If you want to be a full-fledged star in today’s rap world, there are a few prerequisites. First, you should have a compelling story: you were born in the projects or a trailer park; you’re a former drug dealer and/or addict; you’ve cheated death on numerous occasions. You also need to start or escalate a feud with a well-respected artist in order to draw attention to yourself. And of course, no hip-hop star worth his or her salt would dare step into the public sphere without the usual adornments: excessive jewelry, their own signature apparel and, most importantly, a crew of friends standing behind them.
Until recently, the role of the crew member was primarily played behind the scenes. Rappers would enlist the help of childhood friends to serve as road managers, bodyguards, stylists, and middlepersons for illegal or illicit activities. Today, however, rappers are assuming more control over the production end of the industry, frequently inking deals for their own records labels, marketing firms, and clothing lines. As a result, their respective crew members are moving from backstage to onstage, signing their own deals on their big homie’s label.
On many levels, the idea of helping one’s friends by “putting them on” makes sense. After all, small Black-owned labels have been the driving force of hip-hop since its inception. Now that the labels are owned by the artists themselves, it’s only reasonable that they’d look for talent at home first. Besides, who better than the artist knows who really has skills? While the concept may be simple, the results have been less than convincing. For every strong hip-hop squad like Beanie Sigel’s State Property or Cam’ron’s Diplomats, we are forced to stomach Nas’ Bravehearts, Nelly’s St. Lunatics, and Mase’s Harlem World.
Unfortunately, the relationship between the talent of the crew and the commercial success of the album isn’t always directly proportionate. Instead, fans typically support crew albums on the strength of the superstar rapper that promotes them. For example, State Property’s Chain Gang Volume II, one of the year’s best albums, has yet to reach gold status while the St. Lunatics’ mediocre debut album has sold over one million copies. 50 Cent, keenly aware of this phenomenon, has wisely capitalized on his status as the hottest rapper on the planet (his debut album Get Rich Or Die Trying has sold 6 million copies) by releasing G-Unit’s Beg For Mercy while he is at the acme of his popularity.
In addition to their friendship with 50, who is also a member of the group along with Lloyd Banks, Young Buck, and the currently incarcerated Tony Yayo, G-Unit has benefited from having their name repped on nearly all of the seemingly endless stream of 50 Cent songs played on urban radio in the past 12 months (G-g-g-g-g-g-g-gee Unit!!!!!!!!). That, along with their own signature line of Reebok shoes and years of mix-tape experience, will inevitably lead to multi-platinum status for the Queens MCs. Of course, album sales and commercial hype do not necessarily make a strong album. In this case, however, 50 Cent’s star appeal and the other member’s solid skills make Beg For Mercy a solid debut album.
The album’s production, done by Dr. Dre and others, provides a strong backing for the groups gangsta lyrics. “Stunt 101”, the album’s hot first single, is reflective of the album’s formula: clever lyrics over simple but catchy beats. On “G’d Up”, Dre provides a predictable but thoroughly pleasing keyboard and guitar melody that holds the song up well. Songs like “Groupie Love” and “Poppin Them Thangs” display the mix of humor and grit that made 50’s album so successful.
Unfortunately, the album is primarily geared toward spotlighting 50 Cent, often at the expense of his more than capable group mates. Lloyd Banks, arguably the group’s most talented member (particularly given 50 Cent’s decision to simplify his lyrics from lyrically superior earlier albums to his six-times platinum commercial debut), is rarely given a chance to show his unique skills. When he is allowed to shine, Banks shows why he’s already been an underground star for years. On “Smile”, Banks makes the most of the song’s uncreative “21 Questions” concept with his slow flow and cocky lyrics.
If there is one major problem with the album, it’s the predictable subject matter. While G-Unit’s above-average skills allow them to milk the tired “money, hoes, and clothes” genre for more thrills than most rappers, the act wears thin on tracks like “My Buddy”, yet another ode to a handgun along the lines of Nas’ “I Gave You Power” and Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend”. Also, the absence of Tony Yayo, who is awaiting trial on gun possession charges, leaves a gaping hole in the project. Nevertheless, Beg For Mercy is one of the strongest albums of the year and solidifies G-Unit’s position as a legitimate group in its own right.