When one looks at the top stories in hip hop today, it is no wonder that sales are plummeting faster than in any other genre. While once the media were abuzz with Ice Cube’s at times ill-advised but nevertheless truly provocative statements, Biggie and Pac’s tragic feud which exposed the underbelly of ghetto fame, or even Eminem’s perceived threat to white suburbia, what we have today is mostly such nonsense as the latest shenanigans of that joke of an MC, 50 Cent, the latest on-going of which being his vow to stop recording solo if his upcoming third album, Curtis, doesn’t outsell toyboy Kanye West’s third release, Graduation, both of which “happen” to be dropping on September 11 (how poignant to pick that date, by the way, go PR!).

This story was made more “interesting” last Thursday when it became apparent that his next single, “Follow My Lead”, as well as the video for it – slated for release in October – had been leaked. 50 reportedly ‘erupted’ at this news, tore a 70″ plasma screen from the wall at the Interscope offices, and threw his Blackberry through the window. The best laid of plans and all that…

Never mind whether this is a publicity stunt or not – it probably isn’t, since it doesn’t make sense to release the record now, just as the previous single, “Ayo Technology,” is getting rotation – what’s interesting and, well puzzling, is how this tool still seems to be commanding at least some respect from hardcore hip hop audiences. He has always been something of a non-entity on the mic, getting by on his trademark drawl making up for the fact that he can’t flow, has zero writing skills, and wouldn’t be able spot an original concept if it were served to him on a vinyl platter by the other Dr. Dre.

Since 50 wants us to so badly, let’s listen to that single shall we? It features Justin Timberlake Robin Thicke, who appears to almost be falling asleep following his lead. And who can blame him? 50, who initially built most of his image on having been shot, and still to this day never fails to mention that fact and how much it has meant to his career (it’s also supposed to be the cause of his speech impediment) in interviews, is here doing his best to woo the teenage audience that absorbs the bulk of his output, over a piano-driven, rimshot-backed pop track. He winks, and laughs “playfully” (read: ‘mechanically’), while mouthing such simple-minded banalities as “Like Janet Jackson said, I miss you much/ I really wanna feel you touch, and smell your scent/ baby I can pass the day, watching you model lingerie” with a straight face.

It was corny when LL Cool J did it, and it’s corny now. Difference is, LL actually had skills. Also, he never pretended to be anything he wasn’t. He’s always been as much about “I Need Love” as about being “Bad.” His Queens progeny 50, however, is whatever the media wants him to be – gangsta just a little bit, James Bond just a little bit, “smooth” ladies’ man just a little bit, vitamin pop just a little bit… Only constant is his monosyllabic approach to the bar and his utter lack of imagination.

In the mid-nineties we had Biggie and Pac, and though they certainly put out their share of drek, they never went this far in chasing the dollar. And they were both unique voices, recording classic material when they put their mind to it. Around the turn of the millennium we had Eminem, same thing. We’ve also had Jay-Z and Nas – ditto. Now we have this tool, and other hacks like The Game and Chamillionaire. And the vastly overrated Kanye, of course, who is almost as useless on the mic, but at least a somewhat talented producer. It’s very telling that what everyone’s discussing is not whether these records are going to be any good, but how much they’re going to sell. But understandable: judging from the tracks already released – from the jiggy “Ayo Technology”, with its casio track, and the patently lazy braggadoccio snoozer “I Get Money” to Kanye’s bathetic “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” – ain’t much else to talk about.

There are some bright spots on the horizon, however, and 50 himself is in process of calling attention to one of them. As usual trying to stir up some shit to promote his new release on Kay Slay’s radio show last week, he stepped up the beef that’s been brewing between him and New Orleans MC Lil Wayne, probably the hottest upcoming name on the scene right now, with a facile dis – referring to how ‘gay’ Wayne’s kissing his male labelmate and fellow rapper Baby a while back was – in something purporting to be a love song (rip available here, but be warned: it’s not any good).

Makes a weird sort of sense. Lil Wayne is everything 50’s not: witty, creative, versatile and a hope for the future of hip hop, post nine-eleven-oh-seven.