Today marks a decade since the rap sales showdown between Kanye West and 50 Cent. Hip-hop’s two biggest titans were headed into the release of their third major label offerings, and when they challenged each other one-on-one, the result was an unforgettable moment for the culture.
Originally set for release a week apart, Kanye’s bumping up of Graduation to the same day as 50’s Curtis resulted in a hero vs. villain storyline, allowing listeners to play the part of the deciding voice by flocking to physical retail music stores en masse to support their favorite. UltImately, Kanye’s Graduation became the victor with over 900,000 domestic copies sold. The album gave us the end to the old Kanye’s chapter, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.”
It’s hard to believe there was a time when Kanye was a plucky underdog. Before he was married into the Kardashians, harassing non-Kanye award winners, and palling around with Donald Trump, the Pre-Yeezus (Pre-zus?) Kanye was insisting he was more “spoken word” than “Coke and birds” before telling the world “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Kanye fandom was a conscious choice. After two against-the-odds smash albums and the Chipmunks-speed sample production style became ubiquitous on radio, it looked like Kanye had won one for the other guys.
Sure, he still had signs of being problematically megalomaniacal. Two years prior he had a Rolling Stone cover dressed as Jesus, said there should be a new book of the Bible written about him, and tried to launch an anti-reading movement as he’d “never wanted a book’s autograph.” For all his recent shenanigans, it goes too-often overlooked that Kanye was always a bit of an odd duck. But somehow Kanye “and I know the government administered AIDS” West became the undisputed biggest name in rap, overthrowing the tyrant 50 Cent.
This truly was the point we couldn’t tell him anything. That’s why “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is such a massively important part of the Kanye catalog. Before he took up auto-tune, before the public meltdowns, and shortly before the passing of his mother, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” was that victory lap before everything shifted. Kanye wasn’t the pop culture celebrity lighting rod. He was the celebrated Chi-town hip-hop artist with enough hutzpah to make creative choices like just sampling a trap rapper’s infectious ad-lib’s for a hook without incorporating the content that may alienate non-Young Jeezy fans.
The chapter that began with the car crash ends with “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” The two remixes, one with [NAME REDACTED] and Jeezy that serves as a perfect time capsule of the era, and the Roc-A-Fella remix with Beanie Sigel and Freeway acknowledging the end of Kanye’s former home, wraps up who Ye was at this point in his stardom perfectly.
Plus, it gave us perhaps his finest music video starring Zach Galifianakis.