Sunday, November 12, 2006

Album Review: The Game's Doctor's Advocate

I can't believe its the middle of November already. Wasn't it just Labor Day? For that matter, the Fourth of July feels like just yesterday. Kind of depressing, really. However, while the early darkness and dropping temperatures are a bummer, November is a huge month for hip-hop, with a plethora of big releases looming. I couldn't be more excited for Jay-Z's Kingdom Come (even if the first three leaked tracks were a bit disappointing). Nas has a new one. So does Snoop. The Clipse finally get to release Hell Hath No Fury. It's an exciting time.

However, there might not be a more riveting album release than the Game's Doctor's Advocate, which is hitting shelves this Tuesday. Given all the controversy surrounding this guy, people have been eager to find out what happens after, well, Aftermath. The Terrell Owens of rap music has been a whirling dervish of anger and self destruction over the past nine months, but through it all, he's actually made some big strides as an artist. Sometimes we lose sight of creative growth in hip-hop since actions can often speak louder than words, but this has been a case of a guy getting better at this craft through sheer drive, practice, and effort.

That said, the Game is going at this alone. There's no Dr. Dre on an album that is named after him, which strikes me as both ironic and pathetic. There's no 50 Cent, no Eminem, and really no sign of Aftermath at all, short of a Busta Rhymes appearance.

So what kind of album can we expect? Is the Game ready to carry the load as the face of West Coast hip-hop? There might not be a more polarizing artist out there right now, as it seems that for every person that wants to see him succeed, there is another that roots for his complete and utter failure. As the Game himself expressed on his debut album The Documentary (on a song that 50 Cent wrote, interestingly enough) you can "Hate it or Love it."

I've been getting ready to break this all down on the November 14th release, but much to my surprise, the wait might just be over. While Doctor's Advocate is still a few days away from official release, it had its "Internet debut" last week when the album was leaked by Game himself onto the web. At first it seemed that five tracks had been released, but within a day, it was clear that the whole thing was out there. How this effects record sales remains to be seen, but it has given us the chance to come up with some answers ahead of schedule. Of course, there is always the chance that the leaked version could be incomplete or different from the final album. The available tracks seem to match those on official track lists, but there are also rumors swirling that some Cool and Dre cuts are being stashed away for the "real" Doctor's Advocate. I've heard that as many as seven songs could be "lying in wait," so to speak. We shall see.

For now, here is a track-by-track review of Doctor's Advocate, as leaked by the Game himself. And since you can't ever analyze the Game from one perspective, I've taken the liberty to break down both the "Hate it" and "Love It" elements of each song, complete with a verdict and rating. Let's get to it.

(Several tracks are linked to XXL-hosted files, affording you the chance to listen for yourself.)

1. "Lookin' At You." The introductory track has the typical epic sound of a good West Coast album and reminds me a lot of how Xzibit's Restless album kicked off with "Front 2 Back."

Love It: It is so weird to hear the album open with a song that feels as if Dr. Dre is not only producing it, but also doing the rapping, especially since Game announces that he did "his second album with a Dr. Dre track" during this actual song. The Game sounds just like his former mentor on this one, which is probably a good thing, given the fact that Dre has been the driving force behind at least three classic West Coast rap albums in his life. If you are going to imitate someone, you could do worse, even if rapping isn't Dre's strong suit. The beat is from some dude named Urban EP Pope and it is pretty sweet, if a blatant rip. The Game also lends some of his cleanest bars here and sounds really good bragging and boasting about being the "messiah of gangsta rap."

Hate It: One of the chief criticisms of The Game is his inability to write complete songs with bridges and choruses and he doesn't do much to refute those claims here, avoiding a chorus altogether and subbing in a strange ranting interlude that presumably is meant to call to mind the memorable "blind stares of a million pairs of eyes" rant from "U Can't See Me" on 2Pac's All Eyes On Me. Whatever the rationale, the interlude sucks. It interrupts the flow of the song and becomes increasingly disruptive and annoying on repeat listens.

The Verdict: The interlude is awful and the blatant thievery of Dre's production style and delivery kind of bothers me, but I can't deny that the first 75 seconds of this song got me pretty excited for the rest of the album. Score: 8/10.

2. "Da S***." This is another track that comes right out of the West Coast Gangsta Rap tradition, full of synthesizers, ridiculous keyboards, and a pseudo chorus that fuses some half-sung words from an anonymous female singer with some half-rapping by the Game.

