Long live the King.
Few rappers have earned as prestigious a reputation as Lloyd Banks, widely accepted as the Punchline King since he first started obliterating instrumentals on the formative G-Unit tapes. Albums like Beg For Mercy, his solo debut The Hunger For More, and even Rotten Apple (which has since gained retrospective acclaim after initial apathy from critics) further widened the scope of Banks’ artistic ambition, culminating in the release of The Hunger For More 2 in 2010. Though he proceeded to keep sharp through a relatively consistent mixtape output, many concluded that another studio effort from Banks was anything but inevitable. Rumblings emerged that the Punchline King had become an absentee ruler, albeit one that still inspired loyalty.
As Dr. Dre may have once styled himself The Watcher, so too might Banks take up a similar mantle: The Observer. Though a recluse by hip-hop standards, to assume that Banks had veered his gaze from the rap game would be a foolish conclusion. He was simply biding his time, gathering his thoughts and lining the pages of his book of rhymes. Patience has seemingly become a lost art in hip-hop. Especially in this modern age where waits spanning beyond two years can feel downright generational.
In that sense, Banks is absolutely zenlike in his approach. Lo and behold, the circumstances surrounding his first album release in eleven years were as favorable as might have been expected. Consider the landscape, wherein hip-hop is so often falsely declared dead. Yet many of the most acclaimed albums tend to be those that capture the spirit of the golden era, prioritizing bars and cohesive, raw, and cinematic production. Though ostensibly an “older style,” boom-bap (for lack of a better term) has become a contemporary aesthetic, largely in part to the Griselda movement, The Alchemist, and Freddie Gibbs -- among other key contributors. It might have been easy to write Banks off as being tethered to a bygone era, but his return feels timely given the current hip-hop landscape. Circumstances that mark a fitting return for one of the most calculated emcees in the game.
At eighteen tracks, a length that would have left fans aghast were it a different artist, The Course Of The Inevitable is among the year’s most dense and layered projects. Running over one hour and seven minutes long, the sheer volume of bars Banks unleashes ramps the replay value up tenfold. The modus operandi is established on album opener “Propane,” a grim highlight that reveals an adjustment to Banks’ style. Where previously punchlines might have been delivered as haymakers, his approach here finds them doled out as whirlwind combos. "Death to haters, can't even be here in spirit, kill a n***a, get up his GoFundMe and steal it," spits Banks, a highlight image amidst a relentless rhyme scheme. “Designer chronic, pockets reeking out the air vent."
In keeping with the combo analogy, Banks keeps the pace moving with the back-to-back assault of “Sidewalks” and the Freddie Gibbs-assisted “Empathy,” both of which feature production from Cartune Beatz. The latter, which featured the late-game addition of Gibbs, feels like a victory lap for contemporary lyricism, with both parties engaging in a healthy bit of competitive bloodsport. Knowing the caliber of his counterpart, Gibbs ramps up the brutality with some of his darkest imagery yet, gleeful relish often seen exemplified on his Twitter page. Never one to be outmatched, Banks returns for the closing statement, proving that the now-endangered third verse should remain a hip-hop staple. “Celebrity never made me, my sentiments made me crazy,” he spits, sliding into a slick new flow scheme. “187's the consequence, 718's the AC / Troubled to say the least, pray the heavenly gates embrace thee.”
“Stranger Things,” one of the album’s most personal songs, is another highlight. Though never quite confirming as much, Banks appears to address his estranged collaborator 50 Cent. While anger may have been the obvious course, Banks retains relatability in his frustration, highlighting a divide that many friends have likely experienced to a degree. “Sometimes the pressure overwhelms when you're the head of the clique,” he notes, a clear allusion to Fif. “Call me quiet, call me lazy, talent never faded,” he continues. “It's frustrating when your grindin' ain't appreciated / Should have been dead in my twenties, shit, at least I made it / Guess I gotta prove myself again, increase your payment.” It’s interesting to note his willingness to “prove himself” once more, a contrast to his generally untouchable demeanor as a lyricist. It’s a genuinely refreshing moment of vulnerability from the stoic Banks, who previously explored similar ground on his classic “Till The End.”
Another song worth singling out is “Drop 5,” which springs to life with an incredible golden-era homage from Fruition Beats. Over bittersweet end-credit strings, Banks’ bars take on an added layer of contentedness, highlighting accomplishments and values seldom championed within the rap game. Stability namely, both on the familial and financial front. “Here’s to the slower life, two to three kids, a home, a wife,” he raps. “Stabled in if I roll the dice, grounded, growing this culture heist.”
Only a few songs later is the album’s closer, which also happens to the title track -- thus imbuing it with additional significance. It’s here that we come to understand The Course Of The Inevitable as Banks perceives it. It’s a theme often tackled in tales of grandiosity -- that of destiny. “They always watching', pretending they want you winning of course,” he reflects. “They want the torch, the turns of the inevitable course.” Abstract enough to merit interpretation, it’s evident that Banks is grateful to have emerged from his time in the rap game with his mortality, and perhaps more crucially, his morality in check. Has he shaken his destiny (recall his previous bar in “Stranger Things” noting how he should have been dead in his twenties) by deliberately removing himself from the race entirely? It’s the nature of such questions that makes Banks’ The Course Of The Inevitable so fascinating to unpack.