Compton Rapper Game Returns to an Industry That's Gone Soft
Never fight fair with a stranger. You'll never get out of the jungle that way ...
—Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
In 30 minutes, the rapper Game will instruct his 583,000 Twitter followers to dial (310) 605-6500 if they would like to be his intern. In two hours, the Los Angeles County Sheriff will open a criminal investigation against the Compton artist, who claimed to have "accidentally" directed his fan base to flash-flood the phone lines of the organization's Compton office — temporarily crushing its ability to respond to reported crimes. Later, he will blame both hackers and his cousin Wack Star for hijacking his account. But right now, speaking from a bedroom in the Koreatown apartment he has commandeered as a makeshift media center, Game claims he's not promoting his album.
This doesn't match the timeline of his last eight hours, balancing photo shoots and interviews with everyone from L.A. Weekly to esoteric art quarterlies to Fuel TV. And when he's not taunting Compton law enforcement about its inability to catch murderers, his Twitter page is alight with references to his The R.E.D. Album, released this week.
"I don't promote shit — the label does. That's how you got here. All I do is rap," says the 31-year-old, who was born Jayceon Taylor. He talks while texting in a Transformers shirt next to a sixth-floor window, looking up to smirk with the self-assured dismissiveness of a former class clown and varsity letterman.
Game's assertion doesn't jibe with his last 18 months in Willy Loman mode: the innumerable radio bids, four mixtapes, tours, rescheduled release dates and semiregular barbs at Jay-Z. Originally set to drop in the winter of 2009, The R.E.D. Album has been postponed 10 times, give or take. Guinness hasn't chimed in, but it's a sum exceeded by few, most notably the record's narrator, Game mentor Dr. Dre. "The delays were partially the label's decision and partially his own," says Interscope marketing director Jason Sangerman. "Game likes to spend time with his family, he was touring, and he's a perfectionist. And as a piece of art, we didn't want to expose the album until it was finished."
During this long lacuna, The Village Voice's music blog published a list of The R.E.D. Album's Top 10 failed singles, citing unions with the industry's biggest names — including Justin Timberlake, T.I., Chris Brown and Lil Wayne. But none has lit up Billboard. First single "Red Nation" didn't crack the Top 40, despite a jock-jam sample from Teutonic trance act Zombie Nation and an anachronistically expensive video, resembling "California Love" set at a soccer riot in Stuttgart. When Viacom banned it, Game blamed it on the company's fear of his gang affiliation and his affinity for all red everything.
Denying that the lackluster chart performances bother him, Game insists that everything but the Timberlake collaboration was intended for iTunes only.
"Fuck radio," he says, the sun striking his trademark "LA" facial tattoo (on top of what used to be a butterfly). When asked, Game informs me that none of his 50-plus ink markings holds any personal meaning. His erstwhile website, theGame360.com, insists otherwise, with quotes from him waxing poetic about etchings including the gravestones of 2Pac, Eazy E and Run DMC's Jam Master Jay, his children's names and "Hurricane," his former 310 Motoring shoe line.
"I don't give a fuck if radio plays my shit once. I've never been a radio artist. Everyone on the radio flops. I don't want to be in that category. I want to go platinum," Game adds.
Despite his recent industry travails, Game remains a towering figure in L.A. hip-hop, perhaps trailing only perennial standard-bearers Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. And considering that Dre rarely raps and Snoop's last album sold only 50,000 copies in its first week, Game is most likely the city's most commercially viable.
Each of his first three albums has moved more than a million units worldwide. And for a brief stretch in 2005, he was the most popular radio rapper in America, with two 50 Cent–aided singles in the top five of the Billboard 100. Kendrick Lamar and Odd Future founder Tyler, the Creator might have next, but both appear on R.E.D., presumably out of respect rather than obligation. "Red Nation" and Game's latest salvo, "Pot of Gold," have some 15 million combined YouTube views, and when "Pot of Gold" plays on Power 106 as we cruise Eighth Street in his Mercedes S-550, his countenance betrays his satisfaction.
But the hip-hop world moves on dog time — the three years since his last album, LAX, may as well be 21. Since then, the genre has stratified like the American economy: a widening income gap and middle-class erosion. Hard-core thugs have been ushered out of the club in favor of buttery swag-rap fusionists, such as Drake, Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa, and the faux-hawked velvet-rope electro-rap of the Black Eyed Peas and Pitbull. Even the latest foray from the once helter-skelter Lil Wayne is titled "How to Love."