Love It: The track was done by another relatively unknown producer named DJ Khalil (his most notable previous song appears to be the underrated "Lay U Down" from G-Unit's Beg for Mercy, although it looks like he will have a production credit on Kingdom Come). It sounds modern but also reminds me of the the L.A. stuff I loved in the mid 90's. Even though the chorus is fragmented at best, the song actually turns this into a positive by splicing the girl's voice into the actual versus, like when Game raps "I let the whole world known that I can't be stopped, even without Doc, I'm still ..." and a sing-song "streets of Compton" comes in to finish the thought. Hey, it works. I also like the Game's brief explanation of his odyssey from Interscope to Geffen that comes at the end of the song. He obsesses over this the entire album, but only directly expresses his confusion and frustration this one time and in the song's outro says, "One day I walked in the ... house, and all my s*** was gone."

Hate It: The usual criticisms can be trotted out here, should you be so inclined. The beat sounds like it could have been swiped off of Dre's G4, there's no chorus to speak of, and the name-dropping that plagues all of the Game's work begins in earnest on this track with mentions of Daz, Al Green, The Chronic, Doggystyle, Dre, Rakim, Snoop, and 2Pac (not to mention The Source, XXL, Crips, Bloods, Walter Payton, and Aftermath, but I'm not going to count those as official name-drops, since they weren't about rappers or rap albums). I think mentioning other rappers, singers, and familiar pop culture set pieces is pretty common in hip-hop and that people are probably too eager to point it out when the Game does it, but that is because he does it so much. To go back to the Terrell Owens analogy, he's not the only wide receiver that yells at his quarterback and causes a scene on the sidelines, but once he became known for doing it, people started seeking it out. Kind of a "you've made your bed" situation.

The Verdict: Neither the name-dropping habit or the flawed choruses bother me all that much, so this song ranks as one of my favorites. I'm really impressed that the Game, DJ Khalil, and an anonymous backup singer were able to throw together something that sounded so emblematic of West Coast rap, both past and present. I have a feeling this will be the most underrated song on the album when it is all said and done. The Score: 9/10.

3. "It's Okay (One Blood)." This is the first single off the album and the song that really took people by surprise this summer. It isn't the typical club song or radio-friendly release you would expect, but I think it sent a message that the Game was approaching this second album with a certain amount of ferocity. It is a relentless track that doesn't even bother with a chorus and the Game spends an inordinate amount of time picking fights and then immediately running from them. They should probably make this song required listening in Psych 101 classes.

Love It: This was our second glimpse at the new-and-improved Game ("300 Bars" being the first) and the moment when people first started to speculate that he could carry his own album. It has held up surprisingly well over the past five months and remains one of the strongest offerings on Doctor's Advocate.

Hate It: The Game has never been more bipolar than he is here, getting into and out of feuds almost in one breath, peppering the track with shout-outs to Dre, and letting a hard-as-nails front bleed into a desperate need for attention. It is riveting, but confusing.

The Verdict: This one has already stood the test of time. It was voted the best single of the summer on a XXL poll and received a healthy amount of critical acclaim. We might look back on this as the most important song of his career. The Score: 10/10.

4. "Compton." I don't mind saying that this is a strange song. It is meant to sound ominous and epic, but a cheesy "gangsta boogie" refrain pretty much dooms that effort right from the start. Why the Game choose The Black Eyed Peas' to produce his Compton anthem is beyond me.

Love It: The Game actually kills this track, which makes it all the more regrettable that had to try and turn it into something "funky." The beat itself is actually pretty sweet and the highs and lows allow The Game to emote more than normal, but the chorus just sucks. If I had time, I would splice this up in Garage Band so I could just listen to the versus, which are pretty awesome.

Hate It: You know what I hate about this song. You can throw in the fact that Game raps the word "myself" with "myself" three times in a row. I don't know when rappers started thinking it was a good idea to rhyme the same word over and over, but it isn't.

The Verdict: Combining the throbbing baseline and thumping drums with The Game's A-game snarl was a great idea, as was titling a song "Compton." Unfortunately, there is all this other crap to contend with. The best way I can describe it is that parts of the song felt like one of those Black Eyed Peas break-dancing moves. There's a time and place for that, but this wasn't really it. Too bad, because this could have been one for the books. The Score: 8/10.

5. "The Remedy." Just Blaze makes his first appearance on this album and goes for the throw-back feel by blatantly sampling a Public Enemy song. The effect is not great.

