One makes a loner album blithely detailing his struggles with fame, while the other releases a set on which he plays the same old role with standout assistance from marquee names. But both Kanye West and 50 Cent release well-produced albums with satisfying, if not mind-blowing, results.
On Graduation, Kanye West's third CD, the rapper streamlines the grandly layered sound of his previous album, 2005's Late Registration. This time, he trades the strings and horns for '80s-inspired synthesizers and left-field punk and classic rock samples, but it's all evocatively layered.
Lyrically, West mostly centers on his awkwardness living the fabulous life. Where his previous albums broke up some of the ego-tripping with open-hearted odes to family and well-meaning social commentary, Graduation is unabashedly self-centered. A few guest appearances pepper the album (namely T-Pain, Mos Def and Chris Martin of Coldplay), but West overwhelms it. Amazingly, though, he makes it all bearable with his charmingly corny humor and whip-smart production skills.
Graduation is a more pop-oriented affair than The College Dropout and Late Registration; the music takes on a shinier gloss. The CD is also more melancholic. Underneath the tasteless lines ("I'm the fly Malcolm X/buy any jeans necessary") and sleazy come-ons (which can't be reprinted in a family paper), West's complicated struggle with fame feels genuine. Sure, pop stars' whining is old hat and can be downright annoying. But West manages to make narcissistic gripes -- too much money, too much notoriety -- engaging.
He's like that comedic friend whose observations are obvious but who somehow turns them into something hilarious. Such is the case with "Can't Tell Me Nothing," which is just as much about the inescapable pull of capitalism as West's love for finer things. Even on somber topics, it's hard for West to keep a straight face. While exploring loneliness on the introspective "I Wonder," he unexpectedly (and hilariously) turns into a lusty creep at the end.
Where West knowingly makes light of his egomaniacal persona on Graduation, 50 tries to maintain his infallibility on Curtis but with hardly any bite. On his third release, the New Yorker's role as a hip-hop villain is blunted by run-of-the-mill glorification of gun violence and callous "love raps." But here's the thing: 50 was never a hardcore, strictly-for-the-streets-type rapper, anyway. His aim has always been squarely on the pop charts. And on Curtis, he essentially works the same formula heard on Get Rich or Die Tryin' and The Massacre.
But contrary to scathing early commentary on several music blogs (most notably Status Ain't Hood on villagevoice.com), Curtis isn't a busted effort. Although the new album features nothing as immediate and brilliantly spare as "In Da Club" and "Candy Shop," Curtis isn't without its fiery, club- and urban-radio-friendly standouts.
He doesn't shine alone in those moments, though. On "All of Me" featuring Mary J. Blige, the hip-hop soul queen's assured, sassy wails steal the show. It feels as though 50 is the guest instead of the other way around. Justin Timberlake and Timbaland help out "Ayo Technology." Although 50's sped-up flow feels a bit forced against the space-age beats, the track still works. And despite its ominous title, "I Still Kill," a collaboration with the sonorous Akon, comes off as an amiable pop-rap confection.
West and 50, two very rich, overhyped rappers, have each managed to deliver high-gloss mainstream hip-hop albums ideal for club and radio play. But the not-so-closeted nerd, stumbling into newfound hipness, is more believable than the blinged-out thug, mumbling the same soft threats and stiff pillow talk.