|Photo by Gregory Bojorquez|
“Where my Crips at?”
The Game, a pair of Chuck Taylors slung around his neck like gold medallions, peered into the spotlights from the stage of a heavily fortified Long Beach nightclub two weeks ago as the crowded dance floor bubbled with applause.
“Where my Bloods at?”
Cheers from his friends in the VIP room.
“Where my eses at?”
The nightclub shook with roars.
“I’m in Long Beach, California,” said The Game. “Home of the Crips. I’m from somewhere else. I hope you’re okay with that. I’ve got love for both sides. But 50 Cent, you know 50 Cent. He can suck my motherfucking dick.”
Any conversation about rap music in Los Angeles is as likely to touch on easy violence as it is on the beats or the rhymes. When you write about hip-hop, a Los Angeles rapper will tell you about holding up a Taco Bell as casually as he tells you about his new album. Violence is what you’re really interested in, he knows that. And a gangster past somehow authenticates a rapper here, the way that blindness does a singer of the Delta Blues.
It is this notion of “authenticity,” of course, that caused L.A. gangsta rap to implode, provided the entrée for thuggish entrepreneurs like Suge Knight who ran their empires from prison cells and treated their artists less as musicians than as loyal lieutenants. As exciting as gangsta life may undoubtedly be, there must come a time when multimillion-selling recording artists would rather stay at home in their gated suburban mansions than go to the mattresses yet another time. A fellow can get killed out there. The momentum swung to the east and the south, to party-rappers, bling-worshippers and street hustlers whose only loyalties were to themselves.
So when the Compton rapper who calls himself The Game suddenly popped up in every medium short of Wheaties boxes this year, he was widely believed to be an artificial construct: at best, a sort of hip-hop superfan who wanted to be a member of N.W.A as badly as he needed oxygen; at worst, a synthetic pop star, like a gangsta Marky Mark, fabricated in the laboratories of Dr. Dre.
If you were going to invent your own Los Angeles rapper, he’d probably turn out a lot like The Game, too. You’d give him a broken home, the death of a beloved brother, a place in a Compton street gang, a drug career capped off with five bullets in his body. You’d give the young man a moment of clarity just as he flatlined, a miraculous recovery, and a year devoted to studying multiplatinum gangsta-rap albums as if they were the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, or chapters of the holy Quran that Malcolm X studied in prison.
The Game’s demo somehow found its way to Dre, and the biggest record label in America staked the beginner to an album produced by a half-dozen of the greatest producers in hip-hop, and a reputation as the rebirth of West Coast. He shot to the top of the pop charts. He also pissed off the wrong person — in this case 50 Cent, a reluctant mentor, a guy who’d been shot at even more times than he had. The Game became a hunted man, broken but proud. Someone could win an Oscar playing this role — bulking up with thug muscles, bouncing from murderous rage to incalculable sorrow, a character too good to be true.
Likewise, while rap stars generally engage in shout-outs, but The Game may be the most promiscuous suck-up in the history of rap, name-checking N.W.A and its various members so often that a newcomer to the genre might assume he used to be in the group. He endorses a dizzying array of high-end consumables too — BMWs, Bentleys, Lexuses, “Lambos,” Range Rovers and vintage Impalas; firearms including Mossbergs, Glocks, Barettas, Smith & Wessons; shoes including Converse Chuck Taylors, Air Max 95s, Air Forces, Reeboks and white Air Ones. (He will shoot you if you accidentally step on the latter.) His body is tattooed with more logos than the jersey of a NASCAR driver, and it wouldn’t be completely surprising to find out that he had rented out space on a blank shoulder blade to Marlboro or Coca-Cola.
Still, when you listen to The Game’s actual record, it’s odd what an empty vessel he turns out to be. His flow can seem numbed out, uneven; his voice, undistinctive; his rhythm weirdly unresponsive to the beat. When he raps on a track produced by Eminem he sounds like Eminem — nasal, precise and given to complex internal rhyme. When he raps with 50 Cent his delivery is blunt and half-chanted. When he raps with Kanye West, you can almost hear his IQ rising 15 points.
A few months after the release of The Chronic, Dr. Dre told me that he could produce a hit record with a cheese sandwich on the mic, and there are times on The Documentary where it seems that he has. Even in his N.W.A days, Dre tended toward spare, clean minimalism, but some of his tracks on The Documentary make early Minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley sound as textured as Mahler. “Higher” is based on a single hammered piano chord, straight quarter-notes, no build, no syncopation, no swing, no harmonic tricks; a straight “Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham!” tinged with the spooky half-chanting of 50 Cent and friends, no recourse, no relief. “How We Do,” the first single from the album, is powered by a half-Latin, post-Kraftwerk electropop track that sounds like every hip-hop record on a KDAY mix show circa 1985, chopped and channeled, brought into glinting, nasty focus. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dre originally wrote the beat when he was a precocious teenage DJ in the World Class Wreckin’ Cru.
50 Cent, Dr. Dre’s last protégé, may never have been particularly enamored of The Game. One hears that Dre (and Jimmy Iovine) dropped The Game off with 50 Cent’s G-Unit crew like a father sending his son off to spend the summer with a half-brother in Brooklyn, and the new jack may have taken his status in the crew a little bit too much for granted. (Game should stop name-dropping the G-Unit, 50 Cent told MTV. “He thinks he’s doing me a favor.”) 50 Cent claims to have come up with several choruses on The Documentary, and not to put too fine a point on it, Dre spent much of last year working on The Game’s album, months that were emphatically not spent working on the follow-up to 50 Cent’s 12-times platinum debut. It doesn’t take a doctorate in psychology to see the possibility of something like sibling rivalry.
And when The Game’s participation in one of 50 Cent’s many feuds with other rappers was deemed insufficient a couple of weeks ago, 50 Cent booted him from the G-Unit in a live interview on New York’s hip-hop station Hot 97. The Game and his Black Wall Street crew went over to the station to complain. Shots were fired. One of The Game’s allies took a bullet in the leg. It, as they say, was on.
Back on that stage in Long Beach a couple of days after the incident, The Game called out 50 Cent, and he called out 50 Cent some more. He led the crowd in a merry chant of “Fuck Fitty Cent,” the most basic, unforgivable insult in the gangsta’s repertoire. He stripped off his hoodie, and then paused a second before he stripped off his white T-shirt — and the bulletproof vest underneath. He stood bare to the world, trembling, knees slightly bent, and unless The Game is even a better actor than Tupac or Ice Cube turned out to be, he was fully expecting to take a bullet right there, right in the chest. He was expecting to die.
As I said, authenticity may be the most overrated virtue in the hip-hop world, and some of the most compelling gangsta rhymes have been written by rappers who never spent a moment as gangstas themselves. Still, in that moment of foolish courage The Game became as authentic he wanted to be, in front of the people he cared about most. The rest of his show was as taut and thrilling as any live hip-hop set from his beloved back-in-the-day.
50 Cent made his peace with The Game in a Harlem press conference a couple of days later. Word on the street is that 50 Cent’s latest beef is with Avril Lavigne.