LloydBanks.jpgEven after his celebrated mixtape grind and platinum debut, The Hunger for More, Lloyd Banks is still an underdog. With Tony Yayo’s and Mobb Deep’s G-Unit debuts both failing to reach the million-sold mark, the Queens, N.Y., native is left to reestablish his crew’s dominance on the charts outside of figurehead 50 Cent. Couple that pressure with New York’s yearning for an East Coast resurgence, and Banks’ sophomore release, Rotten Apple, is shaping up to be mission impossible.

Picking up right where his ’04 smash “On Fire” left off, Banks serves up the 50-assisted “Hands Up” as his jump-off cut. Backed by a kinetic kick-snare combo and swirling synths, he boasts, “It feels so good to live sucker free/I’m soaking it all up while ya girl suckin’ me.” Following a few more nods to the ladies (e.g. “One Night Stand” and “Help”), the Boy Wonder shifts to brutal thoughts of homicide with the Needlz-produced “Get Clapped” featuring Mobb Deep. After baring his soul on the guitar-drenched “Survival,” Banks goes in for the kill on the Yayo collabo “NY, NY.” Over Eminem’s knockin’ drums and crisp snares, the G-Unit soldier proclaims, “I’ll show you I’m crack/That snowy-white powder on the track.”

While Banks’ quick wit abounds, his overreliance on braggadocios bars is limiting. He coyly mocks less-affluent rappers on the Rakim-guested “Dollar Bill,” and the piano-powered “Stranger” finds him commenting on the color of his jewels for the umpteenth time. The biggest infraction, though, is the Southern-bounce track “Iceman.” Despite notable appearances by 8Ball, Scarface and Young Buck, the song’s “Laffy Taffy”-esque hook is more follower than New York trendsetter.

Ultimately, that winds up being Banks’ biggest problem. Not falling far from 50 Cent’s platinum-rooted tree, Rotten Apple is fertilized with potent doses of sonic strength and catchy hooks. But overall, it isn’t the new massacre that’ll shake New York hip-hop down to its core.—ROB MARKMAN