The Day Kanye West Killed Gangsta Rap

On Sept. 11, 2007, two rap heavyweights went head to head in a sales battle and changed hip-hop forever. Here's how Kanye West killed gangsta rap.

50 Cent photo by Jason Kempin/FilmMagic/Kanye West photo by Ray Tamarra/Getty Images

Where were you the day Kanye West killed gangsta rap? Me? I was super duper drunk, propped up on a banquette at Room Service watching Kanye West, standing on a table in front of me, rap along to “Good Life.” Because, you know, life was good. It was Sept. 10, 2007, and HITS Daily Double was projecting based off pre-orders that West would actually outsell the incumbent heartless monster of SoundScan, 50 Cent. And by a substantial margin. The Earth was turning. TBH, though, it wasn’t Kanye’s improbable sales victory that I was celebrating.

I was at a party thrown in honor of my recently ex’d-girlfriend launching her new magazine, MISSBEHAVE, and was trying my best to do the cordial yeah-I’m-so-happy-for-you-and-totally-over-us thing. It had not been going well. Eight years later I don’t recall exactly what I said when I arrived, but I definitely do recall some yelling followed by some tears. Oops.

Here’s a toast to the douchebags.

So needless to say when that exchange was interrupted by my cell—with Kanye West and Plain Pat on the other end, asking where the party was at—things started to look up for the kid. To be clear, this was not a normal happening. I’d known Kanye about five years and written about him a half dozen times at that point—some of which he liked, and some of which hedidn’t. We’d just collaborated on his third COMPLEX cover, an issue he’d guest-edited, but we’d never, like, hung out. In fact, at that point, we had barely ever talked on the phone, but I think I’d called him to congratulate him earlier in the day. Maybe he just hit me ’cause my number was in his “recent calls.” Who knows. Either way I was surprised.

In any case, I explained I was at the MB thing, and confirmed that, yes, there were a lot of hot hipster women there. A couple minutes later ’​Ye, Pat, Don C, his publicist Gabe T, and the entire crew slid through the Manhattan nightclub BAPE’d out. I intro’d him to my ex, explaining that MISSBEHAVE was her thing, and watched her smile as they nerded out about fashion. PHEW. I was redeemed.

Then, as the clock struck midnight ushering in the day of Kanye’s album release, the party exploded. Roxy Cottontail’s DJ set turned into a Kanye medley, and the man, loose off the Goose, happily pantomimed his hits for the audience. Kanye was so fucking happy. Proud, really. Both of his previous albums had sold remarkably well in their first week (College Dropout topping 400K and Late Registration a whopping 860K), but something was different this time around. Kind of like when Eminem dropped 8 Mile, Graduation was the moment that Kanye transitioned from “successful other” to legit king status. And tonight was his coronation.

I was feeling very regal myself, having appeared to have just delivered the biggest rapper in the world, on his biggest day, and gone from pretty much ruining the event—embarrassing my ex and myself—to getting it written up in Page Six. Stunt 101.

So that’s where I was on Sept. 11, 2007, the day gangsta rap died.

I never asked 50 Cent where he was that night, but I’m pretty sure wherever that was the tone was more somber. That had to be a tough evening for Fif. This sales battle—a metric in which he considered himself the superlative warrior—had yielded him the first L he’d held in a really long time. Maybe since I’d met him.

I wrote the first magazine profile on 50 Cent for BLAZE back in April of 1999. He’d come to our Gramercy Park office with Chaz—name dropped disparagingly, years later, on “Many Men”—wearing an oversized Black Hand Entertainment T-shirt, and played us “How to Rob.” He characterized the song as his last ditch effort at getting taken off the shelf at Sony. We talked on the fire escape and I, only 20 years old, was impressed by this 24-year-old’s understanding of the music industry, which far exceeded mine at the time. And I was shocked and engrossed by the details he matter-of-factly shared about the criminal enterprise he had forsaken in his pursuit of rap. He spoke of both businesses with linear clarity—never beating around the bush—and making little distinction between the two. 50 was dynamic, and I was fascinated.

