Monday, October 30, 2006

The Game: Moment of Truth

One of the biggest and strangest figures in hip-hop is heading for a crucial moment of truth when The Game's Doctor's Advocate finally hits shelves on November 14. Can The Game survive without 50 Cent's song writing skills and catchy hooks? Is it true that Dr. Dre is no longer involved in the album? And, last but not least, can The Game actually rap? I mean, at all?

Before getting into these questions, lets set up the recent back story. Pretty much everyone knows that The Game was originally signed to Shady/Aftermath as a part of G-Unit. After his debut album The Documentary went multi-platinum and seemed to establish The Game and G-Unit as a synergistic force to be reckoned with, things almost immediately went to crap. 50 Cent grew upset with what he felt to be The Game's disloyal behavior (for not backing him on various industry beefs) and then for the fact that The Game was taking all the credit for his megahits like "Westside Story" and "How We Do," despite the fact that 50 wrote and performed the hooks on those songs.

Words were exchanged and then shots were fired (outside of Hot 97 in New York) and things escalated rapidly as 50 kicked The Game out of G-Unit. Shortly thereafter, the two made up at an unbelievably corny press conference. The truce was about as legitimate as the peace between the Five Families in The Godfather and just days later, there were reports that The Game was dissing 50 and G-Unit during live shows, which prompted 50 to make industry-related threats (namely that The Game would never have another hit). The Game then went on stage during New York's Summer Jam concert and launched what amounted to all-out war with his "G-Unot" campaign.

About 1,900 diss tracks followed, most notably The Game's "300 Bars," a 15-minute tour de force that served to transform him as a rapper almost over night.

But you probably know most of that. It's not a secret that the feud between The Game and G-Unit persists, nor is it terribly interesting at this point. Of far greater intrigue is the role that Dr. Dre plays in all of this. Considering that Dre signed both 50 (via Eminem) and The Game, there is no doubt that he was stuck in the middle of all this. People have been watching and waiting and asking and wondering where he comes down on dispute. And for months, it has been assumed (mostly because The Game has asserted it) that Dre would be a major part of The Game's second album. Now, with the release date looming, it seems the opposite is true. No Dr. Dre.

My best guess is that after 50 and Game had that ridiculous makeup press conference, Dre told them both to end it right there and then, but that The Game just kept on going. This blatant disobedience probably irked Dre on a personal level, but more importantly, necessitated the moving of Game from Interscope (where he would be contractually obligated to release the album under the G-Unit imprint) to sister label Geffin.

All of this has added up to The Game being somewhat set adrift. He still appears to have had an enormous production budget for the new album, so don't shed too many tears for him, but there is no denying that the deck was stacked against him to some degree. No 50 Cent hooks and no Dre beats creates a pretty big deficit.

However, it also creates a pretty big opportunity. Because if The Game can repeat anything close to the success of The Documentary (critically and commercially), he will be doing it on his own.

You see, The Game's debut album was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was the biggest West Coast album in years and sold millions of copies while momentarily holding off the South's complete takeover of Hip-Hop. On the other hand, the album was the ultimate conundrum. Here you had a rapper that most critics agreed couldn't really rap all that well, sitting on a potentially classic album. How was that possible? The answer seemed to be: an album can become a classic in spite of the artist, rather than because of the artist ... provided you put enough money into production. The Documentary was laden with ridiculous beats from the very finest producers in the industry. It was sleek and well-crafted and it felt expensive and glitzy, the same way that a film like "Mission Impossible: 3" feels expensive and glitzy. The commercial and critical success enjoyed by The Documentary was the latest and greatest statement that hip-hop control had moved from the preeminent rappers (aided by Jay-Z's then retirement) to the super producers. Dr. Dre, Just Blaze, Kanye West, Mannie Fresh, Lil' Jon ... these are the people pushing gold and platinum albums now, and they are doing it from behind the boards instead of from behind the mic.

To say that The Documentary was a classic is a bit of a stretch, but to say that it was one of the most intriguing albums in years is not. And this all goes back to the fact that The Game wasn't all that great rapping on it. He was clumsy at times, he got upstaged by an already-lazy and commercial 50 Cent on the tracks they shared, and his lyrics were average at best in all but a few instances. Once 50 booted him out of G-Unit and thereby compromised The Game's relationships with Dr. Dre and Eminem, there were immediate doubts about the viability of The Game as an artist. After all, not only did 50 Cent do most of the heavy lifting on The Game's best tracks from The Documentary, The Game himself is an incredibly destructive person, currently trying to keep pace with Mel Gibson for inflammatory DUI arrests.

In short, what we had in the wake of The Game/50 Cent split was an artist who thought he was much better than he was, who was getting into heaps of trouble, and who apparently no longer had Dr. Dre in his corner. Suffice to say, more than a few people were looking ahead to The Doctor's Advocate with a certain amount of skepticism.

Then, the craziest things started to happen. First, The Game put out the aforementioned "300 Bars," which was one of the most shocking diss tracks of all time. Not because of the content, but because the artist blew the roof off of his previous ceiling. Honestly, it sounded like a different guy was rapping ... almost as if West Coast upstart and Game-sound-a-like (same raspy voice and halting delivery) Glasses Malone had subbed in for him. Then came a variety of mixtape tracks hinting at a new and improved Game. Then, finally, the proof that The Game had come into his own as a rapper arrived when he released "One Blood" over the summer.

A relentless Junior Reed Sample produced by Black Wall Street's Reefa, the beat on "One Blood" afforded The Game the opportunity to spit and snarl the same vicious lines he's been hammering out every day in his G-Unit disses, but to do it on a cohesive song. "One Blood" also mitigated one of The Game's biggest weakness by just doing away with a chorus altogether and rolling the sample over a few bars before letting Chuck Taylor get back to his relentless ways. The result was a pretty tremendous song, and taken in conjunction with some of the finer mixtape efforts, it gave rise to the possibility that The Game simply made himself into a good rapper. Practice makes perfect and you've gotta want it and all that. He literally spent every single day rapping and it shows.

In many ways, "One Blood" embodies everything about The Game at this stage in his career. It has the markings of a Dr. Dre track (including a half-dozen shout outs to Dre in the intro), but since Dr. Dre has seemingly abandoned The Game over his protege's refusal to stop beefing with 50 Cent, The Game simply got together with one of his cronies - Reefa - and they hammered the beat out themselves. It has the aggressive tone of all those mixtape tracks he's released in the past six months. It goes from dissing other rappers to claiming he's not dissing rappers, all within the same 16 bars, which seems to reflect his bizarre, almost bipolar persona. It has no hook. It features excessive, almost comical name-dropping. Everything about The Game is right here in this song.

Throw in "Let's Ride (Strip Club)", a typical Scott Storch club banger and you can already get a sense that The Game has the makings of a real album. Maybe even something on par with The Documentary. And since he's doing it all by himself this time, that would have to rank as one of the biggest upsets of the year.

Stay tuned.

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