Three months ago, 50 Cent and Kanye West met up to listen to each other's albums. "50 said 'Can't Tell Me Nothing' was his favorite song, so I said, 'OK, that's my first single,'" says Kanye. "We push each other. Biggie used to do that. He'd go over and play 'Mo Money, Mo Problems' for Jay-Z, and it would fuck him up."
The friendly competition went public last month when Kanye moved up the release date for his forthcoming album, Graduation, to September 11th – the same day 50's Curtis drops – setting up a showdown between two of hip-hop's biggest stars. "When I picked that date, I was like, 'People are going to talk about this so much,'" says Kanye. "Do you know how great this shit is for hip-hop?"
The move sparked speculation about opening-week sales: 50 declared that Curtis – which features Eminem, Justin Timberlake and Dr. Dre – will come out on top, even vowing to stop releasing solo discs if it doesn't. "Mine will sell and his will still be on the shelf," he tells Rolling Stone. "He should be terrified. What do I do? Do I send flowers? Do I send my condolences?" But most retailers and radio programmers interviewed pick Kanye, whose current single, "Stronger," is Number Six on Billboard's Hot 100 – while none of 50's four singles have climbed higher than Thirty-two. "In hip-hop you're only as good as your last hit, and Kanye's got the bigger hit right now," says Bruce St. James, program director for Phoenix hip-hop station Power 98.3.
And while 50's singles "Amusement Park" and "Straight to the Bank" hew closely to the formula he established with his 2002 breakthrough hit, "In Da Club," Kanye's record advances the experimental vibe of 2005's Late Registration, including collaborations with T-Pain, Chris Martin, Mos Def and Lil Wayne, and samples of Steely Dan, German art-rockers Can and Daft Punk. "With 50's singles, you shrug your shoulders and think, 'I hope he comes out with something good with the next one,'" says John E. Kage, music director for Denver hip-hop station KS107.5. "With 'Stronger,' you hear it and you go, 'Wow, this is incredible.'"
50 Cent has had trouble with Curtis from the start. "When I was creating material for this album, I was experiencing writer's block," he says. "I reached the most vulnerable point for an artist: confusion." For inspiration, the rapper moved back to the Queens house where he was raised, and wrote "Straight to the Bank," released in April, and "Amusement Park," which dropped in May. Neither single broke into heavy rotation on hip-hop radio. "We have a lot of songs about women on the pole and being in nightclubs, and it's getting tired really fast," says Kage.
Unhappy with the cool reception, 50 went back to the studio. In June, he released the gritty "I Get Money." When that didn't take off on radio, he flipped his ace in the hole: "Ayo Technology," a synthheavy club track about Internet porn, produced by Timbaland with a hook by Timberlake. The song, released in mid-July, is catching on in major markets and is at Number Eight on iTunes.
The difficulty in attracting buzz for Curtis may have taken a toll on 50. When a video for the fifth single, "Follow My Lead," with Robin Thicke, leaked to the Internet, the MC freaked out, throwing a mobile phone through a window in his G-Unit offices and ripping a plasma-screen TV off the wall. "Nothing is going according to the actual plan," he told MTV "Interscope is just all over the place."
While 50 was sweating the singles, Kanye was still in the studio, crafting classic one-liners ("I'm like the fly Malcolm X/Buy any jeans necessary") and making changes on the CD even after some copies had been manufactured. "I'm still like, 'Change this, the vocals are too low, this sample needs to come up,'" he says. "It's actually a thing now where the first hundred thousand albums are one way, the second hundred thousand are different."
Regardless of who comes out on top, Kanye says he and 50 are providing the kind of drama that music needs. "What's the point of even having magazines without us?" he asks. "We're the fucking Jim Morrisons, we're the fucking Kurt Cobains of this. Yeah, I said it. Listen to the fucking album – I am."
This story is from the September 6th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.