It was big news on the rap scene two months ago when Kanye West and Curtis 50 Cent Jackson released new albums on the same dayand 50 Cent boasted that he would stop rapping if his album failed to outsell Wests. Poor Fiddy had to backtrack on that one: as of early November, Wests Graduation has outsold 50 Cents Curtis, and still ranks ahead of it on the Billboard rap chart. Fans embrace of West is an indication that hip-hop is growing upat least somewhat.
At times, Curtis sounds like a caricature of a gangsta album, a cartoon of a cartoon. A popular line of thinking has it that thuggish rap lyrics are a plangent cry for acknowledgment from those on the bottomblack Americas CNN, as Public Enemys Chuck D. notoriously put it. Instead of listening for curse words, listen that were asking for help, rapper Levell David Banner Crump said on Capitol Hill during the September hearings on violence and obscenity in rap. Curtis rather conclusively reveals the hollowness of such claims. If 50 Cent wants any help in response to the maiming and killing that so many of the tracks describethe first three raps are titled My Gun Go Off, Man Down, and Ill Still Killhe keeps it pretty quiet. Besides, legislators and social-service workers arent usually able to provide much assistance for the scenarios 50 Cent describes, such as the tearing of flesh and the shattering of vertebrae. As for 50 Cents more tender side, we get this: So if you act like a bitch, Ill call you a bitch / Then hang up, probably call you right back and shit. Overall, Curtis is the musical sound of broken glass, and presumably 50 Cent likes it that way.
Wests Graduation is more interesting. He builds a rap on, of all things, Kid Charlemagne, from one of Steely Dans early albums. One doubts 50 Cent listens to much Steely Dan, while West, as always, samples from high and low. West also has more fun with words than 50 Cent does, if you can get used to raps rather permissive notion of assonance: for example, he makes Appollonia, on ya, Isotoner, and tol ya rhyme. All of this is emblematic of the greater humanity of Wests rap personahes not afraid to smile about more than just being rich or smoking something. No guns, no vertebrae. His approach to the distaff sex is lightly mocking but essentially respectful; his song Drunk Hot Girls, for example, which has attracted so much attention from reviewers, is not what one would expect from the title.
Wests music is becoming part of Americas aural wallpaper, and his meteoric rise to fame is a sign of a sea change in the rap world: the mainstreaming of so-called conscious rap, also called underground rap because of its obscurity, at least until recently. In the past, when someone complained about the violence and misogyny in rap, aficionados would object: Not all raps like that. Nowadays almost everybody knows about the rap that isnt like thatand listens to it. Underground rap is blinking in the light.
Take Dave Chappelles Block Party, last years concert film of a conscious-rap show from the summer of 2004. West performed in it, but Dead Prez got more footage than he did. Just three years later, though, West is a megastar. Other underground rappers are emerging as well. The rapper Commons Finding Forever has gone gold, and Talib Kweli, another veteran of the conscious trenches, released a new album, Eardrum, that debuted at Number 2 on the Billboard rap chart. On a recent episode of televisions new sitcom hit 30 Rock, Tracy Morgan complains that the national anthem has more words than a song from conscious rapper Mos Def; five years ago, not even a cutting-edge sitcom would have casually tossed off a reference like that.
Make no mistake: Curtis, while not selling quite like Graduation, is still selling well, and other top-ten rap artists currently include the likes of Boyz n da Hood (sample song: We Thuggin) and Soulja Boy, who has a song called Booty Meat. Three years ago, the top-selling rappers were Ludacris, Eminem, Lil Jon, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, T.I., Camron and Nas. Some rap fans would object that Nas, like the conscious rappers, has something to say, but its usually in a schizophrenic way. On his Hip Hop Is Dead album last year, You Cant Kill Me proclaimed that Niggas always on dat bullshit / To make a nigga wanna open up a full clip, and Niggas always on dat bullshit / Now ya funeral, the preachers at the pulpit. Yet in the end, Nas sounds as fascinated by full clips and associated objects as by the tragedy of it all.
West, Common, and Kweli have no taste for this kind of thing: their lyricsand their careersare rising above the thug routine. Perhaps its because I am pushing middle age, but it is unclear to me why anybody over 15 would listen to an album like Curtis, except to review it. Clearly, 50 Cents audience feels differently, but its good news that there is ever more room at the table for rap of a different stripe.
On Curtis, 50 Cent says I aint fresh out the hood, Im still in the hoodhes not going anywhere, in other words. Where Kanye West is headed is unclear, but at least it wont be the hood. Thankfully, America seems ready to go along with him.
John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institutes Center for Race and Ethnicity. He is writing a book on hip-hop music and culture, All About the Beat.