Flashback to September 11th, 2007. On that date any year after 2001 there is a need for remembrance, but in the annals of hip-hop history that particular day in 2007 was one that arguably changed the future of urban music. Two of the genre’s biggest names, Kanye West and 50 Cent, were set to release their albums on the same day. For some, this might be any other sales week as it’s not uncommon for two big names to share a release date, but that was not the case here. Kanye and 50 Cent wanted to best one another, and their fans were into it, which gave the world what we now know as the Graduation vs Curtis sales battles. This was long before streaming would take over music, so sales had to happen in stores or online through actual retailers. Taking action required just that – action.
At the time, Kanye vs. 50 Cent was the music equivalent of Ali vs Frazer. If there were a sense of foreshadowing it might’ve been the fact 50 Cent’s second album, The Massacre lost to West’s Late Registration for best rap album in the 48th Grammy Awards. Here were two artists at the top of their game. 50 Cent, a dual threat. One of the personifications of “gangster rap,” was also able to use his melodic versatility in songs like “Candy Shop” and “21 Questions”. Still, he took on all comers with feuds from the likes of Fat Joe to even ex-G-Unit member, The Game. There was no better foil to the clean cut, polo wearing contrast of Kanye West.
The cover of 2004’s The College Dropout features West’s trademark bear sitting on the bleachers. “Good Morning,” the opening track was the musical propulsion as the cover of the album would indicate. As West did not graduate college, this was his “dissertation.” Graduation is West at his most braggadocios, but also contemplative and thankful. It had been a long road to get to that point. Perhaps, a near fatal car crash would have changed that story. As a tale of West’s passion for music, he went to the studio two weeks later, jaw wired shut to record “Through The Wire.” A man that was often the architect behind beats was meant to be the artist simmering in the spotlight.
Graduation, in many ways is Kanye West’s victory lap. It’s the graduation speech not only from the trip of albums that helped put his own ascetic on the map, but transformed him into a super star. The soulful undertones of the previous songs like “Jesus Walks” and “Heard Em Say” gave way to a different type of inspiration. West was inspired by touring with acts like The Rolling Stones and U2. Nurturing more stadium-level sounding songs, Kanye West, the rock star was born.
A vigorous perfectionist, “Stronger,” one of the biggest Kanye West songs up to this point that sampled Daft Punk’s 2001 song, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was mixed 75 times. That attention to detail led to Graduation’s slick and all encompassing sound. Pay attention to the opening moments of “Flashing Lights”. A dramatic synth notes floating in and out, sometimes on top of each other, giving you a cinematic feel.
The line, “Did you realize that you were a champion in their eyes?” from Steely Dan’s 1976 song, “Kid Charlemagne.” West answers back, “Yes, I did.” West always believed in himself and that belief was reaching an apex with songs like “Good Life” ft. T-Pain and “The Glory” – popping lyrical and metaphorical champagne.
“But with my ego
I can stand there in a Speedo
And be looked at like a fucking hero”.
“Everything I Am” is discarding all the limitations that were placed upon him just looked as a “backpack” rapper. “Barry Bonds” was the lyrical stacking of verbal jenga pieces with Lil Wayne, an artist who was within a remarkable run. “Homecoming,” a collaboration with Coldplay’s Chris Martin, was a love letter to Chicago. The last track, “Big Brother,” chronicled the idol/rival relationship between West and Jay-Z. A relationship that still permeates with the same tension from today.
The metaphors are funny: this sales battle and album marked a new beginning for West personally, but to earmark the album with “Big Brother.” We see the perpendicular paths that both big and little brother would go on to carve a space in history in their own way.
A week later, the dust had settled. The tallies were in. Graduation: 957,000 copies. Curtis: 691,000 copies. All in all, a great day in the history of hip-hop. Kanye West broke the tape at the end of the finish line. The “dropout bear” made something of himself despite what society thought was the right way to go. The proverbial box that many had put him in was broken.