Let me indulge in a little bit of Jay-Z/Kanye fan fiction in the least 50 Shades of Grey way possible:
Def Jam President and retired rapper Jay-Z was fed up.
50 Cent had been sending subliminal barbs Jay’s way for eight years, starting with a shot Mr. Carter’s way on “How To Rob” when they were both climbing their respective hip-hop ladders. In 2007, with both at the peak of their careers, Fiddy was back at it, baiting Jay-Z with braggadocio lyrics and interviews about his then-fiancé, his money, and how he’d sold out.
Jay didn’t know what to do, although he was well aware that a nasty feud with the Queens-born MC in the middle of his own corporate ascension would be PR suicide.
Enter Kanye West, who had been working on the follow-up to his mega-successful Late Registration and who was looking at a fourth-quarter release date.
“What if I dropped my album on the same day at 50 Cent’s?” Kanye asked. “Yeah, I’ll put my album out on the same day as 50’s, start a sales battle.”
A solution! And one that would take Jay out of the fray. After oodles of hoopla, September 11, 2007, rolled around, and Graduation and Curtis both hit shelves. A week later, the dust cleared, and 50 Cent was defeated—without Jay having to lift a finger.
While it’s unclear how Kanye (and Jay) came to the decision to release Graduation exactly five years ago today, it’s pretty easy to speculate that 50 and Jay’s cold war was a prime motivator behind the biggest rap marketing circus this side of pretending Detox will ever come out.
In the run-up to September 11, 2007, Kanye and 50 Cent went on a media blitz challenging each other to see who would sell the most records. In August, 50 swore he’d retire if he couldn’t sell more records than Kanye West during their albums’ first week of release, although he later told the Voice he was sick of being asked about Kanye. Perhaps he felt the storm clouds brewing, because when the figures came in, Kanye’s album had sold 957,000 copies while Curtis’s Curtis sold a respectable-yet-runner-up 691,000.
While it’s clear that Graduation was a far superior album, quality hasn’t traditionally had much of a determining factor in hip-hop first-week sales. The fact was, Justin Timberlake cameos aside, people were already getting tired of 50’s act. The G-Unit head hocho burst on the scene as a man hungry for feuds and negativity: He single-handedly took down Ja Rule for his sing-songy pop act, sold more albums than humanly possible, and was on top of the world. But 50’s “beef” gimmick jumped the shark right around 2004, when he started feuds with Fat Joe and Jadakiss because they made songs with Ja Rule, and got into a a feud with Nas because… well, it’s still unclear.
50’s knack for confrontation and negativity wore thin on fans by the time 2007 rolled around. It didn’t help that his albums were declining in quality with each passing year, either. So when the news broke that Kanye had crushed him in their duel, his reaction was cringeworthy: He took to radio stations to plead his case that he’d actually won because of international record sales. He stopped short of bringing pie charts and moneyball statistics to justify his embarrassment, but since then, the musical juggernaut known as 50 Cent ceased to exist, his career turning into one calamity after another.
50’s next album, Before I Self-Destruct, was originally scheduled for a late-2008 release, but the project kept getting delayed for one reason: nobody paid attention to the lead singles. 2008’s “Get Up” and early 2009’s “I Get It In” landed on Nos. 53 and 44 on the charts, respectively—a far cry from the unstoppable hit “In Da Club” just six years prior.
Before I Self Destruct didn’t see the light of day until November 2009—after 50 spent much time complaining that he wasn’t a priority at Interscope—and debuted at No. 5 on the charts, a seemingly unfathomable occurrence for the man that once ruled rap.
But his decline goes deeper than his chart performance on the charts. After September 11, 2007, he just seemed to lose all of his mojo. The man once responsible for ending careers engaged in a battle with Rick Ross—who had just been exposed as being a former parole officer—and somehow lost. The idea of 50 Cent battling Rick Ross, whose fake gangster persona is a veritable alley-oop pass to anyone looking for a good insult, and ending up in the worse position just showed how far he had fallen. Instead of the systematic destruction he laid on Ja Rule, 50 donned a jheri-curl wig and took Rick Ross’ baby momma shopping before releasing a sex tape starring her. The approach did little to endear anyone to his side of the battle.
As the years went by, 50’s attempts to get attention were more bizarre and ineffective. Just take a look at how the Voice has covered him: “50 Cent is done with the album-releasing game,” “The Day 50 Cent Threatened Gawker.com, Michelle Obama, and His Own Grandmother on Twitter,” and “Here is a video of 50 Cent singing Kumbaya.” That’s not even mentioning his weird relationship with Chelsea Handler, a twitter feud with a poodle and his throwing his own G-Unit buddies under the bus.
What’s even more alarming about 50 Cent’s increasing irrelevance is the fact that he’s been on his best musical run since the Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ years. His mixtapes War Angel, Forever King, and Big 10 contained gems like “Shooting Guns” and “Stop Crying.” But 50 Cent hasn’t been able to connect with his audience the way he did a decade ago.
Empires fall. It’s just a fact of life. And while many factors contribute to the downfall of a dynasty, there’s always one major moment that signals doom—a major loss, the death of an emperor. For 50 Cent, it was losing his head-on challenge for chart supremacy on September 11th, 2007. Five years later, he has yet to recover, holding on for dear life while trying to reclaim the magic that made him rap’s most feared and powerful entity.