“Look at hip-hop. Name a group! There’s no group, period, in hip-hop. So we don’t have to convince anyone of our reinvention. The audience needs it to happen. They have nothing else out there. And for G-Unit to be able to physically be here at this point has a lot more significance than people are recognizing.” Shank-sharp words from 50 Cent, the architect behind the ambitious, unprecedented ensemble known as G-Unit. His eyes smolder as he gesticulates to enforce his point, being careful to protect the pre-release copy of the fervently-anticipated T.O.S. G-Unit album he carries with him.
Comprising fellow Queens natives Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo, G-Unit smashed the scene in the early 2000s with a barrage of cataclysmic NYCentric mixtapes. The group redoubled its lockstep in 2003, adding Nashville street soldier Young Buck to its decorated ranks. In November of that same year, with SoundScan still busy tabulating the eight million sales of 50’s individual debut Get Rich or Die Tryin’, G-Unit unleashed its unflinching opening salvo—Beg for Mercy.
Running both deep and dark, Beg for Mercy rode five anthemic singles to the tune of four million worldwide sales. G-Unit had arrived, mercilessly leaving footprints all over hip-hop’s topography. Those footprints, incidentally, bore the pattern of G-Unit’s trademark sneakers, the first step in the apparel arsenal launched to announce the group’s takeover. 50 Cent and G-Unit were untouchable.
A string of successful solo spinoffs —released on G-Unit— would follow: in 2004, Lloyd Banks’ Hunger for More and Young Buck’s Straight Outta Ca$hville; in 2005, Tony Yayo’s Thoughts of a Predicate Felon; in 2006, Banks’ Rotten Apple and Buck’s Buck the World. 50 Cent meanwhile churned out chart-toppers The Massacre (2005) and Curtis (2007). And amidst cluttering the calendar with platinum, G-Unit welcomed West Coast wordsmith The Game into their enclave. His 2005 debut The Documentary, largely collaborative with 50 and rife with sing-song singles, cemented the Game’s legitimacy as an artist and 50’s legacy as a hitmaker. With firm footing on both coasts and a wealth of worldwide support, G-Unit was poised for a decade of dominance.
But dominance was usurped by discord. 50 Cent and his Queens cohorts quickly found themselves at odds with their Compton counterpart. As heralded was the Game’s arrival, as meteoric his rise, equally dramatic would be his exodus. “A lot of people get money and forget who they are, where they come from, who their friends are; they sell they soul,” chides Tony Yayo. “And that’s the reason why I express anger toward people,” he flashes, eyes glinting. “Dudes can’t think for themselves; this s*** is like wrestling to me, all these relationships are phony and fake.”
“My loyalty’s to the Unit because if it wasn’t for us doing what we do as a whole, I wouldn’t have nothing,” he waxes. “I will always remember being in Southside Jamaica Queens, not having what we have now. Even if I die tomorrow, God forbid, I can say ‘Tony Yayo was a household name.’ I’m where I want to be in life. But people just want to be 50 and problems arise from that.”
No laughing matter, the Game was escorted out of G-Unit, triggering much-ballyhooed beef between the parties. In the mean time, a spate of personal issues besieged the remaining members. Lloyd Banks lost his father in October of 2006—particularly inopportune timing. “My pops passed away two weeks after I released Rotten Apple, when I was just starting to do shows. I lost five close friends to murder between then and now, but even so, somehow you don’t expect your pops to go. I was going through some real s***. I didn’t even want to do interviews because I wasn’t sure I could channel my anger. So you ain’t really heard me since 2006; it’s hard for me to completely put my energy in something when I can’t keep my mind off all that.”
More recently, Tony Yayo found himself embroiled in a public flap with a prominent music industry executive. Additionally, he was shaken by physical attacks on people close to his home and heart. Yayo’s response to the events is equally contemplative and cantankerous: “Everything in life is a Catch-22; when you’re broke, nobody’s thinking about you. When you’re rich, everybody wants to kill you. The reason why you hear about Yayo in so much drama is because I’m a street dude. I come from that aggression. This is how I eat.”
Dissension invaded G-Unit’s day-to-day as well. Creative tension percolated between 50 and Young Buck, leading to the latter’s excision earlier this year. 50 is quick to note that his exit isn’t accompanied by the rift and vitriol surrounding the Game’s departure, however. “When you have a person creating an unbalance or some kind of discomfort for the way things are flowing, then you gotta remove that in order to continue to grow,” 50 states. “And you help everybody involved; you allow Buck to be what he wants to be, which is himself. I’d rather give him that instead of forcing him to go through the confusion.” Lloyd Banks allows a slightly more revealing look: “It ain’t nothing to be happy about, it’s just an unfortunate situation. It’s an adjustment; Buck was around for five, six years and we built a relationship in that time. And of course people want to see 50 as the bad guy because he’s so successful. People start looking for reasons that he’s not a good person.”
