In his latest Trappers and Philosophers hip-hop column, Consequence of Sound Associate Editor Michael Madden revisits Game’s debut album, The Documentary, and examines the rest of the Compton rapper’s turbulent career to date.
Signed with both Dr. Dre (Aftermath Entertainment) and 50 Cent (G-Unit Records), Game was heralded as an unstoppable superstar more than any rapper since the one who was shot nine times and survived. Following a string of mixtapes, his debut album, The Documentary, released on January 18th, 2005, was inevitably destined for some level of success, overseen by Dre and possessing many of the West Coast traits that brought the master his fame in the first place. Meanwhile, 50 was, physically or otherwise, all over the album, featured on three singles (“Westside Story”, “Hate It or Love It”, and “How We Do”) and writing a slew of hooks for Game to deliver himself.
Still, the question stands: Is The Documentary an album worthy of the classics that Game, born Jayceon Taylor and raised in the gangsta rap mecca of Compton, said he studied so intently, or did he just desperately want us to think so? After all, the number one critical complaint against the album is his incessant name-dropping of not just West Coast rappers, but also MCs from other regions (“I’m lyrically Kool G Rap on these Dre Records”) and performers of other genres entirely (Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston). Given its initial sales and the replay value of its singles, the answer would seem to be yes. Regardless, Game, despite his lack of “Hate It or Love It”-level hits, has accomplished enough in the decade since to cement his place in rap history. The Documentary is just one scene.
Coming into 2005, it was about time for a new West Coast talent to break through; Southern rappers had been dominating the charts for years. “Nate Dogg doin’ his thing, DPG still poppin’,” Game rapped on “Westside Story”, but those predecessors were already in their 30s. Game, on the other hand, had been rapping for less than two years when Aftermath A&R Mike Lynn picked him up in a Benz in Compton, and he linked up with the superproducer’s superproducer, Dr. Dre. Despite all the hype, he wasn’t a wunderkind in a technical sense; he was still rough around the edges, still learning.
The marquee faces of Compton gangsta rap in the late ’80s and ’90s, from Dr. Dre and N.W.A. (who are the subject of the upcoming biopic Straight Outta Compton) to DJ Quik, were all about rampant masculinity. If Game really wanted to be considered the second best Compton artist ever (Dre being first, in his eyes), he’d better bring an apt soundtrack for one of the most notoriously bloody places in America.
When it comes down to it, a Dr. Dre-helmed album can only be so menacing. The Beach Boys comparisons that came with albums like The Chronic — there was more than one of them, seemingly exaggerating the musical worth of a vibrantly melodic beat — weren’t totally in jest. More than any other producer on the West Coast, Dr. Dre understood melody and chord progression. His ear for not just sheer musical beauty but also the way grimier sounds can be manipulated to pleasing effect was huge to The Documentary’s success.
“What are The Temptations without muhfuckin’ Smokey Robinson?” Game asked in The Documentary, the album’s accompanying DVD.
“Every record on that album, Dr. Dre touched,” echoed Mike Lynn in a 2011 interview with Complex.
The Documentary songs like “Higher”, “Church for Thugs”, and “Put You on the Game” thump with bone-rattling force, but there’s expertise in these beats. Who besides Dre and Scott Storch could make the piano on “Westside Story” sound like that? Who besides Kanye West could flip those Jerry Butler samples on “Dreams” like that? Even Mike Elizondo’s guitar licks, minor though they may sound, were the product of perfectionism.
With such an impeccable set of beats at his disposal, the first step for Game, a Blood born to Crip parents, was to justify his gangsta lean. On October 1st, 2001, Game, a drug dealer at the time, was attacked in his home by a group of would-be assailants, surviving multiple gunshots but ending up in a three-day coma. That’s why his voice sounds weakened on “Don’t Need Your Love”: Recorded just months after the incident, he was still relearning to breathe properly. It was one of the few spots on the album where Game sounded fallible. In general, he’s prone to gun talk and even disses against the likes of Ja Rule. He fit in perfectly with the rest of G-Unit, namely 50 (whose solo work, as opposed to the group’s, was more pop-radio-ready), Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, and Young Buck.
Beneath the Eazy-E tattoo on his right forearm, however, Game also had the name of RUN-D.M.C.’s slain Jam Master Jay, a New Yorker, inked on a headstone. More than a gangsta rapper, he learned from both the West Coast and the East, citing Nas as a primary influence. (The two have collaborated numerous times since.) That’s not to say The Documentary is introspective like a West Coast Illmatic — or that it needed to be — but Game’s reflective side was apparent enough. On “Hate It or Love It”, he remembers, among other things, a friend getting killed over a pair of Charles Barkley sneakers. The Jerry Butler-sampling “Dreams” (dedicated to Yetunde Price, the murdered elder half-sister of Serena and Venus Williams) was the album’s most dramatic song, period. “Like Father, Like Son”, about the birth of his son Harlem, was one final song to prove there was more to Game than the men who signed him.
587,000 copies of The Documentary were sold in its first week — or, put another way, about 150,000 more than Kanye West’s own debut, The College Dropout, the year before. It remained the No. 1 rap album on Billboard for six weeks straight, only to be bumped off by 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ follow-up, The Massacre, which only featured Game on the “Hate It or Love It” G-Unit remix.
Then – seemingly overnight – Game was on his own.
By his own admission, Game started taking his G-Unit privileges for granted; he only appeared along with the group in public when he felt it was necessary. Tensions were running high even before he and 50 shot the “Hate It or Love It” video, and by the end of February 2005, 50 had declared that Game was no longer a member of G-Unit. “300 Bars and Runnin’”, the 15-minute G-Unit diss track, soon surfaced, beginning the “G-Unot” taunt. Game’s other mentor left the picture, too — there wasn’t a single Dre beat on his second album, 2006’s Doctor’s Advocate.
After Doctor’s Advocate came LAX in 2008, which was supposed to be the last album of Game’s career as he prepared to commit to fatherhood full-time. “My Life”, featuring Lil Wayne, would have been his last hit. He left retirement after just a year and returned for real with The R.E.D. Album (the acronym meaning “redemption” or “rededication”) in 2011. Two albums, 2012’s trim Jesus Piece and last year’s more (let’s say) varied Blood Moon: Year of the Wolf, a compilation for his label Blood Money Entertainment, followed in relatively rapid succession. He still keeps an ear to the streets, taking a chance on the ill-fated Bobby Shmurda on Year of the Wolf cut “Hit Em Hard”. This past November, he assembled the 12-artist (13 if you count DJ Khaled, which I don’t) Michael Brown tribute/protest song “Don’t Shoot”. He’s had a good run, and he’s still more relevant than many critics give him credit for. On January 18th, Game marked The Documentary’s 10th anniversary with a concert in Los Angeles, bringing out Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul over the course of the night. His next album is The Documentary 2.
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron, and YG’s My Krazy Life (largely produced — never forget — by DJ Mustard) are all recent albums that have expanded on the conventions of West Coast rap in their own ways. Before them was The Documentary, both a dedication to the legends of yore and a personal statement. A full decade later, it’s hardly aged. Game has said that Doctor’s Advocate is his best album, largely because he was able to finish it without the collaborators he’d just fallen out with. Not that the “best” distinction matters at this point. More important is that he really was in it for the long haul when he said on “Dreams”, “The war to be a rap legend has just begun.”