Wednesday, December 29, 2010
One And Only [Lloyd Banks November 2010 Magazine Feature]
IMAGES JIMMY FONTAINE
STORY BY BEN DETRICK
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARS IN THE NOVEMBER 2010 ISSUE OF XXL.
It’s a late September afternoon and Lloyd Banks is killing time in the XXL offices before a scheduled UStream interview. The 28-year-old lyricist is dressed with all the whimsy of the Grim Reaper: black Ralph Lauren polo shirt, black jeans, black Timbs. One wrist has a watch, the other a bracelet. Both are platinum and glitter expensively. Add his wardrobe to the permanent scowl, that growling delivery and a gallows sense of humor, and Banks makes an unlikely peacemaker. But his current single, “Any Girl,” features R&B singer Lloyd—an artist who was once part of Ja Rule’s Murder Inc., the most hated enemy of Banks’s crew, G-Unit’s many, many enemies. “It really just came out of the blue,” the crooner says of Banks reaching out. “I was a little surprised and caught off guard at first, but there was no hesitation. We met in the studio for the first time, and it was love, like it was our 100th song together.”
After spending a career as an enforcer, Lloyd Banks is trying diplomacy.
Now on the verge of releasing his third solo album, the Queens native has recently extended olive branches to artists who have experienced run-ins—at least peripherally—with G-Unit boss 50 Cent. Banks’s lead hit single, “Beamer, Benz or Bentley,” featured Juelz Santana (50 Cent beefed with the Diplomats founder Cam’ron), he’s been in the studio with Styles P (50 Cent feuded with Jadakiss of The Lox), and he linked up with Kanye West after the outspoken Chicagoan declared Banks “top 5” on Twitter (50 Cent and West battled in a sales competition in 2007). Since Banks has never been viewed as an artist who operated with total autonomy—his loyalty to G-Unit, his crew and record label, has always seemed to supersede personal ambition—this interest in expanding his sphere of influence is a new thing.
“Coming from a hustler’s mentality, we didn’t know to do anything different,” Banks says of the exclusiveness that characterized his early career. “I’d rather help somebody that I eat lunch with every day than to help anyone else. This is the first album when I’ve been able to be an artist and a fan.”
Sure, okay. But as G-Unit’s power has seemingly dwindled, might Lloyd Banks also be thinking about self-preservation?
If 50 Cent is more a bullet-resistant superhuman than a musician, Banks has always had a more subdued persona than his accomplishments might confer. He too was a hustler from Queens. He too has been shot. He too was a mixtape monster—his freestyle over Puff Daddy’s “Victory” instrumental, from 2002’s No Mercy, No Fear, is a hood classic. And he too surpassed the platinum mark on his solo debut, 2004’s The Hunger for More. But while Banks is respected as a deft rapper who strings together multisyllabic rhyme schemes and churns out punch lines, his success has often been discounted as the by-product of association. Like Detroit group D-12, which sold two million copies of 2001’s Devil’s Night, anyone who was close to the unstoppable trio of 50 Cent, Eminem and Dr. Dre basked in their reflected glow.
The Hunger for More did little to shake the perception that Banks was just a cog in a moneymaking machine. Despite topping a million in sales, its singles were less than memorable, and critical acclaim was moderate. Banks disagrees with this assessment. “My first album is heavily talked about as a classic album,” he says. “Not just for commercial success, but what it’s done. I’m one of the last New York artists to have a platinum debut album.”
What’s not debatable is that the early years of Banks’s career were charmed. His transition from a mixtape rapper to a successful artist with a half-million dollars in jewelry was swift and seamless. But things turned sour in 2006, when it came time for Banks to release his second album, Rotten Apple. A number of tracks leaked prematurely, after he lost a CD during a ménage à trois with two ladies in New York, and the hastily revamped version of the LP failed to match the sales or relevancy of its predecessor.
Around the same time, Banks was beset by family problems. His mother suffered a pair of strokes, and the body of his estranged father was found in Washington, D.C. The police ruled out foul play, but Banks was so dissatisfied with the reported causes of death—police meandered between heart failure, alcohol, and cocaine—that he considered hiring a private detective to investigate. “I think it was denial,” Banks says. “I lost my pops at a time where I thought it was going to be time to fix our relationship. I felt cheated. If he had got shot down, it would have been easy to understand, because you got those calls before. I was just confused.”
With his career and family upended, Banks retreated inward. He holed up in his home studio and went over six months without speaking to 50. “I was completely ready to say fuck it,” says Banks. “50’s whole thing was just, ‘Push on, push on.’ But he didn’t grow up with his mother and his father. Seeing my life pass before my eyes, it was like, no matter how much shit you have or how good you’re doing, you’re going to go through this and be devastated.”
Finally, Sha Money XL, who was managing Banks at the time, reached out to the MC and urged him to end his self-imposed exile. Even after reconciliation with G-Unit, the ground upon which Banks had built his livelihood continued to shift. In 2009, he was dropped by Interscope. 50 had warned him that dismissal was imminent, but it was still unpleasant. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little surprised,” Banks says. He believes it was a business decision but remains perplexed by the fickle nature of the industry. “When everything is doing good, tip-top, you thank everybody: ‘What’s your name? You put up posters? Thank you!’ When you don’t do good, everyone blames you.” These were dark days.
In early 2010, while working on mixtape tracks, Banks contacted Juelz Santana through Banks’s cousin John Depp, who was part of the Harlem rapper’s Skull Gang crew. Both artists were in need of a hit, and their unexpected collaboration generated a spark for not only their flagging careers, but also for the dormant New York City hip-hop scene. The independently released “Beamer, Benz or Bentley” earned over 500,000 downloads on iTunes and spawned remixes from Joell Ortiz, Fabolous, Slim Thug, Joe Budden and others. At a moment when most hip-hop artists were scrambling to make pop songs or R&B records, the record was unashamedly rap. Banks credits spending time in New York City nightclubs like Pink Elephant and Mansion for inspiring a record that resonated with partygoers. “I think the reason it caught on so quick was the ignorance of it,” he says with a chuckle.
The success of “Beamer, Benz or Bentley” earned attention, or, as Banks says, it put him “in the conversation.” He toyed with the idea of staying independent, but G-Unit Records inked a label deal so that EMI Label Services will handle distribution and Capitol Records will take care of radio promotion, video promotion and product management for November’s The Hunger for More 2 and Tony Yayo’s 2011 LP. Negotiations lasted six months, and, as a result, Banks maintains creative control and will receive, he says, a share of profits similar to what he would have earned doing it himself. “We were very impressed with what G-Unit did on their own with ‘Beamer, Benz or Bentley,’” says Jesse Flores, vice president of label acquisition and development at EMI. “He’s still technically independent.”
Banks may technically be independent, but he’s still affiliated. He remains a first lieutenant in the G-Unit platoon. Respected by the streets and battle hardened, Banks is a layer of insulation against any charges that his boss has gone too mainstream. It’s not an easy role to escape, and he’s faced with the delicate balance of being a strong team player while building up his own name as an individual talent. He knows this. “You can’t erase your history,” Banks says. “[50 Cent] took me from 159th Street [in Queens] and put me into the industry. Some people looking from the outside in think, He’s good regardless of whether he does music or not, not realizing that everything I’ve done, I’ve done on my own. If I didn’t need it, I wouldn’t have had to go through what I went through.”