The West Coast rap scene, currently undergoing a renaissance via Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” is grasping for a new soldier in The Game. Born Jayceon Taylor — as hard as it is to believe, Game is not his given name — he is the latest in a string of young MCs to achieve big success under the guidance of hip-hop deity Dr. Dre. “The Documentary,” his debut, is at its best a solid album of great beats and lyrics that don’t match up. At its worst, it is tragically uninspired, especially considering the who’s who of rap impresarios who contribute amazing work.
These producers — Dre, Timbaland and Kanye West, among others — polish the 18 radio-ready tracks to a smooth, sparkling finish. The album’s veneer shines brighter than a freshly washed Impala. Right off the bat, the sure-to-be-a-hit “Westside Story” assaults the ears with an ominous piano loop over Dr. Dre’s trademark heavy, throbbing bass line. The catchy chorus — featuring 50 Cent, former Dre protege — extols the hedonistic virtues of Southern California, while Game spits some rapid-fire lyrics about his hometown. But there is nothing particularly interesting about it: “Since the west coast fell off the streets been watching / The west coast never fell off I was asleep in Compton.”
Game’s flow emphasizes enunciation over emotional expression. He has neither the vocal versatility of Busta Rhymes, the dynamism of Eminem, nor the intelligence of the Roots’ Black Thought. The album’s cutting-edge beats would be far better served under an artist whose voice could hold its own. But Game is chronically unemphatic, almost listless. If star power is what he needs to succeed in the world of his mentors, he’s in trouble.
But obviously a plethora of hip-hop stars see something in the MC. Kanye West, probably the hottest producer in the country, collaborates with Game on “Dreams,” by far the best track on the album. Kanye artfully bridges a strained and faintly off-key violin sample over percolating drums and an understated electric guitar line. As a result, the beat is at once smooth and slightly tense. Once again demonstrating his talent as the best old-school sampler in the business, he turns Jerry Butler’s “No Money Down” into a brilliant backdrop for Game’s lyrics, which focus on his ascension from the gutter to the recording studio. Skillfully interweaving shout-outs to Aaliyah and TLC’s Left Eye throughout, the MC is in his best lyrical form on “Dreams,” for once rapping with heart. “They say sleep is the cousin of death,” he says, quoting Nas, “So my eyes wide open ’cause a dream is kin to ya last breath.”
Thanks to its top-notch production, “The Documentary” never becomes unlistenable. But once in a while, Game’s lyrics are paired with a beat that simply can’t distract from their banality. On “Special,” he makes a feeble attempt at romanticism, languidly rapping about his homegirl and her assets. The chorus is an atrocity: “Girl I’ll do anything to make you feel special / Man it’s easy to see you special to me / Whether we lovers or friends, we’ll always be / I want you to know, you’re special.”
Not even Timbaland’s gorgeous space-age beats can elevate Game’s apathetic flow to anything more intense. On “Put You on the Game,” the Virginian producer demonstrates a faster and more up-beat drum line than the more laid-back percussion he’s known for. If only Game could keep up — he would’ve done well to enlist a veteran Tim beat-rider, Missy Elliott or Ludacris maybe, to lend a hand. As it is, the chirping vibrato “Na-na-na” in the background and pulsating record scratches overwhelm the rookie rapper.
Game sounds a bit more in control over Dr. Dre’s mellow tracks. Though they never reach the heat of the producer’s best-known hits, Dre still knows how to make a fresh rapper sound like a pro. On “How We Do,” the album’s first single, his slow-burning, escalating beat, which once again features thick violins over a pounding bass line, never leaves its lead rapper in the dust. The track features Game and 50 Cent continually trading verses, even single lines, without batting an eyelash. Of course 50 captures the spotlight, but Game manages to match his low-rumble, straight-off-the-streets flow. As a matter of fact, both are victims of pre-stardom gangland shootings.
Game would be wise to stick with Dr. Dre in the future. Even Eminem, whose controlled production style creatively accommodates his incompetent D12 crew, proves to be too much for the amateur MC. On “We Ain’t,” not only does he have to contend with Eminem’s harsh beat, but Slim Shady himself drops a infinitely more enthralling verse. Rhyming over buzzing synths and Alvin and the Chipmunks-style sound effects, Game gets lost within the maze. Practically gasping for breath between lines, he spews mindless brags: “I’ll throw your demo out the window / For telling me it’s hot when it’s not.”
He’s lucky Dre didn’t do the same thing.