Love It: Honestly, there isn't anything to truly love here. The Game has always been good at packing a lot of imagery into a short burst - he's rap's version of a minimalist author like Brett Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk. So when he bursts onto the track and hammers about 75 L.A. references into the first 16 bars, it is kind of impressive. But that's about all I can say.

Hate It: This is probably the worst chorus I've ever heard, and I really don't care about choruses. Should Just Blaze even get paid for this beat? He completely re-imagined "Super Freak" when he made "Kingdom Come" and even "Show Me What You Got" does something with Public Enemy's 'Show Em What You Got," but what was done here, exactly? It sounds like the Game is just rapping over an instrumental version of that old PE track (name escapes me). I don't get it. Not only that, but you don't create an old school, nostalgic West Coast track by "sampling" a seminal East Coast song. The better "throwback" song is "Da S***," where new and old is fused together to create an authentic sound. This just sounds like a song you'd find on one of those dumb "In the Beginning" albums where Redman does Sugarhill Gang tracks and Too Short remakes, well, Too Short songs. Whatever.

The Verdict: To me, this is the most disappointing song on the album. But maybe I only feel that way because the prospect of a Blaze retro beat had me hoping for another "No More Fun and Games." The Score: 5/10.

6. "Let's Ride (Strip Club)." I think this was supposed to be the new "How We Do" or something, but ... yikes.

Love It: This sounds like a run-of-the-mill Scott Storch beat. Oh wait, it is.

Hate It: I suppose there are worse tracks that could come on at a club, but we won't be confusing it for The Best of Pitbull anytime soon.

The Verdict: Dr. Dre's absence isn't really felt on this album since the Game sort of sounds like him in half the songs and a few of the new producers did their best Andre Young impersonations. As for 50 Cent, his absence isn't really felt on this album either, but that is only because the Game generally stays away from the dance floor, this-one's-for-the-ladies stuff that has become G-Unit's modus operandi. Here though, he tries for the club banger and he fails. He needed 50 to even have a shot at pulling it off. I wish they would have just left this off the album. The Score: 5/10.

7. "Too Much." Coming out of a two-song lull, I worried when I saw that both Scott Storch and Nate Dogg were involved in this one. If that doesn't sound like the recipe for worthless filler, I don't know what does.

Love It: I was pleasantly surprised with this one. Storch shows some restraint and lets a rather hypnotizing keyboard twinkle roll over a simple bass line, which allows the beat to sound fairly expensive without getting in the way. Or maybe "Let's Ride" was just so bad that this sounds good by comparison. I'm not entirely sure. The Game does the rhyming-the-same-word thing again with multiple "my hood" references, although at least this time there is a homonym in play. (Although I think he was going for a "I've got the hood on me like Abu Grab" line like Lupe Fiasco fired off, and boy does Lupe bury him on that front.) Other than that, he's pretty decent here.

Hate it: The name dropping is pretty out of control, but you almost have to appreciate both the breadth and depth with which he employs this tactic. He manages to cram three athletes (Tracy McGrady, Ken Griffey Jr., Ben Wallace), nine hip-hop figures (Suge Knight, Kanye, Young Jeezy, Biggie, 2Pac, Nate Dogg, Snoop, Scott Storch, and Dre) and even a Wild West outlaw (Billy the Kid) into the first two versus of this thing, which is pretty incredible. The Nate Dogg chorus is typical fare, which isn't really a compliment.

The Verdict: I kind of talked myself out of this one even as I wrote it up, but the truth is I like listening to this song. I'll hedge. The Score: 7/10.

8. Wouldn't Get Far." This song is a beast. It has a theme (albeit an incredibly misogynistic one), a structure, one of the best Kanye beats of the past two years, and a pretty hilarious homage to 2Pac's "It's All About You."

Love It: Kanye's production here is just sick. He traded in the chipmunk voices for a soulful female backing, but layered in the elegant "wouldn't get far" refrain with the same frequency. The net gain is huge. The Game and Kanye seem to have really good chemistry when rapping together, and as much as I liked "Crack Music" from Late Registration, this is far superior.

Hate It: The whole song makes fun of groupies and aspiring video dancers, so the gender-bashing implications are huge. Fortunately, the barbs are mostly contained to specific audiences, allowing me to enjoy the song in good conscience.

The Verdict: My favorite song on the album. The Score: 10/10.

9. "Scream On 'Em." Swizz Beats produces this, probably to keep the whole "The Game raps like a New Yorker" myth alive. What did that ever mean anyway? That he's lyrical? Because he's really not all that lyrical. (Or at least he wasn't until this song, but to count that would mean that someone can see the future.) That he uses a lot of metaphors? I don't get it. But I digress.

