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Steven Louis is in the market for a secondhand G-Unit spinner chain.
I started compulsively downloading rap albums around 2003. iTunes software debuted in April, the very day after my 10th birthday. I was enamored with visions of a discography that could stretch past a nylon, zippered CD case. The entirety of digitized music was at my pudgy fingertips. Fortunately, I had discerning, goddamn dope taste: among my favorite purchases were David Banner’s Mississippi: The Album, Bone Crusher’s Attenchun!, Ying Yang Twins’ Me & My Brother, Chingy’s Jackpot and the Lil Scrappy / Trillville double release.
But there was a specific set of four albums that I celebrated together, and took real pride in collecting as they dropped. Shit, I lived in New York, where mandatory ownership of the whole set was codified into city law. The Moirai with Murda Inc. Beef, three mythical deities clothed in Reebok threads as dark and ill-fitting as the human condition itself: 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin; Lloyd Banks’ The Hunger for More; Young Buck’s Straight Outta Cashville. The group effort culminated in Beg for Mercy, which dropped November 14, the same day as The Black Album and Tupac: Resurrection.
Beg for Mercy is the shit. 50 Cent was the most popular rapper in the universe, grinning through heat checks with earworm hooks. Lloyd Banks was a genuinely entertaining punchline rapper that maintained pop sensibilities despite brandishing such a raspy, full-throated delivery. Young Buck knew his role within the trio and played it with aplomb, a bloodhound Bruce Bowen bouncing around to throw elbows wherever needed. Man, even Tony Yayo found a way to win the 2003 Grammy Awards.
Do yourself a favor and listen to Beg for Mercy on its 15th anniversary. All four singles hold up, and “Wanna Get to Know U” remains one of my favorite hits from that particular moment. Making hyperbolic statements about G-Unit is conversational canon for a New Yorker, up there with “Jeter is the GOAT” arguments and complaints about corner store chicken cutlet. So, let me honor that rich tradition and say that Fiddy, Banks, Buck and an all-star crew of producers taught me how to conduct myself with dignity and lead a life worth living. Here are some things I learned thanks to Beg for Mercy.
- I gained a baseline understanding of how much a kilo of cocaine should go for on the open market. I feel like this is a good and useful thing to know. Throughout the album, Young Buck refers to his home state of Tennessee as “ten-a-key.” I had not the faintest idea of what that meant, but after some real ones laced me with knowledge on, like, Yahoo Answers or some shit, I learned that $10,000 for a kilo is a great deal and something to brag about. To think, even that failed to get the kids interested in capitalism.
- I learned to keep your expectations fluid. On “Betta Ask Somebody,” Buck says that his “goal is to try and fuck Trina by the summer.” We can almost certainly conclude that this didn’t happen. Trina was dating Weezy at the time. A bit later, Young Buck and Lil Wayne were beefing, and a bit later than that, Buck was gonna sign to Cash Money. I hope all respective parties have found peace.
- I assumed that 50 Cent is a subscriber to The New York Times, or at least he was back in 2003. On “Eye for Eye,” he raps, “you fuck around I blow your brains on my New York Times / run home, turn to the sports section and read your mind.” Was 50 shook by NYT reports of nuclear stockpiles in Iraq? Did he only read the sports section? If so, blood and skeletal remnants might honestly look a bit better than a Knicks box score with Vin Baker and Othella Harrington playing minutes.
- I learned about love. That’s right, guys. LOVE. The music video for ”Smile” goes to show that 12 whole years of patient friendship can still end up a powerful and transformative American love story if prime 50 Cent appears for literally just a few seconds.
- I learned about strategic repurposing! As a kid, I was confused as to how “Back Down” from Get Rich or Die Trying and the title track from Beg for Mercy had the same underlying riff. Looking at it now, why isn’t this trick deployed more often? Not a remix or a money grab, at least it didn’t seem like that. 50 took a skulking, eerie loop from Dr. Dre to slow down the middle of a frantic album on GRODT; less than six months later, Sha Money XL took that same loop and pumped it with a shot of adrenaline, rejuvenating the back-half of a slower album and making room for two more dexterous rappers. Curtis Jackson damn well knew how to brand, and he knew how to challenge his team, too.
- I learned what Lil Zane was up to! Young Buck disses him in “Lay You Down.” Turns out, Lil Zane disappeared, which is sad. Not sad, however, is the realization that the Lil Zane album is how Akon got his break. Thank you for your noble sacrifice, Lil Zane. I hope you get royalties for this.
- I learned that the Nokia flip was the preferred phone for clandestine operations, and also that Yayo was the Helen of Troy in some vague global extortion plot in a universe molded by the Grand Theft Auto gods.
A few of these concepts may have gone over my head? I do know with unwavering certainty that 15 years later, Beg for Mercy still bangs. So precisely a product of its time, but nevertheless listenable and mostly charming. Such is the stuff of the tales that we’ll tell our kids, and Kidd Kidd’s kids, and all the kids that never got to grow out of their Eckō Brand CD cases in the first place.