Introducing our new series Hip-Hop’s Best Verses — self-explanatory, really. The aim is to take a deep dive into some of the rap game’s best verses of all time, exploring the bars, the flows, the cadences, and everything that makes them withstand the test of time. Less of a ranking, more of a celebration of lyrical greatness. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments, and enjoy.
III. LLOYD BANKS – VICTORY
Heavy lies the crown of the punchline king. For Lloyd Banks, the regal title has been uncontested since he first arrived to the game. To this day, even as he remains quiet on the music front, Banks retains the loyalty of his disciples. It’s a testament to the work he put in throughout his decade-plus tenure, a run that saw three studio albums, sixteen mixtapes, and several G-Unit collaboration projects. An impressive career for the New York lyricist, made all the more so considering the circumstances of his rise.
For many hip-hop fans, Lloyd Banks was first introduced through the rising buzz of 50 Cent, with whom he had formed the rap group G-Unit. In 2001, upon being dropped by Columbia Records and essentially blacklisted from the rap industry, Fif travelled to Canada to record his mixtape 50 Cent Is The Future, a project that featured a heavy presence from Lloyd Banks and Tony Yayo. Not only did the tape help catch the attention of Eminem’s manager Paul Rosenberg, but it also gave Lloyd Banks the opportunity to steal the show on several occasions. In fact, 50 seemed acutely aware of Banks’ standout potential, playing the role of hypeman on the lyrical clinic “Banks Workout.” After Fif’s Future and Guess Who’s Back project went on to land him a record deal with the combined forces of Eminem and Dr. Dre in 2002, G-Unit delivered their No Mercy, No Fear mixtape with the added momentum of the game-shaking union.
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It’s here that we come to Lloyd Banks’ “Victory,” easily one of the most quotable and revered freestyles in hip-hop history. To this day, fans still reminisce about their first time hearing the track, a two-and-a-half-minute lyrical assault delivered by a young rapper gunning for recognition. This was an era before social media, where antics held little value; the sheer force of incendiary bars were often a viable means of recognition. For a lesser rapper, stepping out from the shadow of the rapidly-rising 50 Cent would have been a difficult task. Yet by building a reputation as one of the coldest spitters in the game, a favorable narrative quickly formed around Banks — that he would absolutely obliterate a rapper on their own beat if given the chance.
On “Victory,” he opted to take on Diddy, Biggie, and Busta Rhymes’ classic anthem, a haunting and militant beat laced by Sean Combs and Stevie J. In spirit, 50 Cent and Banks channel Puffy and Big respectively, with Fif effectively building anticipation for his partner to be unleashed; as was clearly the case on “Banks Workout,” “Victory” also proves that Fif had ample respect for Banks’ bars, understanding them to be a spectacle worthy of rapt attention. The moment the percussion hits, Banks gets straight to work, his deep cadence at once menacing and methodical. “I got an industry gangstress that argues and steams the reefer / And flips when I call her bitch, like she Queen Latifah,” he raps. “ Not all the vehicles is long enough to stash the street sweeper / This shit can get uglier than the Master P sneaker.”
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Even the infamous Converse MP isn’t immune from Banks’ merciless penmanship. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why Banks’ style lent itself so effectively to the PLK title. From his opening lines and beyond, Banks never quite deviates from the simple formula of set-up and punchline, though he occasionally expands a scheme with some deft multisyllabic work. “We slidin through the ruckus, with Prada on the chuckus / So the spring break hoes home from college wanna fuck us / I ain’t here to drop knowledge on you suckas, I sic’ Rottweilers on you fuckas, cops followin’ to cuff us.” If there’s one word to describe Banks on “Victory,” it’s relentless. Even if one line doesn’t land as heavy, Banks keeps such a furious pace that it’s only a matter of time before he scores a critical hit. “You can’t tame Lloyd, smokin’ by the big screen / changing’ the channel, looks like I’m playin’ the Game Boy,” he raps, showcasing a clever bit of penmanship as he sets up his first rhyme and building up to the conclusion. “I know the watch bothering your vision,” he continues, setting up the contender for “Victory’s” most immediate standout. “But reach and I’ll put a dot on ya head like it’s part of your religion.”
It should be noted that while Bank’s flow is certainly solid, he doesn’t have to resort to showboating to make an impression. What keeps him so compelling an orator is his frequent use of clever similes and metaphors, grounding brutal declarations of violence with relatable references and images. “Run, move startin’ a wave, or leave with 12 shells in ya mouth like a carton of eggs,” he raps, admittedly simple but still hard as hell. That’s not to say Banks’ flow isn’t impressive, and when he does switch gears he does so with the same confidence he brings to his lyricism. On that note, he opts to conclude “Victory” by highlighting every tool in his kit, unleashing a multiple-hit combo of deftly delivered punches.
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“Fresh outta surgery, flashy as a fuck, you gon’ have to murder me / Burglary, I’m leavin’ with your Nikes burgundy, white tee — burgundy / You match now, back down,” he raps, sliding into a new flow scheme in tandem with the dropping drums. “Ni**as love to hate you, but love you when you disappear / Catch me on the boat with weed smoke and fishing gear / Heavy when I tote, C-notes from different years / Bezzy and the rope, remotes and lifting’ chairs.” The awareness with which he rides the beat deserves recognition, as pacing tends to be an overlooked element in an emcee’s arsenal; implementing new flows at opportune moments goes a long way in keeping a performance dynamic.
Though calling “Victory” the greatest freestyle of all time might be a bit presumptuous, there are likely many listeners who would easily declare it as such. And there’s plenty of merit to such claims. Not only did Lloyd Banks successfully mount an incredible solo campaign while a crew member was simultaneously tasting superstardom, but he also proved that a lyrically-driven artist could still be adapt and thrive in a commercial setting. When Banks went on to drop his solo album The Hunger For More in 2004, which topped the Billboard charts upon its release, many saw the project’s success as a logical conclusion. And if Banks’ solo debut officially marked his coronation as the Punchline King, it was on “Victory Freestyle” that he first set sights on the throne.
For more like this, check out last week’s “Best Verses” installment, Big Pun’s “Twinz.”