All told, the saga is enough to stunt any man’s growth. But G-Unit has persevered, swallowing all that fire and exhaling it as white-hot microphone smoke. T.O.S. seethes at even the suspicion of being overlooked or taken for granted. It’s a five-alarm blaze of braggadocio, boisterousness, brawn, bounce, and ultimately: brilliance. In 50’s words: “The project totally fulfills the appetite of the person who enjoys the content that’s been delivered on the street. That but with a hybrid quality, because this project is so sonically correct, and the songs are linked to tell a story and to provide a more elaborate listening experience. It’s definitely a task creating G-Unit records because you have more than one creative force involved in making the outline. But together it makes a marriage that completes a perfect puzzle at the end of it.” More simply? “What fans should expect is the best record they’ve heard this year, as an overall body of work.” Adds Banks: “You’re getting something you never really got before: artists who’ve all been platinum still coming back to play their roles as part of something larger.”
Ubiquitous lead single “I Like the Way She Do It” needs little introduction, with its huge, round bottom (end), searing synth figures, and 50’s half-sung hook that spills out of the listener’s mouth instinctively. “Straight Outta Southside” is a relentless, double-edged homage: bigging up Southside Jamaica Queens while smacking of N.W.A.’s finest fare. Lloyd Banks sears the opening verse and 50’s near-shout cauterizes the conclusion. Elsewhere on the album, look for Swizz Beatz’ brassy brand of banger.
But T.O.S. is marked as much by polish as puissance. There’s artistry about the album’s construction, elegance to the track order, breadth to the material. G-Unit melds old and new with “No Days Off;” a funky, retro bassline befitting a ’64 Impala complete with curb feelers bops hydraulically amidst whooshing, spaceship-themed synth effects. The rhymes are terse, almost military-cadenced. Instant riding music. On “Kitty Kat,” which features Polow Da Don’s southern-steeped production, 50 flips an irresistible island-flavored flow over coursing whammy bar-like arpeggios. And “The Piano Man” is a dark, sardonic concept joint overlaid by ratcheting maraca sounds and underpinned by sparse ivory plunkings. Tony Yayo opens the cut savagely, calling his work on T.O.S. “the best writing I’ve ever done.” Recall Yayo’s history: “When Beg for Mercy came out in 2003, I was incarcerated; I was only on what, 2 songs? I feel like a new artist.” As such, understandably he relishes in creative liberties alongside his physical freedom in 2008. “Sometimes in this industry, corporate people try to determine everything: the sound, the order of singles, all that,” he fumes. “There’s nobody hanging over our shoulders, telling us do this, do that. It’s us. There were plenty of nights we didn’t sleep, working and thinking on it.”
Ultimately, T.O.S. represents the closing of a circle, the onrushing flow after the proverbial ebb. Noting that 2007 was “the year of the good guy,” Lloyd Banks forcefully affirms that fans are ready for a return to the raw. “It can’t just be a whole album on some happy-go-lucky s***,” he maintains. “This is New York, man. By the time you do your Soulja Boy, you done stepped on two or 3 niggas’ sneakers. Seriously though, there has to be aggression, there have to be real life situations, and that’s what we bring with this album. What do you play when you having a bad day? What do you play when your homey just got smoked? What do you play when the police just pulled you over? You’re getting something so real. Our music is gonna return to the level it was in 2002 because the climate is changing.”
“The feeling I have now, this hunger, I’ve never had this feeling before,” he continues. “We were in the studio pushing each other. Literally by the time I got a verse done, Yayo would have his verse done. We’re damn near fighting to get in the booth. That’s what was missing. And it comes from feeling resistance for the first time. I look at it as a blessing, because it’s brought us back to where we started. Back to why we made music in the first place, and why people took a liking to it. People look at the success part and think it’s an accident. I want the fans and the critics to know first off, as much success that we’ve had, it never overshadowed the love and respect that we’ve had for the game. The love drives us.”
“I’m comfortable being the underdog,” Banks forewarns, hinting at the impact G-Unit is about to level on hip-hop’s landscape. Again. “But I’m not comfortable being number two. It’s two totally different things.” Simple but effective math. Come July 1st, it’ll be time to T.O.S.: Terminate On Sight.