he year 2004 must feel like a long time ago for 50 Cent. Before stumbling into some monstrous pitfalls—casually bashing the lyrical ability of the best punch-line artist alive (Jadakiss), questioning the toughness of a guy who stabbed someone at his own label (Fat Joe), and attempting to resurrect two forgotten, one-album knights with mush synths and love songs (Mobb Deep’s woeful Blood Money)—he had every reason to believe he had the world on a string. Get Rich or Die Tryin’ had already sold more than ten million copies, the rare sales behemoth in an already thinning post-millennial market. The G-Unit album did well too, five million albums sold off of a bubbly, gun-toting posse party single (“Stunt 101”) and more than a few love songs.
And, like every good gang, the godfather only had one person in mind to inherit the kingdom. Lloyd Banks, the Maryland-born, Queen-raised, punch-line spooling mixtape denizen was the apple of 50’s eye. Equipped with a voice that sounds shellacked with equal parts purple haze, asbestos, and pig iron and completely fluent in the two-syllable jab-hook punch line (“We gone bomb you till you can’t bomb back, / Hiroshima demeanor, microphone crack”), Banks was the prototypical right-hand man.
So the whole of G-Unit threw their collective market power behind Banks and his debut, 2004’s The Hunger for More, pumping it full of Timbaland, Havoc, Eminem, and Red Spyda production, stirring up a maelstrom of hype (the word “classic” was thrown around in roughly half a dozen print ads) and generally doing their best to make the album go platinum in a month. And it worked. It sold two million, shucked off three singles and succeeded in the most important of criteria: it made Banks look credible, which in turn made G-Unit look credible. If you judge major label rap posses by their second in command (Nelly: Murphy Lee, D12: Proof, etc.), G-Unit looked to have a solid foundation.
Everything looked fine, except, well, for Banks himself. Despite its nearly perfect execution, Banks actually came out of his first album with less momentum than before. Hunger showed his flaws in sharper relief than his upside. He couldn’t sing his own hooks, verses were often just limp, brand-name heavy similes strung together with the occasional sparkler (“I feed a nigga a shell like Taco Bell”) and even after sixteen songs it was still tough to distinguish Banks from any other chest-puffing, sneering boy toy gangster. In short, all of the G-Unit trust funds hadn’t moved Banks from where he started: A mildly clever, mildly angsty Queens mix-tape cat. Even worse? The comrade with no hype, Young Buck, got exponentially less ink and released an album (Straight Outta Ca$hville) with more brawn, cannier rhetoric, and a genuine, seething, earthy everyman charm.
Rotten Apple, the follow-up album for Banks, and the G-Unit album that’s attempting to break a streak of brick solo efforts (Tony Yayo, Mobb Deep), doesn’t try to address Banks’ shortcomings, it just buries them under tectonic plates of NYC sturm und drang and more of Banks guffawing end rhymes.
It would be a misnomer to call this a “concept” album, but there is a deliberate, effectively articulated mission: New York is really, really dangerous. More than that, the ghettos of New York (specifically those of Banks’ native Jamaica, Queens) are a ring of hell onto themselves: NYPD hovering under every lamp post, a Chevy Blazer packed with loyal soldiers parked in every lot, clubs packed with bloodthirsty rivals, and maybe, just maybe, a trill-ass bitch waiting at home. Sound familiar?
The first half of Apple is as disastrous, monochrome and molar-on-molar grinding as anything off Tony Yayo’s Thoughts of a Predicate Felon or the aforementioned Blood Money. It’s not that Banks literally just hypes up his car, his block and his glock for the first five songs, it’s that he reheats his old lines, updates them with some details—most of his cars have gone from just sweet to now both sweet and bulletproof, those amorphous haters hate a little harder: “It ain't only the Ferrari now, the jewels got 'em sick”—and lets his double-time mechanical flow take over. The melodies are standard 4/4 drum and grating piano melodrama, diluted almost-Dre, almost-sinister keyboard cycles. Then the first half deadens into a pair of love ballads, “Help” and “Addicted.” Ugh.
Though the second half fares a bit better, small doses are still the only way to take Apple. The consistently underrated (and probably underpaid) Needlz turns in the quiet, weird “Get Clapped,” minor keyboard triads and an almost-faint whistling, misty synth rolling under Banks and Mobb Deep’s threats: “Quick dummy, this the changin’ of the Gods / I beat bitches over the head, caveman of the squad.” After the first half’s rotisserie of glib taunting, the second sounds loose by comparison. “Get Clapped,” “Change,” and the almost-upbeat, major key, album closing “Gilmore’s,” all would look great on a five-dollar Canal mixtape. And maybe that’s the problem. Over a half-decade since 50 Cent grabbed this kid on the way to the top, Banks just can’t figure out his new surroundings.