In the subsequent years I interviewed him again extensively—nine months later at his grandparent’s house in Jamaica, Queens (I even phoned that residence days after he was shot nine times, his grandmother telling me, “Curtis is not taking any calls, but wants everyone to know he’s fine.”), a couple years afterwards on the set of the video shoot for “In Da Club” with Eminem and Dr. Dre, and then in Manhattan after that for two different VIBE covers. In 2005 he hired me to co-author an autobiography, 50x50, with him.

I watched his spectacular rise and total dominance from a fairly close vantage, and even, to some extent, drafted my career behind his professional slipstream. It’s hard to articulate—in our world of disintermediated and fragmented media—exactly how potent and omnipresent 50 Cent was at that era. Think Drake x10. Actually, no. Think Drake^10. He willed himself into being the alpha and the omega. Imagine. Feeling his back against the wall in ’99 yielded “How to Rob.” THEN THE DUDE GOT SHOT NINE TIMES AND LIVED!!! Creatively, he catapulted out of that hospital bed into rare air, forsaking all fucks to give. He wrote about the street, his stabbing, his shooting, and the bitchassness of his rap peers with absolute candor. He was a straight-up superhero. Or villain. It didn’t matter—it was fucking captivating. Then he signed with Eminem and Dre—two masters of marketing a clinical lack of fucks—and nothing else mattered. From 2003 to 2005—in terms of record and ticket and merch sales, radio spins, TV appearances, international acclaim, you name it—50 Cent was bigger than the next five rappers combined. Maybe the next 10.

“From 2003 to 2005, 50 Cent was bigger than the next five rappers combined. Maybe the next 10.”

And he was a cold, calculating monster about it. I can remember spending hours during the book sessions talking to him about how this rapper or that rapper had fucked up their career. He studied the BDS radio reports. He studied SoundScan. He told me he’d regularly fly across the country to “surprise” Interscope’s L.A. staff by showing up at their weekly marketing meetings so he could grill them about the attention, or lack thereof, that his projects were receiving. He would even talk through my career challenges. I had just been promoted to editor-in-chief at COMPLEX, and he was in business with our founder Marc Ecko on G-Unit Clothing, so he’d offer what I would describe as, um, ruthless advice on how to manage my team and navigate Ecko’s corporate row. He was a beast—an undeniable genius at business—and his focus on winning was both maniacal and inspiring.

In 2007 50 Cent felt more invincible than ever. He’d had back-to-back record-setting albums. He’d destroyed the careers of Ja Rule and Irv Gotti, and put serious dings in Jadakiss, Fat Joe, and Game. His clothing line was doing $80mm. Even his weed carriers were going double platinum! And if that wasn’t enough, on May 26 of that year Vitamin Water, a Queens-based beverage company of which he owned a minority stake, sold to Coca-Cola for $4.2 billion. In a cash deal. CLICKITY-CLANK, $400 million, it was reported at the time, in his piggy bank.

Like I said, Drake^10. 

But in rap as in life—and all sports except boxing where Floyd can hide from real challengers until they’re too old to compete—no one goes undefeated. It’s impossible. And it’s often exactly that which fuels one’s victories that ultimately also causes one’s undoing. That is, unfortunately, what happened to 50 Cent. He had gotten so good at being exactly who he was that when confronted with a completely different kind of foe and a completely different kind of battle Fif’s greatest assets—his hyperbolic gangster and his obsessively analytical approach to the business—betrayed him simultaneously.

It’s funny, when I think back about it, the imminence of the 50 Cent and Kanye West showdown was apparent long before their respective release dates got announced. Which is odd, because prior to that year the two artists had moved in discrete lanes, and always appeared to carry an air of mutual respect. Like, they both dropped albums in 2005 without drawing a single comparison. In fact, I remember arguing with Kanye, who I was profiling for a VIBE cover story, during a session for “Heard ’Em Say,” at Grandmaster Recorders, L.A., about The Massacre. VIBE had given it a three and I was defending the lukewarm review. Kanye was adamant that, “Any album with ‘In My Hood’ is a four!!!!”

