That’s the invisible marketing pump for 2007’s fight of the year. In one corner, weighing in at 21 million worldwide sales, hailing from Southside, Queens—the man you love to see hated—50 Cent. Diametrically across the ring, weighing in at six Grammys (including Rap Album of the Year for each of his two previous LPs), representing the South Side of Chicago—the man you hate to love—Kanye West.
The contest will begin on the historically heavy date of Sept. 11, concluding eight days later, Sept. 19, when the victor will be crowned the top-selling recording artist in America.
Styles make fights. While 50’s robe reads, Give me riches or give me death, Kanye focuses on something more coveted than currency in certain circles: acknowledgment. He named his record company G.O.O.D. Music. You can imagine the flowing script stitched on terry cloth: I’m God with an extra O.
See, ’Ye isn’t just battling to win over the average rap fan. He’s fighting for hip-hop’s rights—rights to have options in a genre that’s lulling itself to sleep with formula. In fact, Kanye thinks many of those likely to buy his album don’t really want to be his fans. They simply don’t have many options. Released as it was in the gangsta saturated climate of 2005—alongside the likes of Young Jeezy, The Game and that 50 guy—Kanye’s last album, the XXL-rated Late Registration, was a choice that wasn’t even a choice for 2.8 million consumers thirsting for a different perspective.
Unfortunately, that alternative perspective—even as it expresses itself in something as superficial as fashion sense—tips certain scales against him. That hardcore rap fan base the G-Unit general reps so thoroughly lashes back at ’Ye for replacing oversized baseball caps, T-shirts and pistols with snug-fitting pastel-shaded knits, Christian Dior jeans and venetian blinds–style eyewear. To them, the Louis Vuitton Don is simply too “gay.” And gay isn’t hip-hop. (In a recent interview with QD3.com that circulated on the Internet, Kanye’s own Roc-A-Fella Records stable mate Beanie Sigel turned on him, saying, “You might as well come all the way out the closet, homeboy.”)
So Kanye’s ready to rumble. This past spring, against his label’s protests, he leaked the irresistible and appropriately titled “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”—potent, confessional braggadocio deliberately delivered over DJ Toomp’s cathedral keys. In the summer, he followed with “Stronger”—techno-tinged hip-hop futurism accentuated by a Japanimation-inspired sci-fi video. By August, his third full-length work, Graduation, stood as iTunes’ most preordered album.
On a gorgeous August night, inside Los Angeles’ Chalice Studios, with less than a week to turn the final, mastered product into label brass, Kanye is hard at work. Somehow, though, he manages to sway his attention away from editing his next single, “Good Life”—a celebratory gem featuring a nibble of M.J.’s “P.Y.T.,” vocoderist of the moment T-Pain and, as if irony struck the lotto, a borrowed lyric from 50 Cent—to talk to XXL. Openly, honestly, at times excessively, he discusses going head-to-head with 50, which rappers are better than him, being called gay, the engagement to his longtime girlfriend (fashion designer Alexis Phifer), and why he thinks he has the hardest job in hip-hop. Consider this Kanye’s prefight trip to the podium. The G.O.O.D. guy’s about to weigh in.
With The College Dropout, you had to prove yourself. On Late Registration, you were solidifying your spot among the upper echelon of contemporary artists. What statement did you set out to make with Graduation?
I set out to make songs, first and foremost, that work in a stadium. Every song I pick is a career choice for me, because I’m gonna have to perform this song for the rest of my life. So I wanted songs that could tear down stadiums. Like, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is anthemic. The chorus is equal to a rock chorus, like it could’ve been a Black Sabbath record or something. I randomly threw that out, like I listen to Black Sabbath. [Laughs] But from what I know about it, it sounds like they could use that melody: [sings] Laaa, la la la…
Do you use the fear of failing as fuel for your creativity?
Definitely. I feel like a lot of people dropped albums this year like people were gonna ride with them regardless. It’s like when somebody spends money on some bullshit. You can tell they had extra money in their account. People who don’t have a lot of money may be some of the freshest people, because they know they need to do this specifically. I felt like I was in a position, musically, where I didn’t have money to waste. So I was like, Bam! “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” Or “Throw Some D’s (Remix).” I really feel like niggas be like, “We don’t wanna fuck with you.” So I made music that way. I make albums like people wanna turn on me at any given chance, and I gotta make it so that they can’t.
Who are the five best MCs today?
I think the hottest rappers in the game right now are Wayne, T.I., then me. I feel like Fab is definitely in the top five. Then I’ma put Jeezy. I said Andre 3000 before, but Jeezy definitely has more presence right now.
It’s interesting that your top five includes a rapper like Jeezy, who not only isn’t a lyrical rapper, but doesn’t care about being one. Everybody else on your list, yourself included, clearly takes pride in lyrics.
Well, I say my music is inspirational and his music is motivational. People are inspired when they hear me, while he’s more of a motivator. We have different techniques, but both have voices that can move people. That’s a necessity to being one of the hottest MCs.
You put Lil Wayne at No. 1. Do you consider him your stiffest competition?
Yeah. But I have to bow to Wayne, because I have to put in so much more work to make raps that’s on that caliber. He’s doin’ that shit like this [snaps fingers]. I wouldn’t doubt that, if all I did was rap, I could be on that caliber, but the body of work is overwhelming. My favorite Jay story is, we were in the studio doin’ “Heart of the City,” and the “Fiesta” video with him and R. Kelly came on. He walks over to the booth, puts the headphones on, starts rapping, does the first verse, second verse—“Take ’em to church…”—third verse, takes the headphones off, walks out of the booth, and the video was still playing. That was like one of the most amazing things. So Wayne records at a higher volume than everybody, but then it’s the type of killer punch lines… Like, I had the “Devil wears Prada” line a month before I recorded “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” So I wonder if he’s walking around with all of these lines in his head. Wayne baffles me.
Lil Wayne is the only other MC appearing on Graduation. It’s been said that you could possibly executive produce his next album, Tha Carter 3. Will you?
I definitely want to. I’ma just do enough songs where if it’s like six or seven beats, then I think I would deserve that title. But if I’m too busy, then I wouldn’t deserve it. I’m almost finished with my album, so I think I really can go in and get more work done. Plus, I got some official joints that didn’t make [Graduation] that I think might fit Wayne better.
On Sept. 19, SoundScan’s sales numbers for the Sept. 11 releases will be announced. How badly do you wanna be No. 1 against Curtis?
I never cared about being No. 1. Never cared about having the No. 1 record on Billboard or anything like that. As many raps as I’ve written, and as much shit as I talk, have I ever mentioned that I sold 850,000 copies of Late Registration the first week? I never mentioned that, because—I appreciate the fans going out and buying, I would hope to sell a million the first week—but my whole thing is not about the numbers, but more [about] people saying, “That song ‘Roses’ really helped me out when my grandma died.” So even if “Stronger” can’t move past Sean Kingston [on radio-play charts], it doesn’t matter, because in five years it will be important to people… When [J-Kwon’s] “Tipsy” was out, I couldn’t compete with that record’s spins, but now it’s not gonna show up against “Through the Wire,” because “Through the Wire” connected with the people… I can name so many albums that were No. 1 this year, but once people found out that me and 50’s records were coming out on the same date, it doesn’t matter how much they sold—they don’t compare to the energy that me and 50 are getting.