Love It: I actually really like this track, which puts me in the minority among the half-dozen people I've discussed the album with. I like the chanting in the background, the violent scream subbing in for a bridge, and I love the simple progression beat that lets The Game "spit hot fire, mon" (as Dave Chappelle-as-Dylan would say). Say what you want about Swizz Beats, but he might have got the best bars out of Game on the whole album. Chuck Taylor murders this track.

Hate It: Could have done without the Swizz outro and I can understand why some people might feel like the song has some flaws.

The Verdict: It could be that I'm still riding high from the Kanye track, but I really love this song. I thought it played to The Game's strengths while also bringing some diversity to the album, which is a pretty impressive twofer. The Score: 9/10.

10. One Night It sounds like Nottz was trying to produce another "Keep Me Down" (from Scarface's classic album "The Fix"), but A) The Game - although improved - is not Scarface, and B) the chorus is kind of awful on this one.

Love It: The subtle horns spice up a very basic beat just enough that the verses flow rather nicely and The Game is well above average rapping on this as he delves back into his tumultuous 2006.

Hate It: This really makes me want to listen to Scarface.

The Verdict: People seem to really like this one, but I'm not that excited. It certainly isn't "cutting room floor" material, but I think Game had better tracks on DJ Exclusive's Dretox mixtape. The Score: 7/10.

11. "Ol' English." This isn't the best song on the album, but it is probably The Game's best rapping, maybe ever. He does a fantastic job of storytelling here and while he's offering up many familiar themes and probably making up half of it, he delivers it with real passion. It sounds like he believes it, at least. And as George Costanza once said, "It's not a lie if you believe it's true."

Love It: I like Hi-Tek more than most, so while some might find the beat a bit blase, I love it. It stays out of the way, creates a mood, and that little whistle is fantastic. Make no mistake though, the Game is the star here. I really don't think he was capable of making this song last year, so this should probably be Exhibit A for his improvement as an artist. I also like the two uses of Old English, because I'm a sucker for wordplay of any sort, especially when it is done thematically.

Hate It: What's not to like? Some will point to the conflicting accounts of Game's life story and scoff at anything resembling a biographical tale, but that is splitting hairs. If a screenwriter crafts a riveting script, do we make him vouch for every word? It's not a memoir and this guy isn't James Frey - he's making rap songs for crying out loud.

The Verdict: This song has convinced me that the Game has staying power and that this is going to wind up being a seminal album. The Score: 10/10.

12. "Doctor's Advocate." The Game returns to that weird, high-pitched voice he used on "Start From Scratch" and the word is that this is his "drunk voice." I guess he got wasted with Dr. Dre one night and then they pumped out "Start From Scratch," so it is probably fitting if he really did go back into the studio to get hammered and wound up recording his apology/explanation to Dre.

Love It: This is such a strange song. After an entire album of bragging and boasting and standing on his own two, The Game just melts into a puddle here. But it is so riveting at the same time. Is this the only venue he has to speak to Dre? The way he vacillates from full-on apology mode to head-strong and back again is remarkable, if not a little terrifying.

Hate It: Many will take this as another sign of Game's instability and tell him to quit being a baby. I personally didn't care for Busta Rhymes' verse here and actually thought it was an even stranger segment. Is Busta reduced to speaking to Dre on an album as well?

The Verdict: This stands to be one of the more critically acclaimed songs on the album given the raw emotion and intriguing backstory, not to mention the haunting Jonathan Rotem beat. However, as Randy Jackson would say, "It was just okay for me." Once was enough with Drunk Game. The Score: 8/10.

13. "California Vacation." Rotem goes back-to-back here with what I guess you could call a posse cut. The problem is that the Game's posse is Snoop and Xzibit, which means that the boring synthesizer isn't the only relic from the 20th century to appear on this song. If Game wanted to do a "we're the West Coast" song he should have buried the hatchet with Glasses Malone and Bishop LaMont, got himself a J Wells beat, and done something that sounds like it came from 2006 instead of 1996.

Love It: I like Game's verse here and Xzibit does his usual serviceable job in a guest role (the "red and blue can make green" line is classic), but that's about it.

Hate It: If this is the best Snoop can do, then the new album might be a disappointment (although the recently leaked track "Get a Light" gives me hope). The big problem here is that everything is just average.