But something had changed in 2007, and somehow everyone knew it. In April of that year Kanye emailed me and Mark Ronson, of all odd couples, with MP3s of “Stronger” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” He asked us not to fwd them to anyone—if that gives you any sense of what an early Internet, pre-social media, pre-hacking era this was—but to feel free play them real loud in the office or car. I complied. Real loud. That day Marc Ecko, drawn by the sounds of “Stronger,” popped in my office. After I previewed the ’Ye records he asked how it compared to the new 50 he heard had just leaked. I played “Straight to the Bank” and we had a spirited debate about which tack, 50’s proven paint-by-numbers approach or Kanye’s challenging, experimental one, would be ultimately more successful. We saw pros and cons to both, but in the end he was #team50 and I was #teamKanye. Of course Marc was getting a lot of money with Fif at the time, and I’d just bet the farm on an August/September Kanye cover, so we conceded our mutual bias based on vested interest.

The real issue was not who we thought would win, but that we both instinctively knew, after hearing the records back-to-back, that the two could no longer co-exist. The salvo of Kanye’s lead singles—with “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” asserting a harder, more aggressive edge than we’d ever seen from him before, and “Stronger” pushing the envelope of pop by incorporating elements of electronic music—served to reposition him in two ways. He was no longer a fringe backpacker with a midas touch for pop melody, but an unstoppable force with artistic credibility and grassroots appeal in every sector of the market, from hood clubs to college campuses and every bro-ski bar in between. Meanwhile 50 Cent was immovable—doubling down on everything that had worked for him in past. And when 50 Cent dropped his radio single, “Amusement Park,” in May, their impending collision at the top became even more inevitable and obvious to the public.

And that’s the exact moment when 50’s once-winning proclivities started to get in his way. 50 prided himself on the science behind his strategy. When I interviewed him prior to The Massacre’s release I admitted that “Candy Shop” was not for me. He balked and told me, “That’s fine, but it’s going to work. Watch.” He went on to explain that he knew this to be the case because he imbued it with everything that had been good about “Magic Stick,” a record that he had gifted to Lil’ Kim after Dre vetoed it from GRODT, and put that over music similar to Fat Joe’s massive hit “Lean Back.” He ventured to say that his celebrity would make “Candy Shop” bigger than either of its inspirations. I explained that those were the exact reasons that it didn’t appeal to me, but conceded I had no No. 1 hits under my belt, so what did I know? I actually also told 50 that I’d told Kanye back in 2003 that I didn’t care for “Jesus Walks” (God not being my thing, and all), and clearly had been wrong about that, so he was fully welcome to take my opinion with a grain of salt.

And in that moment, 50, like Kanye, was right. But two years later, when he dropped “Amusement Park” and it sounded like a xerox of a tracing of a great sketch he’d drafted in 2002 the general audience reacted as I had to “Candy Shop.” The album, tentatively titled Before I Self-Destruct, had teased a June release and was now delayed to September. Around the same time 50 got drawn into a bizarre war of words with Cam’ron—over more or less nothing than alpha-male dick swinging—which ended with Cam promising a “hot summer” from the confines of his modest Miami pool. Though Fif came out the victor of this exchange—thanks mostly to early memes generated in response to Cam’s pool—he retitled his album Curtis in a strange nod to Cam’s taunts. This kind of fuckery had propelled The Massacre to controversial heights, but now it all just seemed kind of lame and juvenile.

At the same time authentic interest in Kanye—who had returned from a trip to Japan with an edgy new look inspired by his time with A Bathing Ape designer Nigo—seemed to only grow stronger, pun intended, with each passing day. Everything about his movement—his style, his music, his videos—felt contemporary and hyper-relevant, like he was single-handedly pushing the boundaries of culture forward. On the set of our early June cover shoot—which was to be inspired by the dystopian future of Blade Runner, utilizing the moody hues of his Late Registration album cover—Kanye changed all the creative on the fly to make sure that everything from the lighting to the styling reflected the day-glow poppy-ness he and Murakami were attempting to capture on Graduation’s album cover. This was to be a revolution and Kanye was drafting our articles of confederation.