Times are tough for thug rappers; not even his former benefactor and longtime rival 50 Cent can get a release date from Interscope.
"It's all house beats on the radio," Game laments. "If you're not pumping your fist, you're doing the wrong thing."
He's a throwback to an era when "gangsta" rappers were actually in gangs. And though he's more settled — with homes in Glendale, Porter Ranch, Culver City, Florida and New York — he retains an unhinged madness that still rears its head. In 2008, he was incarcerated for 60 days for pulling a White Men Can't Jump and pointing a gun at a basketball rival on the court.
A saving grace is that Game is so artful at media manipulation that he could get hired as White House press secretary if he ever needs to find new work. His sheriff's department shenanigans earned coverage everywhere from CNN to Reuters to Slate. His recent diss track, "Uncle Otis," lampooned Jay-Z and Kanye West's new hit "Otis" and operated as a Trojan horse to publicize his own release date.
So you'd think he'd be willing to elaborate on his new record a week before its release. But in predictably perplexing fashion, Game doesn't discuss specifics. You may be invited to play the game, but inevitably, the Game will try to play you.
'"You say that R.E.D. stands for a rededication to craft. What happened between this and LAX?"
"You've got to wait and see."
"I have to write this story."
"You don't think about how this album differs from your past ones?"
"Maybe. But I don't talk about R.E.D."
" With record sales declining, don't you have to hustle more?"
"Nah, I'm just chilling."
"Didn't you just get off multiple tours in the last year?"
"Nah, I'm just chilling. Scrooge McDuck status."
His publicist describes him as "an open book," and it's partially true. The Cedar Block Piru Blood will readily delve into his fractured upbringing: the foster home in Carson and the corrosive violence of crack-era Compton. But ask Game about anything since Dr. Dre anointed him the next West Coast prince, and prepare for plot twists that go nowhere and enough acrimony for a dozen third acts. He's an open book with an unreliable narrator.
The man ... walked into a jungle, and comes out, the age of 21, and he's rich! The world is an oyster, but you don't crack it open on a mattress.
The cash was stashed under the mattress. The crack was whipped up on the stove. The real riches arrived later. They followed the trail of bullets — five of them, embedded inside the arms, legs and belly of Jayceon Taylor. It all transpired the first year that he was legally able to sip Olde English.
Two older half-brothers — both Nutty Blocc Crips — had been murdered in gang violence, but everyone expected Jayceon to escape. It was like Biggie said: You either slang crack rock or you've got a wicked jump shot. And Jayceon had a legit J, serious hops and an athletic 6-foot-4-inch frame.
At 31, he claims he's still able to windmill-dunk. During his teenage years, he held down the Compton High back court alongside former USC star Jeff Trepagnier. Through AAU and club ball, he befriended Gilbert Arenas and Baron Davis, the latter of whom is godfather to Game's oldest son.
But a scholarship to Washington State was retracted, he says, when he was caught pushing weed in Pullman. The university has no record of his tenure, but Game maintains he spent six weeks there in the fall of 1998. "I went to practice once, but that was it. It's funny how due to the nature of my music, Washington State claims they never pursued me or gave me a scholarship."
Brief stints at Antelope Valley, Harbor and Cerritos community colleges followed, but the lure of asphalt and Arm & Hammer was stronger. At the time, his older half-brother Big Fase 100 (government name: George Taylor III), a Cedar Block Piru Blood of local infamy, was running the streets of West Compton.
The pair set up a drug house to move product. The rule was no customers past midnight, but late one evening a door knock interrupted the younger brother's game of Madden football.
"Through the peephole, I saw this weird harmless dude I knew," Game remembers. "Then three guys kicked down the door and tried to rob me."
Taylor sprinted to his Glock on the table and started wrestling with one of his attackers. As he began to tear the gun away, bullets sprayed.
"I didn't think I'd been hit. So I crawled down the hallway, heard three or four more shots and fainted for 10 minutes. They thought they killed me and left without taking anything," Game says. Regaining consciousness, he oozed into the bathroom, pulled himself onto the sink and lifted up his wifebeater. "Blood splattered all over the mirror."
The rest of the story has ossified into press-kit mythology. Checking himself out of the hospital to convalesce at his grandmother's, Taylor asked Fase to bring "the classics" to his bedside: albums from Spice 1, Jay-Z, Biggie, Nas, Ice Cube and DJ Quik. Memorizing the lyrics and absorbing the patterns, Game became the rap RoboCop — a cyborg in a bulletproof suit sent to wreak havoc.