The Verdict: Pretty mediocre stuff. The Score: 7/10.

14. "Bang." Speaking of 1996 ...

Love It: I'm a sucker for the Dogg Pound and Kurupt has always been a personal favorite, but I just got a DPG fix with Cali Iz Active so I'm not sure I needed this. The second verse is much better than the first as all three guys seem to benefit from Jelly Roll giving them that pounding piano lead-in.

Hate It: Too much mediocrity down the stretch on this album.

The Verdict: Yawn. The Score: 6/10.

15. "Around the World." Here we've got Jamie Foxx on the hook, where he continues to prove that he's a good singer, but a much better actor. Denaun Porter is one of my favorite producers, but this just seems like he scooped up a 50 Cent beat off the cutting room floor and tossed the Kanye chipmunk thing onto it and collected his check.

Love It: I don't care for rap songs about sex, but at least Game gives the subject all of his energy and vitriol. There's no charm here, just pure intensity. If I was a woman, I'd stay the hell away from this guy.

Hate It: Pretty much everything.

The Verdict: The only way to describe this is that it sounds like 50 decided to loan one more track to the Game, so he gave him the one song that didn't make the cut on The Massacre Yeah, pretty bad. The Score: 4/10.

16. "Why You Hate The Game." This is presumably a nine-minute track (although the leaked version is "just" five minutes and feels plenty long) featuring Nas doing the first verse and Marsha of Floetry on the hook. The beat is by Just Blaze, who seems to be putting out a new track every other day. Does he have these things lying around? Does he ever go outside? I have many questions.

Love It: This isn't the beat from "Song Cry" or anything, but it is still a pretty soulful track. It sounds a bit like a leftover Kanye or Just Blaze number from The Blueprint, but it still feels as if some time and effort was put into it, which is probably all that counts these days. Comparing the beat to Blaze's recent Jay-Z tracks, I like it a lot better than "Show Me What You Got," but not as much as "Kingdom Come." As for the actual rapping, Nas' verse is solid, but nothing special. It kind of sounds like he's following blueprints devised from his old albums; it is technically flawless, but just not that interesting. As for Game, he displays some of his growth as a lyricist, but is ultimately overshadowed by the beat, the hook, and by Nas. There are other tracks that serve as better examples of his improvement as a rapper.

Hate It: People will be quick to point out the fact that the Game ducked yet another hook by letting Marsha sing it, but again, I'm not sure what the big deal is on that front. The bigger issue is that his habit of name-dropping crests and becomes completely out of control on this song. His first line goes "Pac is watching, Big is listening, while Pun talking to us, Jam J still spinning" and then he goes on to mention Shyne, Cam'ron, Dre (three times), Nas (twice), Jay-Z, Flava Flav, Proof, 50 Cent, Biggie (again), and Pac (again). Some of these mentions are actually used really well and the Nas stuff certainly makes sense, but that is a hell of a lot of name-dropping. 17 mentions in 32 bars is pretty ridiculous. It's like he's got some sort of Randy Ratio (the famous game plan the Vikings used in 2004 to get Randy Moss the ball) for name drops. Also, there is a stretch of the song, about four minutes in, when Blaze drops everything short of the piano and gives the Game a platform to shine vocally, and the results aren't very good. He sounds forced and in desperate need of a metronome.

The Verdict: This comes off as a cohesive, well-done song, but when you parse it up, there isn't that much to get fired up about. I guess the biggest thing here is that The Game was able to assemble the pieces to this puzzle. It makes for a nice finishing piece and I will go ahead and take the sum into account, rather than the individual parts. Score: 9/10.

Overall. The album should have been four songs shorter (my choices to get the axe: "The Remedy," "Let's Ride (Strip Club), "Bang," and "Around the World"). At 12 songs - most of them really, really good - this would have been a virtually flawless album. And it is possible that the rumors are true and that a few more gems are on the way. As it stands, Doctor's Advocate is still an incredibly important release and one of the better efforts in hip-hop for 2006. The Game has evolved as an artist and is one of the few rappers out there making music that winds up being this vulnerable (whether that is intended or not). The presence of stellar tracks from producing heavyweights like Kanye, Just Blaze, Swizz Beats, and Hi-Tek blends well with the surprisingly terrific efforts by upstarts like Reefa, Urban EP Pope, and DJ Khalil. The album may not be a classic but I think it might be even better than The Documentary and is a major accomplishment for one of the most maligned rappers in the industry. The Score: 8.3/10.

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