The Great Hip-Hop Bake-Off!

It’s Kanye vs. 50—but is the era of rap superstardom over?

Kanye West and 50 Cent

Last month, Forbes released its first-ever ranking of hip-hop’s highest earners—or, as the magazine calls them, “Cash Kings.” A few days later, Cash Kings No. 1 (Jay-Z, annual income $34 million), No. 2 (50 Cent, $32m), No. 3 (Diddy, $28m), and No. 8 (Kanye West, $17m) joined No. 12 (T.I., $16m) onstage at Madison Square Garden for the hip-hop equivalent of a Super Friends cartoon.

The assembly was unexpected and the setting unlikely: the New York installment of Screamfest, a teen-and-’tween-skewing R&B-and-hip-hop tour in its seventh year, whose organizers and attendees are generally partial to talent of the PG-13 variety. This typically means cocky MCs who don’t mind playing the teddy bear and R&B cooers not above humping their lighting rigs for (slightly) naughty effect. Only T.I., the suave gangsta rapper from Atlanta, was officially part of the bill; the other visiting royals were gate-crashers at the prom, there to salute the buying power of the squealing high-school set.

Never mind that they didn’t do much besides grandstand, exchange awkward hugs, and, in a loose confederation, rhyme along with West’s single “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” This was rap history, a five-man monument to hip-hop superstardom. The implicit lesson, though, was that these days, it takes a team effort to create a hip-hop Event. For the cynical observer, the spectacle—five outsize personalities putting aside their egos to share the stage—might have brought to mind a variation on the old light-bulb joke: How many rap icons does it take to light up Madison Square Garden?

Hip-hop superstardom isn’t quite what it used to be. The record industry’s woes are every performer’s headache at this point, but hip-hop has borne a particularly heavy load: T.I.’s fourth album, King, was the best-selling hip-hop release of 2006, but that wasn’t enough to crack the year’s overall Top 10. Indeed, the happiest stories to come out of hip-hop of late have been micro, not macro. Ring tones have become an indispensable revenue stream for rappers, making their songs far more omnipresent yet simultaneously marginalizing them (Kanye West’s epic new single, now being switched to “vibrate” at a restaurant near you!). This year has also seen the proliferation of what you might call Web Cam Rap: regional dance crazes, adorned with minimal verse, that propagate via YouTube. The Aunt Jackie, from Harlem, began life as a fuzzy, streaming amateur video and earned its creator, Jason Fox, a major-label record deal. And more recently, Atlanta’s Soulja Boy entered MTV’s rotation with the video for his single-cum-dance-instructional, “Crank Dat,” after hundreds of kids had already uploaded bedroom versions. In this context, Screamfest’s ad hoc summit of titans seems a bit less like a victory lap and more like a rally on behalf on an endangered species.

The two titans with the most at stake, at least in the near future, are 50 Cent and Kanye West. Next week, both are gunning to create another hip-hop Event when they release their new albums, Curtis and Graduation, on the same day (Sept. 11, in an unhappy coincidence). Each has vowed that his first-week figures will best the other’s. It’s a great stunt: a superstar bake-off meant to drive music fans back into CD stores by adding a jolt of vote-for-your-favorite, American Idol-style excitement to the mundane ritual of plunking down cash for a piece of plastic. Despite some spitballs back and forth (“I’m King Kong, Kanye is human,” 50 jabbed during a recent interview; in another, Kanye begged slyly, “Please, 50, don’t retire once my album sells and beats your album”), things have remained remarkably civil. That’s because this showdown is, at root, a strategic partnership: Both 50 and Kanye (and their parent company, Universal) are counting on the fact that many fans will buy both albums.

But it may take more than a well-publicized face-off to remain a larger-than-life star in such an inhospitable climate. The first two singles off 50’s album were “Straight to the Bank,” an uninspired bit of gloating, and “Amusement Park,” which relied on a lukewarm, bedroom-as-Six Flags innuendo (sample groaner: “Your pass is valid all summer, my dear”). Radio took to neither, and Interscope, 50’s label, pushed back Curtis’ release several times before finally landing on Sept. 11. Time was, virtually every song 50 Cent recorded shot into the Top 10, sometimes two at once. Suddenly, the man who famously survived nine bullets seems anything but invincible.

So in addition to his matchup against Kanye, 50 has generally been trying to reposition himself as a villain—ironically, the persona he cultivated before he became a superstar. Curtis’ best single yet is “I Get Money,” which evokes his scrappy, wisecracking days on the mixtape circuit. “I took quarter-water, sold it in bottles for two bucks,” he raps, making his part-ownership of Vitamin Water sound like just another corner hustle. “Coca-Cola came and bought it for billions, what the fuck?”

Other tactics, though, haven’t played quite so smoothly. After MTV put several MCs ahead of 50 on a list of “The Hottest MCs  in the Game,” he announced that the network “can suck my dick.” He has repeatedly insulted New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne, with no provocation beyond the fact that Wayne is enjoying far more buzz than 50 (he topped that MTV list, for starters). And after a forthcoming single, “Follow My Lead,” leaked months before its scheduled release, he tore apart his offices at Interscope in a rage and barked “Fuck Jimmy Iovine!” on a new mixtape song. (Iovine is Interscope’s head honcho and a far more formidable adversary than, say, Ja Rule, whose career a younger, sprightlier 50 more or less ended with his withering barbs.) Provocation suits a hip-hop star, but tantrums do not. What unites most of 50’s recent attempts to maintain his ginormousness is that he has come out of them seeming uncertain, unhinged—in a word, smaller. So far, Lil Wayne, currently hip-hop’s most prolific artist, hasn’t even seen fit to respond to 50’s attacks. 

For his part, Kanye West has become a one-man long-tail graph: He’s still making music with broad, unifying, pop appeal, but he’s devoted significant energy to courting niche audiences, too. He has freestyled over songs by Thom Yorke and Swedish indie-rock outfit Peter Bjorn and John, and his lead single, “Stronger,” samples French electronica duo Daft Punk. He is certainly the first rapper to wear clothes by prankish designer Jeremy Scott or to hire Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami to design his album artwork.

At the same time, Kanye’s second single, “Good Life,” features a zippy Michael Jackson sample and a chorus from Billboard-dominating crooner T-Pain. For the video for “Stronger,” Kanye commissioned a big-budget treatment by Hype Williams, flew to Japan to film it, and held private screenings in Manhattan. You could interpret this as a bravado protest against the tiny, pixilated windows of YouTube, except that, for his next video, Kanye hired bearded comedian Zach Galifianakis to lip-sync to “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” posted the bizarre results online, and created an instant YouTube phenomenon. Working in an industry that shudders every time a teenager fires up an iMac, Kanye hasn’t merely adapted to the fracturing media landscape; he’s embraced it. (Even his lyrics, full of vulnerabilities and confessions, suit an era of celebrity transparency, MySpace profiles, and streaming-video diaries.)

Both 50 and Kanye will doubtless sell well into the six-figure range next week, but there’s no guarantee that either can match the first-week performance of his last album (1.14 million and 860,000, respectively). And as if they didn’t have enough to worry about, there is also a third king in next Tuesday’s race. He hails from the distant realm known as Nashville, which has produced multiplatinum superstars for years—and continues to do so despite the industry slump. He wears a cowboy hat and plays barefoot. And he has been quick to remind reporters that he’s sold millions of records himself. Do not underestimate the power of His Highness Kenny Chesney.