"Before getting shot I had a death wish," he says. "But once you almost die, you realize that it ain't so cool. I needed to do something positive."
Negativity had shrouded his previous 21 years. His earliest memories involved rolling around in his dad's Cadillac DeVille, the senior Taylor taking his son on adulterous assignations through Compton. According to Game, George Taylor II had 15 children, with Jayceon somewhere in the middle, and he remembers attending gang meetings with his pops, a Nutty Blocc O.G. His mother was a Hoover Cripette, who worked the graveyard shift at the post office and hustled by day.
At 6 years of age death's scythe first scarred, when his best friend was killed by stray gunfire at a park. Taylor also recalls an early fight between his parents: His mom plowed his dad into a metal gate at 20 mph in her Buick Regal, leaving him temporarily paralyzed. Meanwhile, crack turned Compton into Night of the Living Dead.
"Crack wasn't everywhere, it was infinity everywhere. It was being traded for bikes and cars," Game says. "My pops taught me how to whip it up when I was 9."
Around then, his father was accused of molesting Game's older sisters. Social Services swooped in, split up the children and sent Taylor to foster care. When he ran away, they placed him in a Carson boys home, where he spent the next half-decade.
When his mom finally kicked his dad out, Taylor returned to Compton to find Fase entrenched in gang life, adopting the Cedar Block territory of their grandparents. By his sophomore year, Game was a young Blood navigating Crip-controlled Compton High School.
"After practice [I'd] peel off my school clothes, throw on my red shit and walk to Cedar Block," Game says. "It wasn't just about Crips. You had to look out for the [Mexican] Tortilla Flats gang, too. They didn't care if you was Crip or Blood. They was about killing niggas."
These memories haunted his recovery. Resolved to become the rapper he'd dreamed of being, he wrote songs modeled on his idols. He was the ultimate fan, the freak-talent fantasy leaguer able to climb out of the stands and ball with the guys on the court.
What happens next isn't entirely clear. Sometime in early 2002, Game and Fase formed the imprint Black Wall Street. That June, Game says, he went to the Coliseum to hear Minister Louis Farrakhan speak at the West Coast Hip-Hop Summit. The summit actually was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, but either way, he says a stellar freestyle cipher performance earned the attention of a man named Fat Rat, who flew Game to the Bay Area to record with regional legend J.T. the Bigga Figga.
"He was always charismatic, so it didn't take him long to get noticed," says Tay Doe, Game's longtime friend and Black Wall Street president. "He was naturally good, creative and hungry."
Though it was his first time recording, his 2002 Untold Story mixtape received underground buzz throughout the Bay Area. Even Sean "Puffy" Combs supposedly heard it and expressed interest in Game.
"We sold it in the street. It got so hot that it was selling in Rasputin [Music] for $9.99," Game says. "I was walking around with $10,000 in every pocket and two Glocks — one in my sock and one in my jeans."
The CD ended up in the hands of Dr. Dre, then looking for a West Coast counterbalance for the G-Unit juggernaut that he, Eminem and Jimmy Iovine were building at Aftermath. When I ask Game how, out of the thousands of mixtapes released every month, his first songs almost immediately slipped into the subwoofers of one of music history's most influential men, he answers with only one word, the city from which both men originated: "Compton."
The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead.
Picture the roomful of rap titans. Dr. Dre. Eminem. Snoop Dogg. 50 Cent and his G-Unit crew. Busta Rhymes. Rakim. Snoop Dogg. Nate Dogg. Tha Dogg Pound. All of them, sweltering at studios scattered across the San Fernando Valley in the fall of 2002, perfecting 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Trying, the blockbuster that rewrote the mainstream paradigm for the aughts.
The 21-year-old from Compton had stumbled upon the gangsta rap golden ticket — the chocolate replaced by Colt .45 and Veruca Salt played by Aftermath artist Truth Hurts. From hooks to beats to blunts, Game got access to the most well-stocked rap arsenal since the heyday of Death Row. And if the record industry used OKCupid's algorithms, he would have been Iovine and Dre's dream date. A backstory of bullets and bricks. A booming baritone. A six-pack ready for shirtless album covers.
