In 2003, 50 Cent revolutionized the gangster rap album for the new millennium. Away from the inaccessibly raw likes of Straight Outta Compton, 50’s major label debut Get Rich or Die Tryin’ moved to the dance floors while keeping all of the explicit street life happenings and thug stylings intact. 50 found a way to make gangster rap excessively profitable in a way that the dissenting N.W.A. ultimately couldn’t: He found his way into white suburban homes. For this, 50 has been both lauded and demonized — hardcore hip-hop fans feel betrayed, while Top 40 listeners finally turned an ear toward trap houses and dimly lit street corners. As such, 50 shoulders much of the blame for the current state of mainstream hip hop — whether or not you think it’s terribly degenerative, or sublimely violent and explosive.
As per most turn-of-the-millennium rappers, 50 quickly assembled a crew. G-Unit was a simple formula: the headlining showman (50 Cent), dark-horse lyricist (Lloyd Banks), problem child (Tony Yayo), and the outsider (Young Buck), to say nothing of The Game debacle. But G-Unit’s debut Beg For Mercy wasn’t groundbreaking, or even remotely interesting like Get Rich or Die Tryin’; aesthetic masturbation rather than innovation. Lloyd Banks proved himself nearly inept on the mic, Yayo was almost immediately incarcerated on weapons charges, and 50 was quickly proving to be a one-trick pony. Meanwhile, Young Buck, the Nashville MC and only non-New Yorker in the troupe, was emerging as the only member of the group with any lyric prowess — and notably the only one with any sort of career following the G-Unit release.
It’s five years later, Young Buck is no longer a member of the group, 50 has endured a number of relative flops, and G-Unit is back on the map with its follow-up effort T*O*S (Terminate on Sight). And unlike the group’s first record which saw a few successful, catchy singles, T*O*S is devoid of even these, leaving the record to be supported by the lyricism of 50, Yayo, and Banks. Needless to say, indifference ensues.
The insufferable opener “Straight Outta Southside” is an ode to gangster rap pioneers N.W.A. while acting as a blunt announcement of the group’s whereabouts. But the inanity and sheer ignorance of some of the lines are almost unbelievable: “Fuck the police with an HIV carrier / No Vaseline in the M-16.” Eazy-E’s death is an almost certain irony given the latter line’s tasteless vulgarity. Shortly thereafter, Yayo raps, “My name is Yayo, a crazy nigga don’t play though,” just the sort of entrance we’ve come to expect from the bumbling sidekick.
“Casualties of War” suffers from the same senseless lyricism. The chorus (“There’s no war without casualties / And there gonna be when you fuck with me”) is not only an atonal mess, but pedantically incorrect — that whole cold war idea? Freudian thought might argue that this shows the group’s skewed worldview, how drug trafficking and late-nights shouting “5-0” have warped their collective minds and, more importantly, those of the impoverished youth. But when 50’s doing Vitamin Water commercials, it’s sort of hard to make the same case.
Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was an incredible step for gangster rap and 50’s legacy, namely because it innovated an entire genre. On T*O*S, 50, and G-Unit as a whole, are simply following the trends mainstream hip-hop has been devouring. “Rider Pt. 2” is an auto-tuned travesty that sounds like gangster rap for geriatrics, riding a frail keyboard bounce. Meanwhile, “Kitty Kat” features a staccato Polow da Don beat, and the most infuriatingly obnoxious chorus the group has ever written (in what sounds like a begrudged, sexually-suggestive landlord’s voice “Oh, I need cash for my kitty cat”). It also manages to bastardize yet another hip-hop legend’s lines by biting Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “I Want Pussy”.
What’s truly embarrassing for G-Unit throughout T*O*S is the way Young Buck shows up (which he does on four separate occasions) and puts everyone to shame. The group sounds like how the Cleveland Cavaliers will look when LeBron James leaves the team: a shell of their former selves, and laughably parochial. On “Piano Man”, G-Unit’s verses about selling keys — get it, keys, like a piano, but also like kilos? — pale in comparison to Buck’s haunting horror rap. His flows are simply that much more explicit, outlining exactly how he transports the drugs (“Fill up the door panels and stuff the floorboards”) to his boisterous attire (“A Gucci briefcase, dressed in a suit and tie”). It’s this honesty that’s completely lacking from the rest of G-Unit, making T*O*S sound more like Ja Rule than 50 Cent.
But this is, presumably, what was to be expected from a group that not only lost its best member, but has seen the gradual downfall of its frontman. T*O*S will hopefully mark the end of G-Unit as a collective. With 50 headed toward the sidelines — don’t tell him — and the group’s most talented member doing bigger and better things, G-Unit seems all but over. But then again, 50 did get shot, what was it, nine times? Guy’s like a cat, always lands on his feet, and yet there’s a hell of a lot of people that want nothing to do with him.