MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In a different corner of the music world, there's a hip-hop battle raging today. It's the sales war. It's between 50 Cent…

50 CENT (rapper):

(Soundbite of song, "Ayo Technology" by 50 Cent)

50 CENT (rapper): Got a thing for that thing she got - The way she make it shake, the way she make it pop - Make it rain for us so she don't stop, I ain't got to move, I can sit and watch.

BRAND: and Kanye West…

(Soundbite of song, "Can't Tell Me Nothing" by Kanye West)

Mr. KANYE WEST (rapper): To whom much is given, much is tested - Get arrested, got some chili, get the message?

BRAND: Each rapper picked today to release his new album. 50 has vowed to outsell Kanye, he's even bet his rap career on it.

As NPR's Christopher Johnson reports, both rappers have a lot to gain from this showdown.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Here's how this whole mess got started, y'all. Last month, Kanye West announced that he would release his third album, "Graduation," on September 11th. But 50 Cent had already picked 9/11 to put out his third album. Now, 50's a former drug-dealing street thug whose claim to rap fame is surviving nine close-range gunshot wounds - not exactly the backing-down sort. And he answered Kanye's move with this bout, to quit making solo records if Ye sells more albums than 50 Cent in the first week of release. 50 said that, quote, "Mine will sell and his will still be on the shelf. He should be terrified. What do I do? Send flowers? Send my condolences?" And in this corner, Kanye "Drama King" West, who's been doing his share of smack talking. On the British variety show, "Friday Night Project," Kanye issued this disingenuous plea to his rival.

Mr. WEST: I really like 50. I don't want him to retire once my album sells the most. I just want to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEST: …just say, 50, do not retire once my album sells and beat your album. Please do not retire. Please.

JOHNSON: This week's issue of Rolling Stone magazine might make the beef look real - 50 and Kanye on the cover, staring at each other with their heart as game faces. But don't believe the hype, says Newsweek national correspondent Allison Samuels.

Ms. ALLISON SAMUELS (National Correspondent, Newsweek): I don't think this one is a real beef. You know, now that's 50 is, you know, a millionaire five, six, seven times over, and I think he wants to keep his name out there. The same with Kanye. I think they're both too smart to get into an actual real beef.

JOHNSON: And both artists are smart enough to know rap sales are hurting pretty bad these days, down about 33 percent since the middle of last year. So Kanye and 50 have cooked up a publicity stunt, they admit, is designed to move units.

Kanye and 50 are totally cool with each other. Just check out Rolling Stone's Web site, and find video footage of the rappers relaxing side by side, no hostilities, just a friendly discussion about the art and business of rap music.

(Soundbite of video clip from Rolling Stone Web site)

Unidentified Man #1: How do you translate to music in a way for people who are listening to that can understand what you're saying, you know what I mean? Don't talk or what people say to you…

Unidentified Man #2: But at the same time, from the creative standpoint, do we make it totally for them or do you make it totally for them, or do you give something that's a reflection of where you actually are as an audience at that point?

JOHNSON: So who's going to win this faux showdown? That's a tough call. 50's career album sales are at 11 million. That's five million more than Kanye's. On "Curtis," 50 gets help from heavyweight producers Dr. Dre and Timbaland.

Still, the first few singles have done poorly in the pop charts. That includes the lyrically dull and formulaic track "Amusement Park."

(Soundbite of song, "Amusement Park")

50 CENT: (Singing) It goes up and down and round and round. Stand up or get on the floor. It's only night I know what you like. And I just had a break y'all. Good evening, ladies. I tell you from the start. I'm hoping you enjoy my amusement park.

JOHNSON: And speaking of formulas, here are two 50 Cent's folks that have grown pretty tired by this third release - sex and guns. Inside the album packaging, there's a picture of Cent with a knife and fork, chowing down on a handgun, like it's a piece of prime rib.

(Soundbite of song, "Fully Loaded Clip")

JOHNSON: "My Gun Go Off," "I'll Still Kill," "Fully Loaded Clip," songs that might speak of 50's violent past, but "Curtis" is a disk running low on creative ammo. And Mr. Cent is caught just shooting blanks.

(Soundbite of song, "Fully Loaded Clip")

50 CENT: (Singing) I love you, boo. I was shinin' my nine, you know how I do. I got a fully loaded clip, I be on that (bleep). I got, I got a fully loaded clip. I got a fully loaded clip, I be on that…

JOHNSON: Allison Samuels has interviewed 50 Cent before and says she really likes the guy. But in the sales head to head, Samuels puts her money on West.

Ms. SAMUELS: I think that Kanye has the edge because he's much more - well, not much more but mainstream, a little bit more mainstream. And he has that sort of college, preppy image that I think is a little bit more endearing to mainstream than 50's thuggish sort of image.

JOHNSON: One of Kanye's biggest advantages over 50, is that West is a one-man band who can write his own lyrics and produce his own tracks. Where if 50's mike presence is bored and monotone, Kanye's dynamic flow swerves over his beats like a pro racecar driver, flooring it around the tightest curves.

(Soundbite of song, "Stronger" by Kanye West)

Mr. WEST: (Singing) Work it. Make it. Do it. Makes us harder, better, faster, stronger.

JOHNSON: He's fearless like that, matching up words that don't quite rhyme, and sampling all over the place. He even borrows from Daft Punk for the pulsing, heading out track "Stronger," which stands at number two on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.

Mr. WEST: (Singing) Bow in the presence of greatness. Cause right now thou has forsaken us. You should be honored by my lateness. That I would even show up to this fake. So go ahead go nuts, go ape.

JOHNSON: The songs on Kanye's album "Graduation" aren't flawless. But the college dropout finally shows the sort of complex lyricism and rich musical maturity that proves this young brother has been studying hard. Maybe as a kind of diploma, Kanye'll get another string of Grammy nods. But who's going to help carry the trophy? Oh, right, 50 Cent will probably has some free time on his hand pretty soon.

Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Champion")

Mr. WEST: (Singing) Yes, I did. So I packed it up and brought it back to the crib. Just a lil somethin', show you how we live. Everybody want it but it ain't that serious. Mm-hmm. That's that (bleep). So if you gonna do it, do it just like this. You don't see just how wild the crowd is.

You don't see just how fly my style is. I don't see why I need a stylist. When I shop so much I can speak Italian. I don't know I just want it better for my kids. And I ain't sayin we was from the projects. But every time I wanna lay away or deposit. My daddy say when you see close, close your eye lids…

BRAND: There's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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