Credentials: Urban Legend, the slow burn of 2003'sTrap Muzik, Down With The King, guest spots on "Soldier," "Goodies (Remix)," and "Stomp," ends Lil Flip's career.
T.I.'s classic Trap Muzik came out in August 2003 and sold modest initial numbers on the strength of the single "24s," which made it into the lower reaches of the Hot 100. On the album, T.I. proclaimed himself "King of the South," a title that sparked controversy. The second single "Be Easy" found little chart traction, but in 2004, Tip released "Rubber Band Man," a David Banner-produced pop-banger that shot up the Hot 100 and peaked at No. 30.
Tip's buzz began to build on a national level in earnest. Unlike much of the competition in Atlanta and the rest of the South at the time, Tip balanced his unapologetically southern drawl with a lyrical focus. As difficult as it was to hear much of a New York influence in his drawling syllables, the rapper had an elastic double-time flow and unquestionably deft rhythmic control that ran circles around the competition; witness his guest spot on 2004's "Look at the Grillz," which gives co-guest-star Twista a run for his money.
His rising profile was briefly tempered by legal problems in March 2004, when the rapper was sentenced to three years for a probation violation. Luckily for him, he was work-released after only a month. While Tip was behind bars, rumors spread that rapper Lil Flip had disrespected the MC at a performance, a response to T.I.'s claims that he was "King of the South" on Trap Muzik. An on-wax beef was sparked between the two rappers, one that would later result in a real-world confrontation in Houston. T.I.'s evisceration of Flip's career came on 2004's Down with the King, most effectively in its opening moments, when T.I. remixed "99 Problems."
As his final single from Trap Muzik, "Let's Get Away," rose up the Hot 100, Tip prepared for the release of his third album, Urban Legend. The record sold 193,000 copies its first week, besting his previous release, and lead single "Bring 'Em Out" became his highest-charting single to that point, breaking into the top ten.
Meanwhile, he nabbed a guest spot on one of the year's biggest hits, joining an ascendant Lil Wayne on "Soldier," a Destiny's Child single that hit No. 3 on Billboard and went platinum. He also appeared on Young Buck's "Stomp," Jim Jones "End of the Road," and Lil Jon's epic posse cut "Grand Finale" with blistering verses.
Honorable Mentions: 50 Cent, Cam'ron, The Game
50 Cent, meanwhile, was still riding high off of the success of his debut album; his only solo single, however, was "Disco Inferno," which didn't receive quite the acclaim as the singles from his previous record. His work with G-Unit, however, was more promising. Lloyd Banks and Young Buck were able to ride his coattails to strong sales, and The Game was first introduced with singles "Westside Story" and, in particular, "How We Do," one of the strongest singles in 50's catalog. But relative to T.I., who was emerging as one of hip-hop's brightest stars, 50 had moved to a background role.
Cam'ron, in the meantime, prepared to follow up his crossover smash Come Home With Me, and translate the modest success of the Diplomats to his own solo record. Purple Haze underperformed relative to its predecessor, but the album was a critical success, and its singles remain classics in the Cam'Ron canon—even if, per the album's intro, they were originally recorded in 2002.
Meanwhile, The Game's buzz, aided by a 50 Cent cosign and the aforementioned "How We Do" and "Westside Story" singles, became an undeniable story, one he would better be able to deliver upon when The Documentary dropped the following year. — David Drake (@somanyshrimp)