When the Game released The Documentary just over a decade ago, it felt like the result of one of those bets that the uber-rich twins from Trading Places might’ve made: If we take a rapper with no particular talent and a mile-wide corny streak, and we give him access to the world’s best collaborators, how good of an album can he make? The album turned out to be pretty great; the experiment in humanity was better.
The Game of The Documentary was a beneficiary of market forces, a guy who showed up at the exact right moment. He was tall and handsome and muscular and gang-connected and covered in tattoos and bullet wounds. He had all the makings of rap stardom except for the whole being-able-to-rap-well thing. He was serviceable and nothing more. But Dr. Dre was very clearly determined to make him happen. Dre was still supposedly working on Detox when he contributed five beats to The Documentary, but he seemed way more invested in giving the West Coast a marquee rap star during an era when it hadn’t had one in years. He installed Game in the then-dominant G-Unit, and 50 Cent gave the album some truly great verses and hooks in the very-brief moment before he got pissed off and excommunicated Game from the crew. (“Hate It Or Love It” and “How We Do” are two of the best songs of 50’s career, and it has to drive him nuts that they aren’t his songs.) Meanwhile, Kanye West and Just Blaze and Timbaland and a whole bevy of A-list producers gave Game some of the best tracks that they had on deck. Game himself was still a wooden, awkward cornball, fuming about how many women he planned to fuck and endlessly name-checking laundry lists of rap greats. But The Documentary made him a likable cornball, mostly by putting him on all these great songs.
And so the experiment worked. Game sold five million copies of The Documentary. His career has been a bumpy road since then; by album two, he was crying on a song, begging Dre to let him back into the fold. A lot of the music he’s released since then has been irredeemable garbage, albeit fascinating irredeemable garbage. He’s got no sense of restraint, no capacity to self-edit, and he lined up 24 guest rappers to appear on an 11-minute remix of his banger “One Blood” in 2006. He’s continued to make songs with whoever’s cool at any given moment, a strategy that led to him making look-out-I’m-crazy faces and rocking a straightjacket in the video for a Tyler, The Creator collab four years ago. His tendency to namedrop has only gotten worse; when he randomly showed up as the love interest in Nicki Minaj’s “Pills N Potions” last year, I was convinced he’d brag about it in every verse he recorded for the rest of his life. But in the past two weeks, Game has released two long-as-fuck new albums, The Documentary 2 and The Documentary 2.5, and they’re both way better than they have any right to be. So how is Game still making good rap music in 2015? How is that even possible?
The short answer is that Game is still somehow getting everyone to show up for his albums. These days, rap albums aren’t typically stuffed with guests. Instead, we’re hearing things like Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late or Future’s DS2, in which rappers dig deep into their own personal aesthetics and only draw from their own crews. Game has no real personal aesthetic and no crew to speak of, and that makes him malleable. And he’s not joking when he references all those old albums. He’s got an idea of how a rap album should sound, and he’s going to keep making that album, even with all the superfluous skits that everyone decided to stop making years ago. (On The Documentary 2.5, he even brings back the sex-noises skit. You ever tried to listen to one of those in public? It’s so embarrassing to be around.) And he must’ve called in every last favor he could think of when he was putting this thing together. Just on The Documentary 2, he gets appearances from Drake and Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar and Future; The Documentary 2.5 adds people like Nas and Lil Wayne to that list as well. On “Don’t Trip,” he’s got a verse and a beat from Dr. Dre, something he couldn’t even get on the first Documentary; the same track also has Ice Cube and (of all possible people) Will.I.Am rapping harder than you might’ve thought possible. Not much unites the entire landscape of popular rap music in 2015, but Game is apparently able to do it.
More importantly, though, most of his guests actually show up. Kendrick is all giddy and fired-up on “On Me,” delivering the sort of pyrotechnic battle-rap that he stopped doing on To Pimp A Butterfly. “100,” Game’s biggest hit in forever, is actually really a very good Drake song, one that Drake must’ve gifted to Game because it didn’t fit that well into all the various albums he’s working on this year. 2.5 should be an album of outtakes — honestly, it’s an 18-track companion piece to a 19-track album that came out one week after the first album, when not one single person on earth had time to get hungry for more Game music. But even on 2.5, artists as diverse as Jay Rock and Scarface and DJ Quik put in above-average work. The same is true of the production, too. This time around, Game doesn’t have anything like the all-star lineup of producers that he had on the first Documentary; much of it is credited to the hilariously named Bongo The Drum Gahd. But this is still the sort of music Game should be making: big, clean, cinematic simulations of ’90s gangsta rap, with constant allusions to rap classics that range from “Kick In The Door” to “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” to “Quik’s Groove.” And greats like Dre or DJ Premier appear, they are there to let you know exactly why people care about them in the first place.
