Spin

Curtis

50 CENT

(Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)

Graduation

KANYE WEST

(Roc-A-Fella)

The images line the shelves of stores nationwide. One artist glares at the camera while the other opts for anime by renowned Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. It's hardcore thug tales and club bangers versus "messages" and fashion boasts. With both discs released on Tuesday of last week, the mainstream media couldn't help but hype the event as a monumental showdown, one that would dictate the future of hip-hop and perhaps the ailing music industry in general. We'll see.

50 Cent has milked his crack-dealer past to no end; so has his label and just about every music writer in the country. He's not cuddly yet like Snoop Dogg, but it's getting harder to take his thug routine seriously. For instance, the threatening "Fully Loaded Clip" attempts to reassert Fiddy's street cred, but he sounds silly making smooching noises in between rapping: "When Jay and Beyonce were kissing, I was cooking 1,000 grams in the kitchen."

It's a bad sign when the guests outshine the host. The single "Ayo Technology" benefits more from Timbaland's psychedelic beats and Justin Timberlake's crooned hook than anything the rapper has to say. On party jams like "Peep Show," Fiddy sounds assured, the flow comes naturally, but Eminem's sick rhyme about defecation distracts from the headliner. Ultimately, 50 Cent looks more and more like a marketing success story whose skills as an emcee are suspect.

Kanye can't get over himself, but clever rhymes — "I'm a fly Malcolm X/ Buy any jeans necessary" — never grow old. And when the rapper gets preachy, like he does on the opener "Good Morning," — which features a subtle sample of the Elton John tune "Somebody Saved My Life Tonight" — one can't help but admire his talent. Nearly the entire CD, especially numbers like the self-produced smash "Stronger," hit the mark. But there are weak spots. Kanye's collaboration with Mos Def finds the rappers listlessly complaining about "Drunk and Hot Girls" over a beat more bland than the subject matter.

Comparing a hardcore rapper like 50 Cent to a progressive rhymer such as Kanye West is like pitting a hair metal band against an alternative rock act. As far as substance goes, the former will always lose out to the latter. That said, Kanye's latest still makes for a considerably more realized production than Fiddy's. Curtis 2.5 stars Graduation 3.5 stars —Wade Tatangelo

The Con

Tegan and Sara

(Vapor/Sire)

Identical twin sister act Tegan and Sara Quin's commercial breakthrough album is a natural extension of their growing repertoire — not the compromised stab at mainstream success fans may have feared when the Canadian duo inked a deal with major label Sire. The Con combines folk and pop influences, with their dynamic and distinctive vocals front and center. Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla co-produced the album; he (along with DCFC drummer Jason McGerr) also appears on several tracks. Other guest spots include AFI's Hunter Burgan and Matt Sharp of Weezer/The Rentals. Although the siblings have been performing and releasing records together for nearly a decade, they are only just turning 27 this month, and it's this album, and 2004's So Jealous, that reflect their maturation process. 3.5 stars —Arielle Stevenson

Open Field

TAKEN BY TREES

(Rough Trade)

Odds are, if you recognize Victoria Bergsman's voice, you heard it first in a Target commercial. A couple years back, the red-obsessed mega-corp picked up "Say Something New" — by her former band, The Concretes — and rammed it down our throats, although the tune's lovely mix of girl-group harmonies and Velvet Underground drones transcended the banal visuals of the commercials. Bergsman split from the 'Cretes last July and is striking out on her own with this disc from her new project, Taken By Trees. Bergsman's voice remains a thing of wonder — tonally flat, yet possessing a captivating purr and lilt. But while The Concretes filled in the space around Bergsman with sounds just shy of abrasive, Open Field's music is primarily acoustic plucks and gentle rhythmic taps. This both exposes Bergsman's shortcomings in the songwriting department and robs the tunes of the full-spectrum dynamics of The Concretes' signature sound. 3 stars —Cooper Levey-Baker

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