Kanye West and 50 Cent’s overhyped album-release
jihad was primarily a press assault designed to not only help
promote the two albums, but to spike a slumping industry.
In short, it worked, with West’s Graduation having
the best first-week sales of the year. (West moved nearly
a million copies, while 50 Cent settled for an impressive
first-week run of about 700,000.) No word yet on whether Fitty
will stick by his promise to retire, having lost the battle
to West. (Hope springs eternal.)
This was a battle of numbers, not artistry or creativity,
but West would undeniably win both of those wars. And it really
seems like an odd standoff, as the two are so markedly different.
50 Cent is the traditional hip-hop prototype, with the beefs
and bullet-hole scars to match his ’hood persona. West is
different: He wears preppy clothes, came up as a behind-the-console
man under the tutelage of Jay-Z, and cites such surprising
influences as Thom Yorke and Modest Mouse.
West understands music and goes to its fringes, using Can’s
“Sing Swan Song” as a basis for the loopy and idiosyncratic
“Drunk and Hot Girls” or creating “Stronger” out of whole
cloth of Daft Punk. West is first and foremost interesting,
and his approach to world domination is to try to entice a
whole different stripe of listener into hip-hop, not to bludgeon
them with the usual instruments.
50 Cent, seemingly aware that he had a stinker on his hands,
had pushed back the release date of Curtis from June
to September, after a couple of pallid singles. With eight
new tracks in place, he finally saw fit to release the album,
but he hits his audience not with inventiveness but star power,
with turns by Eminem, Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige, Robin Thicke
(yes, son of Alan) and the “Tims”: Timbaland and Timberlake.
relies on his three-legged formula here—hard-ass rhymes contrasted
with steamy love tracks, and the occasional shocking flourish
providing the cherry on top (the latter represented most prominently
by the censored-to-the-teeth cop-killing track “Man Down”).
The album would have been something in 2003, but everything
here sounds tired and uninteresting next to West’s landmark.
But, as 50 told Forbes magazine, it’s never been about
the music for him. With West, you get the sense that it’s
all about the music and the catholic reaches of his own record
for James Blunt, he has a whole other kind of problem:
Not since John Mayer declared your body a wonderland has an
artist been more saddled with the success of a misrepresentative
song. The sappiness of “You’re Beautiful” neutralized public
awareness regarding the kind of songwriter that Blunt really
is. But All the Lost Souls seems intent on righting
that impression, kicking off, in order, with the AM-radio
pop-soul of “1973,” the Bee Gees-style crooner “One of the
Brightest Stars,” and the mid-’80s Peter Gabriel intentions
of “I’ll Take Everything.” And that’s the rub: Blunt is a
not-so-bland, just a bit quirky, fairly interesting pop songwriter.
He’s still not afraid to show his sensitive side, but the
feathery flights of “Same Mistake” and “Carry You Home” seem
almost eccentric, and not designed to share the wedding dance
floor with “You’re Beautiful.”
Speaking of eccentric, it seems somehow right that Sean Penn
would direct Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s even-newer-journalism
bio of the trust-fund idealist who starved to death in the
Alaskan wilderness in the early ’90s, his head full of Jack
London, Walden and Kerouac. It seems even more right
that Eddie Vedder would augment it with a soundtrack
of stripped-back, rootsy tunes, far from the Sturm und Drang
of Pearl Jam.
Vedder’s friendship with and worship of Pete Townshend shows
through here, and every song is pitted too directly against
the backdrop of cinematic intentions. Vedder is no Townshend,
and this is no Quadrophenia, but “Hard Sun” seems cobbled
from scraps of such Who fare. And just as Jimmy the Mod vacillated
between the euphoria of his dream escape and the bland torture
of his own unspecific angst, so too do Vedder’s songs attempt
to propel this protagonist. I’m sure the songs will seem much
better in the context of the film.
finish off this month, I’d like to ask someone to put a moratorium
on any more ’80s-style dance-pop bands fronted by guys with
fake English accents. Louisville’s VHS or Beta certainly
don’t add much to the renaissance with Bring on the Comets,
which dissipates as soon as it hits the tongue. Strangest
here is “Burn It All Down,” an attempt at “Planet Earth”-era
Duran Duran that was probably meant to be much more dance-punk
than it really is. The recognizable single “Can’t Believe
a Single Word” is the kind of song that is vaguely likable
upon first listen, but the obvious sweeps and gestures become
intolerable beyond that. The best revivalists, such as the
Killers, seem to put their own stamp on the past and transmute
it into something real and current. Here, we have a simple
swing and a miss.