As for Game himself, he’s in his usual doofy form, constantly referencing everything he can think of in rap, both past and present. Sometimes, he comes off like a real shithead, like a on “Bitch You Ain’t Shit,” a rote and unimaginative rewrite of Dre’s already-rancid “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” without the colossal beat to partially redeem it. On one skit, a dope fiend girl offers to suck his dick, and he rudely tells her off while also giving her his iPod. It’s weird. Still, I like Game on this. People have been making fun of his super-referential rap style for a full decade, and he’s sticking to it anyway. His voice is rough and unstable and emotional even when he’s just talking about being in charge. He tries out Kendrick Lamar’s darting, off-kilter flow on a track with Kendrick himself and manages not to do anything too embarrassing. And on “Like Father Like Son 2,” he gives us the sequel to the one genuinely touching song from the original Documentary. On that one, he breathlessly told the story of his baby son being born. On the sequel, that same son jumps on the song to rap, and so does his little brother. It’s awkward, but it’s also sweet and endearing, and it’s there to drive home a stick-around-for-your-kids message that never veers into preachiness. It’s an album that shouldn’t work but does anyway, which means it’s a microcosm of this whole two-album onslaught.
So maybe that’s Game’s secret: He’s a mediocre artist but a great A&R guy, one who’s got the ear to pick out the best beats and the vision to plot out this whole massive double-album experience. Whatever the secret, Game has really pulled something off here. These two albums don’t belong on a shortlist of the year’s best rap albums or anything, but they’re way, way better than anything Game should be doing at this point in his career. They are two very happy curiosities, and they’re the strongest evidence we’ve seen that Game knows what he’s doing. After all, 50 Cent once looked like he’d won his feud with Game easily. But 50 Cent is almost a decade removed from his last hit, and he’s keeping himself busy these days making shitty straight-to-DVD movies and going bankrupt. Meanwhile, Game had a (very good) verse on Dr. Dre’s Compton eariler this year. He’s still around. He won.
1. Big K.R.I.T. – “Shakem Off” (Feat. Ludacris & K. Camp)
Ludacris’ 2000 major-label debut Back For The First Time is, I maintain, one of the most underrated albums in rap history. It is nothing but absolute fucking bangers end-to-end, most of them produced by the guy who would later off change his name to Bangladesh and make “A Milli” for Lil Wayne. One of those bangers was “Catch Up,” a song about knowing that all your partying is going to fuck you up later in life but not caring anyway. There’s a lot to like about Big K.R.I.T.’s new mixtape It’s Better This Way, but the clearest route to my heart is to bring back that fat, honking “Catch Up” bassline and get a pretty fun verse from a scarily-diminished Luda along the way.
2. Young Thug – “Raw”
In which lovable scamp Young Thug sings pretty little melodies over a beat that sounds like screwed-up Boards Of Canada. Imagine what might happen if Thug made a whole album of pretty music. Because he could do it!
3. Puff Daddy & The Family – “Workin”
I wouldn’t have pegged “motivational huffing over a sample from Toro Y Moi’s dance-music side project” as the peg for Sean Combs’ latest comeback attempt, but that’s why I’m not worth hundreds of millions and he is. And you know what? This shit absolutely goes. I like how he compares himself to “a independent group” and shouts out people with jobs.
4. Kodak Black – “Skrt”
This 17-year-old Florida rapper was just arrested on robbery, assault, and kidnapping charges, which yikes. So this piece of meditative, tingling swag-rap might be the last thing we hear from him for a while. If that’s the case, it’s a heavy, powerful thing to go out on.
5. MED, Blu & Madlib – “Finer Things” (Feat. Phonte & Likewise)
When I die, bury me in a sparkly and quietly confident Madlib beat.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
.@Uber I am being held captive by a driver who is forcing me to listen to a song about J Cole ejaculating prematurely. Please help!
— Otto Von Biz Markie (@Passionweiss) October 15, 2015