The rise was meteoric. The fall was inevitable. Last year, amid dwindling sales and internal dissension, chinks finally started to show in G-Unit's platinum armor. Now, pulling together and going back to basics, 50 and his crew set to work on digging themselves out of a hole. And digging a new one, to bury the competition.

Interviews: Anslem Samuel
Images: Michael Lavine

G-Unit is in the house ... 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo and Young Buck—all under one roof, roaming the 52 rooms of a famous mansion in Connecticut.

Since 50 made his debut in 2003 with the modern-day classic Get Rich or Die Tryin’, his team from Queens has blossomed from a mixtape wrecking crew into a hip-hop enterprise responsible for more than 20 million records sold. Beg For Mercy they named their first group album, but they didn’t show any—overwhelming the competition with a relentless, win-at-all-costs attitude and a your-beef-is-my-beef, us-against-the-world brand of loyalty.

Of course, there’s been a backlash. As soon as the underdogs had settled in on top, lots of folks took to praying for their downfall. Banks and new G-Unit Records signees Mobb Deep were the first to feel the cold shoulder of a fickle fan base, as their 2006 releases—Rotten Apple and Blood Money—stalled at sales of 341,000 and 275,000, respectively. Buck’s 2007 sophomore effort, Buck the World, saw slightly better numbers, with 400,000, but that’s still a far cry from the seven figures the crew routinely posted three years before. The biggest blow came last summer, when 50’s Curtis was bested by Kanye West’s Graduation in their much hyped sales showdown in September.

Even more surprising, perhaps, was the new attitude, or the lack thereof, displayed by 50’s soldiers. Banks was silent in the face of taunts from Dipset rapper Cam’ron. Buck squashed beef with sworn enemies The Game and Jadakiss, started his own record label and spoke in interviews about not seeing eye to eye with 50 on certain matters. Sensing dissension, 50 publicly dressed down his corps and reshuffled his business operation. For the first time in five years, G-Unit looked less than bulletproof.

But the game moves in cycles, and 50 was about to hit reset. This past February, he pared his squad to its original essence and took it back to its mixtape roots with Return of the Body Snatchers, Vol. 1, which he released through his new social-networking site, Packed with malevolent minor key beats and steady blasts of gunfire, the tape showcases 50, Yayo and Banks in their comfort zone: talking drugs and guns, swearing allegiance to each other, cocking and squeezing on adversaries like Fat Joe. But the absence of Buck from the project (along with Buck’s appearance at a Cash Money Records concert in Tennessee) fed rumors of tension between the Nashville native and his New York colleagues. While everyone admits there was a brief rough patch, the whole team is back on solid ground, reassembled at 50’s 48,000-square-foot country manse to shoot video footage for Body Snatchers songs and record music for another mixtape in preparation for their second official group album, Shoot to Kill, due later this year. On a very long night in a very large house, XXL goes inside the machine to get the four versemen’s views on the events of the past year and a half.