Designating Game as G-Unit's West Coast weapon, Iovine's decision paid off immediately when Game delivered a string of reputation-making appearances on underground G-Unit Radio mixtapes. The ever-fickle industry threw its weight behind Dre's latest draft pick. Everyone wanted him for guest verses, Sean John put him in its print ads, and Boost Mobile gave him an endorsement deal before he had a single song available for purchase.
To understand Game's ascent is to understand the Old Testament force of Dre. Since he first performed "Surgery" in 1984 for the World Class Wrecking Cru, he has reigned over commercial L.A. street rap with no real peer.
"At first, we would get into wars," Game remembers. "I'd come in with endless freestyles and tell him that I didn't want to change my style. He taught me how to count bars, write hooks and bridges. I didn't get it at first — it was like math."
After two years of tutelage, Game's debut single, "Westside Story," was released. Replacing Sharks and Jets with Bloods and Crips, Game boasted, "The West never fell asleep/I was just asleep in Compton." It also introduced his trademark tic: name drops upon name drops. He compared himself to Snoop, Kool G Rap and Deebo from Friday — similes that almost exclusively drew upon the hip-hop game itself. He was a vestige of a vanishing order of khakis, Cadillac Coupes and Chuck Taylors, the final model assembled before the factory lights were switched off.
Yet even with its hook from 50 Cent, "Westside Story" was snubbed by national radio. The successive Curtis Jackson collaborations, however — "Hate It or Love It" and "This Is How We Do" — soundtracked everything from Beverly Hills bar mitzvahs to Compton BBQs.
For a coast hungry for resurrection, Game's battering-ram voice, flawless ear for cinematic beats and eerie approximation of past greats like Dre, Cube and MC Eiht ensured him an eternity of goodwill. The West needed new blood to sustain tradition, and Game seemed to emerge fully formed out of a lost draft of Menace II Society, the missing link between bipolar gunman O-Dog and scholarship football player Stacy. Released in January 2005, The Documentary went double platinum domestically, sold 5 million copies worldwide and was nominated for a pair of Grammys.
Hostilities resumed one month later.
You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away.
An abridged list of people Game beefed with between 2005 and 2008:
Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Rass Kass, Bow Wow, G-Unit, Lil Eazy E, Big Fase, Memphis Bleek, Xzibit, Mobb Deep, Suge Knight, Joe Budden, Ja Rule, David Beckham, wrestler Triple H and video vixen Vida Guerra.
Ironically, the most vicious feud stemmed from Game's refusal to choose sides in a 2005 squabble between 50 Cent and his then-rivals Jadakiss and Nas. Deeming him disloyal, 50 used a Hot 97 radio appearance to dismiss Game from G-Unit. Predictably, Taylor responded to his pink slip with Bloods.
"I was in New York with 40 Pirus, and 50 was traveling around with off-duty police," Game remembers of the now-infamous February 2005 incident. "We showed up at Hot 97. My dudes hopped out the cab. Both sides had guns. Shots started to go everywhere. Shit was flying off. Bodies falling into the show, people slipping, hopping into Escalades."
Game spent the next year engaged in scorched-earth warfare fit for Single White Female. At one point he released a street DVD titled Stop Snitchin', Stop Lying, where he urinated in the woods behind 50 Cent's Connecticut estate and stole his basketball rim. 50 countered with claims that he'd written the entirety of Game's hits; the Compton native said he'd written only the hooks for two songs and half of a third.
Later that year Game and Fase fell out, allegedly over financial matters. In an interview with allhiphop.com, Fase claimed that the strength of his street cred had "created the backdrop for Game ... [and] certified his gangsta."
The two have since resolved their differences, but Fase did not respond to interview requests for this story.
The conflicts alienated his patrons. Iovine sent Game's contract to Interscope subsidiary Geffen, and Dre's aegis was absent on his sophomore record, 2006's Doctor's Advocate, ironically named in his honor.
"Me and Dre were always cool," Game says. "At the time, I felt like he was turning his back on me, but I understand why he did it now. He'd already been through beefs with Dee Barnes, Eazy and [Knight]. He didn't need that bullshit in his life."
Dre declined to comment for this article, but the lyrics of Doctor's Advocate contradict Game's story — particularly its title track, a tearful, drunken threnody to the disintegration of their relationship. It's the closest gangsta rap will ever get to (500) Days of Summer. It was also the emotional centerpiece to what Game rightfully considers his finest work, and the album that best captures his tortuous complexities (at least, he says, until R.E.D.).
