I wanted to love Curtis. Believe me, readers, I really did. As a loyal fan and frequent defender of 50 Cent (I even gave his movie a positive review a couple years ago!), a great MC when he exerts a modicum of effort and even sometimes when he doesn’t, I was hoping for a through-inspired classic that would leave both doubters and haters tongue-tied—perhaps something with a more personal slant to it, as its first name title seems to suggest. I wanted 50 to drop his Blueprint, an all-eyes-on-me mission statement, and, right, I wanted to relish every blessed second of it. After “I Get Money”, arguably the hip-hop single of the year and 50‘s strongest track in years, came out, I was legitimately psyched, fingers crossed and Expecting Great Things.
As it turns out, aside from a few tracks, there isn’t much on Curtis to love. Which isn’t to say to say that this is a bad album. It isn’t. It’s a solidly above-average rap record, featuring a generous handful of very likeable songs and only two unqualified duds. The first is “Amusement Park”, one of several pre-release singles and basically just a lame rehash of “Candy Shop”. I really hope hip-hop artists realize soon that these wink-wink, obvious-sexual-metaphor tracks are played the hell out. “Milkshake” was fun; “Candy Shop” was okay (at least for the first dozen or so go-’rounds); “Amusement Park” is the end of the road.
The other loser is the Emimem-produced “Peep Show”, which includes Em‘s most embarrassing verse to date. Despite hints of something like maturity on the unfairly maligned Encore, he still doesn’t seem to get that there is a difference between revolting-provocative and revolting-revolting. Sick jokes can be funny; “Let me shit on your chest and if some pee comes out / just guzzle it down, just guzzle it down” is just, well, sick. Tracks like this and “Ass Like That” are why this man barely has a career to speak of in 2007.
So, sequence that pair out, kindly erase them from your memory, and what’s left is, at least, roughly as good as The Massacre. “I Get Money” remains the collection’s clear MVP, an iron-fisted ode to living large: “I write the check before the baby comes / who the fuck cares? / I’m stanky rich / I’m a die tryin’ to spend this shit.” It’s 50 at his charismatic, self-aggrandizing best. In its irresistible arrogance and amoral brand of gallows humor (both foremost among 50’s virtues), it’s reminiscent of his reputation-making breakthrough, “How to Rob”. Dominance is his great theme, and, to be sure, one of contemporary rap’s. Rarely, among his recent output (and rap‘s, for that matter), has it been strutted out as convincingly as it is here. It’s just too bad he couldn’t bring that level of world-beating swagger to all 17 of Curtis‘s tracks.
“I’ll Still Kill”, the set’s obligatory Akon collaboration, is also certainly, and rightfully, bound for the 50 best-of comp that you have to figure is due out any month now. A noirish affirmation of the gangster ethos, the track should happily satisfy 50’s legion of fans, if not the legion of R&B divas whose hook-singing gigs Akon is consistently stealing. I mean, seriously: Somebody like Mya has to be listening to songs like this and “9MM” and “Soul Survivor” with gritted teeth and more than a tinge of jealousy. And, remarkably, he has yet to wear out his welcome, despite his present ubiquity. Here, he warns, “Don’t even look at me wrong when I come through the hood”, his distinctive voice trembling with paranoia, as 50 raps, “I got an arsenal, an infantry / I’m built for this mentally.”
Then there’s “Ayo Technology”, the Timbaland-produced club move with Justin Timberlake lamenting, “I’m tired of using technology” over the chorus. When the track dropped a few minutes ago, the reaction that greeted it was decidedly mixed, but I think it sounds better with every listen—a sentiment that can likewise be applied to much of Timbaland’s all-over-the-map Shock Therapy. It’s the sort of impossibly busy, hmm-I-never-noticed-that-synth-there Tim production that requires multiple spins to properly process. For his part, 50 sounds lost in the mix, like an unobtrusive guest on his own commissioned vehicle.
“Fire”, a clubbier-yet (and nearly as busy) Dr. Dre-helmed effort with guest spots by Young Buck and Nicole Scherzinger, the only Pussycat Doll anybody knows by name, is another stand-out. Ditto “All of Me”, 50’s surprisingly vibrant duet with Mary J. Blige. (Curtis isn’t The Blueprint by any stretch, but this is his “Heart of the City”.) Both of Havoc’s cuts, “Fully Loaded Clip” and “Curtis 187”, ride Dre-lite beats effectively, despite the lame, half-assed Lil Wayne dis 50 tosses off in the former. Even the much-mocked “Follow My Lead”, with Robin Thicke going “oh-ohh” and “woo-ooh” and 50 stepping back into awkward “Best Fiend“ mode, is passably endearing. “Baby, I could pass the day watching you model lingerie” may not be you or your significant other’s idea of “romantic”, but I’ll allow 50 some small credit for trying. And, at any rate, the key line here isn’t “if you act like a bitch, I’ll call you a bitch”. It’s the next one: “Then hang up / probably call you right back and shit.”
Much of the discussion surrounding Curtis has centered on the hype-mounting showdown between 50 and Kanye West, whose Graduation is slated for the same release date. If it’s a matter of who’ll move more first-week units (and it is, of course, mostly), then 50 seems the likely victor, though my money says dark horse Kenny Chesney narrowly outsells both. If the question is, instead, which album is better (tellingly, it isn’t really, outside of bloggers and rap nerds), Graduation gets the nod, but not by too terribly much, and only because Curtis contains the two aforementioned bombs and Kanye’s record is clunker-free, give or take “Stronger”. If you’re looking to crown the rap album of the year, however, chances are, you’ll have to wait another few months. Or, you know, whenever The Carter III finally shows up on record store shelves.