Tuesday, February 9, 2010

ROD: G-Unit- The Medium Is The Message

Rapper(s) of the Decade is a mixtape series curated by myself that will span 2010. Each month I'll be dedicating a mixtape to the 12 Rappers and Groups I felt proved most instrumental in shaping the last decade in Hip Hop in no particular order. February's installment belongs to G-Unit.

Download: The Medium Is The Message

And so Curtis Jackson turned his back on an Industry that had turned its back on him. The powers that be could hardly be blamed. From his first words the MC from South Jamaica who jacked his moniker from an infamous Brooklyn stick-up kid courted controversy. His first track was enough to kill careers far more established than his. Using his rap name as a concept, he stole another Brooklyn product’s fantasy of fucking divas and skewed it. By Jackson’s hand it became a day dream about robbing rappers, it was the very first time 50 displayed his practice of using conflict to earn buzz, and it worked with the song being featured on the soundtrack for a little seen LL Cool J vehicle. More than a few of the individuals named weren’t pleased. Then he got shot.

But it wasn’t “How to Rob” that almost killed 50 Cent and resulted in the death of his mentor Jam Master Jay. It was “Ghetto Qu’ran”, one of the best tracks off his still phenomenal debut, Power of the Dollar. The song is vintage 50, effortlessly lyrical in the way he once was, not punchline heavy but possessed with a distinct, authorial voice. It’s a ruminative look back on Queens Street Legends, the death and ugliness that followed them, the hard wars fought and lost retold with a kind of awe and sadness at the dark history witnessed. It cut too close to truth for some, particularly Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff who felt the song was dry snitching and had 50 blackballed and nearly killed. 50 miraculously survived being shot nine times at close range but his career was in far worse shape. A young rapper who appeared to have little appeal beyond the street and was apparently into business serious enough to warrant homicide was too much for the decision makers at Columbia. Jackson was dropped from his label.

It’s easy to forget that the turn of the century was one of Hip Hop’s darkest moments. The medium had reached its commercial peak and creative valley. One could sense something along the lines of a hangover following the deaths of Pac and Biggie. The major labels had an iron grip on the industry and a guy like Nelly, who proudly proclaimed the lack of balance or personality in his music, was a platinum posterboy for the commercial state of the genre. There was music approximating traditional Rap grime available but even that felt (and looking back especially feels) like a caricature, and was littered with pop concession. It was in this environment that 50 re-emerged and his music provided a dose of something that felt refreshingly raw, personable. He was an underdog, anti-establishment and locked in a blood feud with what seemed like his inverse, Ja Rule, then peddler of wildly popular 106 & Park monster hooks.

Early G-Unit is a study in subversion. It had been common place for an MC to drop a 16 on a popular beat of the moment, a snippet amidst a DJ compiled showcase of bootleg tracks and previews. 50 took the formula a step further, remaking the entire song, complete with hooks and cameos. He didn’t settle for an 80 second interlude lumped in with the also-rans of the mixtape game but began releasing his own full length albums featuring himself and his artists, wrestling control from taste making payola whores like Clue and Kay Slay. He recorded a verse on Missy Elliot’s “Work It”, basically saying she’s gross and he would only fuck her for money, and incredibly it became an official remix and radio hit. A vanilla LL Cool J panty dropper is a reprimand to gold diggers, a big budget Busta Rhymes Janet Jackson collab becomes a blowjob anthem, an Angie Martinez novelty piece of shit about going on tropical vacations is suddenly a decidedly unromantic ode to brief sexual interludes at a telly up the block. These are some of the genuinely funniest Rap songs ever made. And what’s more, the addictive remixes consistently improved on their source material. 50 mastered in satire, poking fun at the originals yet creating superior songs out of them that work on their own merits.

With his rhymes, both on Power of the Dollar and on those seminal mixtapes, 50 is great at showing us the hood stripped of its drama or glorification and infused with biting black and blue insider humor. His debut featured several small vignettes, waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning to go sell guns, re-upping at the neighborhood bodega, he’s not just listing detail or using it to press emotional buttons but locating its place in a familiar universe through disaffected eyes. Regardless of the severity of a given situation he never loses his cool or levity.

But 50’s biggest asset has always been his ability to convey his personality, through his rhymes but perhaps more importantly around his rhymes. With the small snippets of chatter moving into or out of tracks, ad-libs and skits 50 reinforced his asshole wit. On “It Is What It Is” 50 delivers lukewarm Murda Inc. indictments over Talib Kweli’s “Get By”, but saves the real devastation for a rambling series of on point character assassinations post verse (If you make it to the McDonald's Apple Pie ditty you will crack an "oh shit" between gasps). His mic persona is a brutally mean spirited, quick witted hood, the guy on the block no one wants to fuck with in the dozens. 50 is laugh out loud funny here as he absolutely pulls Ja’s card, and it’s exemplary of the lightheartedness that these tapes assumed even at their most vicious, an essential aspect of G-Unit that was never quite recaptured on major label releases.

