure out 50's basic gist at any given time, but all those interruptions completely disrupt his flow and make for a weirdly exhausting listen. It doesn't help that the album's censors have taken out more than just the cuss-words. They've removed anything that even alludes to violence or explicit sex, and that's a problem considering that about 75% of 50's recorded output addresses one or both of those subjects. (He also talks about money a lot.) Maybe 50 didn't put out those early songs because they made the best choices for singles; maybe he put them out there because they were the only songs he had that sounded even halfway OK on the radio. The Wal-Mart version of Curtis really is a far-inferior product.

But honestly, Curtis isn't that horrible of an album. If it wasn't coming out on the same day as Graduation, there'd be absolutely no reason to compare the two records; they share virtually nothing in common. They're both pop-rap, but Kanye makes a form of pop-rap that makes a big point to include ambition and vulnerability. 50 Cent has absolutely no interest in ambition or vulnerability. Get Rich or Die Tryin' was the last time he sounded emotional for any real stretch of time, and even there he allowed himself a truly narrow range of feeling: desperation, hunger, wrath, pride, nothing else. Since then, his human moments have been rare and fleeting; the last one might've been the wistful, bittersweet opening verse on "Hate It or Love It." On Curtis, he seems to regard any overt display of emotion as a sign of weakness: "My eyes don't cry, I'm a fatherless child." It's as if he doesn't think he can afford himself the luxury of vulnerability. And so Curtis is a formulaic work, which is all it was ever going to be. It hits all the same obligatory marks as most mainstream rap records, and it should be judged against those connect-the-dots albums rather than against a unified statement like Graduation. On its own merits, it's nowhere near as satisfying as T.I.'s King, possibly the high-water mark of the connect-the-dots rap album, but it's a whole lot more convincing than, say, the last 8Ball & MJG album. 50 certainly isn't a better rapper than 8Ball or MJG, but those guys don't really fit comfortably into the landscape of circa-2007 mainstream rap, and 50 can't imagine a landscape other than this one. (Or maybe he refuses to acknowledge the possibility of another landscape.)

The clear highlight on Curtis remains "I Get Money," the one moment where 50 manages to recapture the urgency he had four years ago. The track is a huge, immediate adrenaline surge, its Audio Two sample hitting subconscious rap-dork buttons and 50 really attacking, sounding happy and motivated for once. With few exceptions, though, the rest of the album's beats stick too closely to a fake-Dre blueprint that gets old really quickly: chilly piano-stabs, blurting organs, precise drum-hits. Weirdly, one of the only tracks that strays from that formula is the only one that Dre himself produced. Musically, "Fire" might actually fit better on Graduation than it does here. Dre swipes hyper-compressed synth-textures from Justice, continuing mainstream rap's inexplicable French-house trend. Nicole Pussycat Doll's hook is thin and shrill but also really catchy; it reminds me of freestyle. Young Buck's voice also pops up on the chorus; he isn't given much to do, but it's still good to hear that he still hasn't necessarily worn out his welcome in G-Unit. The track completely swallows 50; he has no choice but to keep his head down and navigate the twists and turns, falling back on his considerable technical skill. He tries to do the same thing on "Ayo Technology," but he doesn't pull it off nearly as well; he slips and slides all over the track and never finds its pocket. Only two other tracks, both organic sample-driven Jake One productions, avoid the fake-Dre bullshit. I especially like "All of Me," where Mary J. Blige turns up to howl a hook and moan ad-libs, forcing a smidgen of grit into the record. But those are the only moments where anything seems to be at stake. The rest of the time, the only real asset display is 50's singsong flow. He keeps himself amused by toying with his derivative beats, using his voice to idly push them around. But he's punching the clock, and it shows. When Eminem shows up to lamely intone a couple of hackneyed strip-club come-ons on "Peep Show," he sounds like a desiccated husk; there's no trace whatsoever of the fire and playfulness that once made him great. At this rate, 50 will sound exactly the same as Em in a year or two. The formula is still working OK for now, but it won't keep working much longer.

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And maybe that's why so many people are rooting for Kanye, why Kanye might actually have a chance in hell at winning the sales-battle. Rap sales are way, way down at a time when rap albums have lost most of their personality, and so the underdog is the guy who talks about wanting to cry when his single jumps a bunch of spots on the Billboard charts. 50 first became a dominant force by playing the underdog. Now he's the empire to be toppled, and weirdly enough, that actually makes him vulnerable. Too bad he'd never admit it. Maybe if Soundscan finds him at number two two weeks from today, he'll stop acting like such a robot on record. With Curtis, he's giving the record-buying public what he thinks they want. Let's hope he's wrong.

Voice review: Greg Tate on 50 Cent's The Massacre Voice review: Kris Ex on 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin'

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