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15 July, 2008@6:05 am

It’s a pretty safe bet the members of G-Unit – especially ringleader 50 Cent – never envisioned themselves anywhere but on top when 2008 rolled around. After all, you only need to go back a few years to reach a time the crew could do no wrong. Every member of the crew was dropping platinum albums, G-Unit Records was signing every rapper in sight, and 50 and company were laughing their way through beef with just about everybody. It was almost literally all good.

But that was then and this is a whole different now. In no danger of running out of money but needing a way to reverse the label’s sagging fortunes, 50 has rallied the troops for something he once said we’d never see: another G-Unit group record. With T.O.S. (Terminate on Sight), the Unit is aiming to aggressively reclaim its spot on top of the industry.

Members of the group teased production by Timbaland and Eminem, but the superstars are strangely absent this time around. The beats are provided mostly by relative unknowns who give the album an appropriately dark feel thanks to hard drums and low synthesizers. A lack of guest stars means the spotlight shines on the three core members, which isn’t a bad thing since Banks sounds grimier than ever, Yayo seems like he stepped up his game a bit and 50 is, well, 50.

If you’ve heard the lead single, the club record “I Like the Way She Do It,” you know that Young Buck isn’t completely out of the fold despite his recent formal dismissal from the group. It’s a bit awkward to have him listed as “featuring” when he was once a member, but he pops us on four tracks, including one of the album’s best, “Rider Pt. 2.” And though he seemed like a strange fit from the beginning, Buck’s drawl definitely adds something to the mix, and some listeners will no doubt get a kick out of his ironic-in-retrospect line, “Even if 50 dropped me, I still wouldn’t sign.”

The Unit may have dropped its stuttering self-references, but it definitely isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel when it comes to subject matter. Songs like “Casualties of War,” “You So Tough” and the title track feature the clique in its usual shit-talking stance, though they do it with more style than most. The ladies aren’t forgotten thanks to “Close to Me” and “Kitty Kat,” the latter of which has an unintentionally humorous hook, nor are bank accounts on “Money Make the World Go Around.” There’s plenty of decent stuff, but nothing with the same swagger or undeniable catchiness they hit us with on “Stunt 101″ the first time out.

In the words of Jay-Z, “It’s what you expected, ain’t it?” The only song that gives any hint that it’s not been business as usual for the group in the five years since Beg for Mercy is “Party Ain’t Over,” which is ostensibly about an actual party but could just as easily be 50, Banks and Yayo trying to convince themselves of that fact on a larger scale. The game has changed, and even if G-Unit isn’t killing it quite the same way it did before, T.O.S. shows it’s at least going to keep fighting the good fight.

  Mixtape D.L.
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