2Pac showed us the value in a posse, how a couple of so-so handlers can turn half a CD worth of content into a double album magnum opus. Weed carrier releases had become a pervasive industry trend, it seemed like every established rapper had a crew to put on. An LP for fans to get a little something more from an artist in between albums. While this formula enabled 50 to release a staggering amount of material over the course of a few short years, it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of Lloyd Banks, and to a lesser extent Tony Yayo in 50’s success. The banner “G-Unit” became a vital part of 50’s identity. At one point his catchy crew calling card rang out from city to suburb. And in terms of actual quality, at least in New York, Lloyd Banks owned the two crucial summers that built 50 into the artist deemed worthy of a bidding war and 7 digit contract.

Banks was the street cred, the substance behind 50’s swagger that made those mixtapes essential material. He’s a gifted if not extraordinarily innovative rapper in the mixtape tradition, a descendant of Kane and Big L and Big Pun. His bars are filled with intricate structure and humorous wordplay that toys with our notions of pop culture figures or items and how they can be employed in rhyme, getting blown like a Nintendo cartridge and busting down competition like a Marlboro. Tony Yayo best served the crew as a comedic foil. He had his moments of inspiration (particularly his hilarious curveball on “Fat Bitch”) which are chronicled on the accompanying mixtape but his greatest contribution may very well have been his absence. His incarceration only reinforced G-Unit’s authenticity and resulted in a culturally pervasive t-shirt campaign.

Another feature of “Ghetto Qu’ran” that you’d be foolish to ignore is its fantastic hook, a sweet little chorus stays with you. During his reign 50 proved to be one the all-time great and most prolific writers of Hip Hop hooks. Even as he’s following the basic structure of the songs he’s making his own on his G-Unit Remixes, the talent for melody is apparent in the musical cadence he brings to his verses and hooks in endearing slightly off key rasp. When 50 got his Aftermath contract it was an exciting time. One got the sense that the inmates were finally running the asylum and Rap would return to the music you’d missed so badly during the Bling era. That with his sudden elevation from street urchin to sultan 50 would infuse a pristine mainstream with his distinct brand of brow arched gangster. Then you heard “21 Questions” for the first time and realized the new boss wasn’t so different than the old one.

The mixtape game became College Basketball, a farm system, the street suddenly got a position with every record label as an unofficial A&R. This game change had its positive aspects. Who knows where Lil Wayne would be right now if we only had his studio albums to build on? More importantly who knows what those studio albums would sound like if he didn’t have Squad Up as a training ground? On the other hand, Shamele Mackie got 1.5 million dollars. The real lasting contribution G-Unit has made is changing the face of the mixtape. Showing how the underground can be utilized as a viable, valuable place for a popular artist to market himself as well as experiment. In the street album, rappers have been given their own spaces where samples don’t need to be cleared, execs have no say and the only people that need be pleased are the artists themselves, with the upside of receiving wide ranging feedback on their progress and the ability to change perception or make a name for themselves. In short, for G-Unit, their impact on the last 10 years certainly was in what they said, but perhaps more importantly, it was in how they said it.

1. Mind Playing Tricks God’s Plan (2002)
2. Bad News 50 Cent Is The Future (2002)
3. I Smell Pussy Beg For Mercy (2003)
4. The Banks Workout 50 Cent Is The Future (2002)
5. Short Stay God’s Plan (2002)
6. Round Here DJ Clue Stadium Series Part 1: Mixtapes for Dummies (2001)
7. Elementary (ft. Scarlett) No Mercy No Fear (2002)
8. It Is What It Is G-Unit Radio 2: International Ballers (2003)
9. 187 Yayo God’s Plan (2002)
10. Symphony 2003 (Bank$ excerpt) DJ Famous: The Best of Lloyd Bank$ Part 1 (2003)
11. Fat Bitch No Mercy No Fear (2002)
12. 50 n Bank$ 50 Cent Is The Future (2002)
13. Kick In The Door DJ Whoo Kid: S.W.A.T. (2004)
14. After My Cheddar No Mercy No Fear (2002)
15. Thicker Than Water (Remix) New York City Edition (2003)
16. Hot 97 Funkmaster Flex Freestyle Part 2 The Best of Tony Yayo (Free Yayo) (2003)
17. Banks Victory No Mercy No Fear (2002)
18. Just Fuckin Around 50 Cent Is The Future (2002)
19. Baby Get On Yo Knees G-Unit Radio Pt. 1: Smokin’ Day 2 (2003)
20. It Blows My Mind Lloyd Bank$- Rookie Of The Year (2004)
21. Doin My Own Thing Automatic Gunfire (2003)
22. Gangstad Up God’s Plan (2002)

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