50 may be the driver behind G-Unit, but Lloyd Banks is the engine.
In this series, we'll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in "greatest of all-time" discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, our writers have made cases for Pusha T, Ice Cube, DJ Quik, Big Boi, DMX, Ghostface Killah, and Scarface. Today, we're going to bat for Lloyd Banks.
Christopher Charles Lloyd, aka Lloyd Banks, is one of the most gifted wordsmiths of all time. Yes, 50 Cent may be the face of G-Unit, but Banks is undoubtedly the rapper in the group with the strongest bars. So many bars, that Banks adopted the moniker “punchline king,” a testament to his ability to create earth-shattering metaphors. Punchlines come so easy to Banks that entire gems lay undiscovered, hidden within meticulous wordplay, for months before listeners catch on to his genius.
My discovery of Banks was not direct. At first, I found 50 Cent. The 50 Cent Is The Future mixtape landed in 2002 and flooded the east coast streets almost immediately. 50’s commanding presence stunned my friends, but it was the track “The Banks Workout” that caught my attention. Growing up, I was a die-hard Nas fan, so much so, that I refused to pick up a Jay-Z album. Although “The Banks Workout” is originally a Jay track, I was ignorant to that fact and the beat was entirely Banks’ masterpiece to flow over. Classic Banks punchlines feature prominently on that track:
“You only gon’ wind up dead tryin’ to prove shit/ I put chalk around ya head like a pool stick.”
“I gotta have bucks on the waist/ I'm hungry like a south African with flies stuck to his face.”
“I got my own personal slave she really got a curfew/ Cook and clean for the kid like Celie in Color Purple.”
Bar after bar, Banks slaughtered. His flow was reminiscent of an automatic rifle, a continuous methodic explosion of assault that is both terrifying and satisfying to behold. Nothing I had ever heard was as simultaneously smooth and jagged at the same time. Banks’ show-stealing performance became a staple on every G-Unit mixtape. His verse was the one that everyone excitedly waited for, but his lyrical mastery catapulted him to heights of extreme scrutiny. Banks’ most arduous task was outperforming himself, and his competitive spirit propelled his ego as his punchlines became more complex.
The period of time that can only be defined as “The G-Unit Empire” was propelled by a catalog of immaculate albums. Of course, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was the breakthrough classic that functioned as the catalyst to G-Unit's world dominion. After 50 Cent’s debut though, Banks was the engine that drove the Unit. Beg For Mercy, possibly one of the best group albums ever released, relied heavily on Banks’ brazen bars. I will give Young Buck his due on the intro “G-Unit,” that opening verse is riveting, and his "solo" track “Footprints,” but other than that the whole album is the Lloyd Banks show. Who had the best verse on the album’s first single “Stunt 101?” Banks. He easily outshines 50 and Buck, who use braggadocious gangster bravado to paint their stories. Banks is more like a mobster than a gangster. His lyrics are calculated, refined and perfected. Banks was the Michael Corleone to 50’s O-Dog.
The Hunger For More belongs in that era of the Unit’s empire as well. Banks’ first studio album debut at #1, and went on to be certified platinum. Every song on that album was incredible, and the list of radio singles alone is astonishing. In 2004, “Warrior,” “On Fire,” “I’m So Fly,” “Warrior Part 2,” “Karma,” and “Work Magic,” were all in rotation on Hot 97, and the recently conceived Power 105.1. If not for The Game’s clique shattering album The Documentary, Banks would have the best debut of 50’s crew. Bar for bar, Banks’ debut easily matches up with The Game’s. Honestly, the key piece of the equation that set the two albums apart is Dr. Dre. His mythological ability to create overarching musical masterpieces elevated The Documentary to astronomical heights. If Banks had Dr. Dre producing his album, the outcome may have annihilated the rap game. Still, if there was a New York rap bible, Banks’ debut album The Hunger For More would be featured somewhere in the New Testament.
After The Game engaged the Unit in a war that would ultimately destroy their domination of the rap game, Banks returned to creating art in the format he was best at: mixtapes. During the beef though, Banks was once again the most powerful force in the Unit. While 50 has no issues handling beef by himself, Banks had the necessary lyrical density to actually spar with The Game. After years of releasing jaw-dropping mixtape material, Banks finally crafted a solo mixtape that could compete with 50 Cent Is The Future in the realm of ultimate classics. Cold Corner 2.
Banks undoubtedly crafted classic projects before Cold Corner 2. The Money In The Bank series and the leaked/shelved The Big Withdraw album both rank impossibly high on all-time classic lists as well. Still, Cold Corner 2 is the magnum opus of Banks’ mixtape career. Doe Pesci and Jerm handle the majority of the production on the classic tape, and their combined vision helped form a gorgeously dreary backdrop for Banks’ greasy musings. In 2011, when Cold Corner 2 debuted, New York hip-hop was in a crisis. A few years prior, Jadakiss famously rapped “Fuck is everybody so mad at the south for/ Learn how to switch ya style up, go southpaw,” and it seemed as if NY rappers took his advice. The Big Apple’s sound mutated into a mix of southern hip-hop and suburban pop, a style that Banks purposely avoided when creating Cold Corner 2. There is barely a modicum of outside influence on the mixtape, a stubborn yet classicist approach that reasserted the importance of the traditional New York aesthetic.
Banks’ mixtape run since Cold Corner 2 has been impeccable, but his presence has been scarce. He appears sporadically, like a fabled sensei, to grace the game with his bars before returning to obscurity once again. Recently, G-Unit escaped banishment to the history books, and rejuvenated their crew by releasing new music. The days of the Unit’s empire are long gone, but Banks is still as sharp as ever. G-Unit would be redundant without the punchline king, a group of gangsters with casually clever bars and dangerous habits. In contrast, Banks is the lyrical assassin, the calculated writer who loads bars like a gunman would load a .50 caliber machine gun. Lyrically, he can stand toe to toe with any heavyweight in the game. That’s why Lloyd Banks is one of the best rappers of all time.