A vulnerable and ragged document of alienation, Doctor's Advocate is unstintingly prideful in its regionalism. There are odes to Compton, Olde English and gangbanging; cameos from Snoop, Daz, Kurupt and Nate Dogg; and sinister piano lines that slink like a drive-by. The storytelling on songs like "Compton" is familiar but precise: "Once upon a time in the projects yo/I watched my uncle Greg put D's on his six-fo'/I washed it on Monday so he bought me a gold chain/Shopped crack and watched Colors and I soaked up game." Later, he describes his uncle's murder by a crack fiend, and his father's retaliation.
Despite predictions of failure due to its lack of a hit single or Dre beats, Doctor's Advocate topped the charts, with more than 350,000 copies sold in its first week. It was vindication for a two-year stretch that saw not only the aforementioned conflicts but also a trio of arrests on criminal charges, including assault and battery, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and possession of a deadly weapon (brass knuckles). Plus, 50 Cent unearthed a 2000 video of Game on a dating show called Change of Heart, in which a potential love interest shoots him down in embarrassing fashion.
Even Game's sometime manager Jimmy "Henchman" Rosemond caught a case, for fucking up a radio DJ who mocked his cellphone headset. Earlier this year, Rosemond was arrested and indicted on charges of cocaine trafficking. At the moment, authorities are exploring his role in the 1994 Quad Studios shooting of Tupac Shakur.
Before it's all over we're gonna get a little place out in the country, and I'll raise some vegetables, a couple of chickens ...
The smart money is not on Game retiring to the countryside to frolic with more traditional types of birds and hoes. But Porter Ranch and Glendale — where he lives with his three children and girlfriend — remain worlds apart from Compton, where he stayed until after the success of The Documentary.
By all accounts, he is a doting parent and a regular churchgoer but one unable to completely tame his temper. "There's something about fighting. It's like I'm black Irish." Game laughs. "With hip-hop beef, people take that too personally. It's a competition, like journalism or professional sports. People act like I can't take shots at Jay-Z. Fuck that, hip-hop ain't got no rules."
Those around him insist fatherhood and age have forced maturity. He even stepped in as peacemaker recently during a Twitter squabble between R&B star Chris Brown and Tyler, the Creator (though calling Bay Area cult favorite Lil B the "wackest" rapper ever ruffled feathers.).
"When he was first signed, he was wild and jumpy — always ready to punch someone's lights out," says his cousin Wack Star. "People just look at his [media] persona and don't know that he's a good person. Gangsta rap is his job. They don't see the side that pays for his family and his friends' families to go to Disneyland together."
Game partially attributes R.E.D.'s frequent delays to his paternal obligations. Though he's released nearly 100 songs in 2011 alone, most originate from fitful bursts of creativity and sleepless studio sessions in which he'll record up to 10 songs in a night.
"His vibe reminds me of Tupac when we did 'Definition of a Thug Nigga,' " Warren G says.
Too proud to openly admit it, Game views R.E.D. as a comeback. Though 2008's LAX narrowly missed becoming his third consecutive No. 1 record, Game dismisses it as unfocused. Whereas a track off the album called "Dope Boys" ordered Dre to pick up his phone or else risk home invasion, Dre co–executive produced R.E.D., alongside Pharrell Williams and Mars of 1500 or Nothin'. (When he is asked about how he wrangled Dre, the answer is storklike in its simplicity. Game says one day out of the blue, Dre called him.)
"We've incorporated live instrumentation and greater musicality," Mars says. "There's a superhero song with Tyler, the Creator, a Parliament Funkadelic influence, African drums and, of course, the element of L.A."
Like all major-label rap albums circa 2011, R.E.D. devotes a few too many songs to awkwardly courting the middle school slow-dance demographic. Taylor claims he's no longer writing down lyrics because it impedes him from "saying what I feel." And what he feels remains headline-baiting. On "Martians & Goblins" alone, he antagonizes Rihanna, Lil B, Erykah Badu, LeBron James, Viacom and Spider-Man. To his credit, he remains carnivorous enough to force his guests to go harder, for fear of being outrapped.
Though he's threatened retirement in the past and implies on "Pot of Gold" that he'll call it quits after his next album, Game insists that he's nowhere near finished.
I ask him if it's difficult to stay hungry and relevant when one has six houses.
"It's about appreciating life and people and understanding how things work outside this window."
"But don't you think the most interesting stories inevitably stem from conflict?"
"That's why I stay in conflict. People associate Game with controversy, and they probably always will."
After all, whether fair or foul, controversy will always remain free.
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