50 was not unaware of the state of his momentum, or lack thereof, and spent June back in the studio. On the last day of that month he dropped a fucking banger in “I Got Money.” Up-tempo, abrasive, and full of quotable shit-talking this new stab at a single was everything that true believers wanted from 50 Cent. Flex dropped ∞ bombs to it that night and seemingly every night that followed. Though he had not taken any of Kanye’s energy, 50 certainly had reaffirmed his place. To be completely honest, in the days after that release, when Kanye announced that he would be pushing his August album drop back to Sept. 11, to match 50’s, I thought he lost his mind. My co-worker Joe LaPuma, an equally huge fan of both artists, asked me if Kanye could outsell 50 and I laughed and told him that while I hoped so for the sake of our cover, that it was literally impossible. *Forehead smack* This is why I’m an editor and not a record executive.

Either way I knew it was a great stunt. The face-off on the cover of Rolling Stone and then in person at the MTV Awards were both epic. 50 Cent was like Mike Tyson and Don King combined, staring down Kanye’s Muhammed Ali. Kanye never claimed to be a tough guy, and as a result rendered 50’s go-to posture as the hardest man alive totally inert. This was not a fight 50 could punch his way out of. 50, in typical fashion, began throwing shade on the radio and in the press, but it all seemed rolled off ’Ye, who continued to smile and beat the drum of progress.

As the summer wore on “Stronger” spread across more and more radio formats until it reached ubiquity. “I Get Money,” on the other hand, despite being a mixshow classic, stalled out and never crossed over to the Z100s of the world. Jay Z, then the president of Kanye’s label, even gifted 50 with a remix, on the strength of the song’s excellence, but in typical Machiavellian fashion forced him to hold it until after the LPs released so that it would not be a factor. In the days leading up to Sept. 11 it was palpable that Kanye had redefined himself, hip-hop, and pop, while 50 was white-knuckling an archetype of a bygone era. In the end Kanye trounced 50, selling 960K units—his best ever—to Fif’s 690K—his then-worst showing to date.

I never spoke to 50 Cent again after that day. Not because of the loss or my relationship with Kanye or anything—I still have really liked portions of all of 50’s albums, and think the dude is one of the illest of all time—but we just never had occasion to cross paths. I’ve read and listened to interviews where he reflects on that moment and he’s always quick to deflect and roll out narrative that explains the event without admitting any real fault. But I’ve always wondered what his candid analysis of the outcome was. The musical moves he has made subsequently—revisiting the same styles of beats, flows, melodies, and subject matter—suggest he sees it differently than I do, but I’m sure that he has insights that myself and the public were not privy to.

This conflict was unlike any that hip-hop had ever seen. It wasn’t beef. It was an almost friendly popularity contest. A gamble by both parties—Kanye the underdog with nothing to lose, and 50 a superlative champion who could not even imagine defeat—that the cumulative attention of their rivalry would cause all boats to rise. And to some extent it did. But it also brought into focus the stark comparison between Kanye, who had learned and grown with each release, and 50, who had remained sedentary. All of a sudden, though they were almost the same age with equally long careers, one emerged as your new favorite rapper while the other was relegated to being your older brother’s favorite rapper.

I always credited that moment as a turning point in COMPLEX’s ascent, too. Kanye West had been an editor at large for us since 2003, appearing on three covers when he bested 50. When he and everything that he was into became the new cutting edge it shifted the conversation in music from street drama and hip-hop gossip to sneakers, style, and design—topics that had been our competitive differentiation in the marketplace from day one. Though I felt conflicted, having personal investment in both 50 and Kanye, this changing of the guard was larger than simply those two artists, and everyone on our staff appreciated the gravity of this paradigm shift. Our competitors started to look mad old school in the reflection of Kanye’s glow in the dark. Many other things broke our way over the ensuing years—more often than not by our own hand/elbow grease—but Kanye caused the first domino to fall.

At the end of that night—the first hours of the Kanye West-era in which we still reside—at Room Service Kanye and I talked briefly about Graduation. He asked what my favorite track was and I said, “Glory.” He laughed and said, “Really? I actually almost took that one off the record. It felt too the past.” I asked his favorite and he responded “‘Flashing Lights’,” with an implied, “Duh, obviously,” in his tone. I crinkled my brow, curious why he’d say it like that. “The way the samples are mixed with the live instruments, and the rap has so much room to breathe…. It just sounds like the future.”

And the future always wins.

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