The Game is a strange rapper. The rhymer born Jayceon Taylor is a West Coast mainstay, Compton legend, former G-Unit member, protégé of Dr. Dre, and inspiration to a generation of West Coast up-and-comers that includes Kendrick Lamar and his fellow Black Hippy group members. Yet he is also a man who has never quite reached his utmost potential, failing to deliver consistency where only potential shone through. Though his first record, 2005’s The Documentary, is widely regarded as something of a classic of its time, the largely-Dr. Dre produced record was overlong, patchy, and not exactly innovative. Part of that record’s status comes from the timing of its release, in an era when West Coast hip-hop was artistically underrepresented and rap in general was in danger of being lost to a directionless, commercial abyss.
In the lead up to his sixth studio album, long-awaited tenth-anniversary sequel The Documentary 2, Taylor reflected: “I listened to my first album and everybody thinks it’s so amazing, but I think I’m better than that. I listened to it and heard all of the flaws of the young me, and I’m like, ‘Man I would have never done this song like that today.’” Even including his early work, Taylor has in general been a seven-or-eight-out-of-ten artist: subsequent releases, like 2006’s Doctor’s Advocate and 2012’s Jesus Piece, were strong thug-rap records, but for each success, there were heavy disappointments, such as 2008’s LAX and 2014’s Blood Moon: Year of the Wolf. Taylor’s true classic album has never been forthcoming, and as the heavily tattooed rapper was overtaken by the latest graduating class of West Coast upstarts, The Game’s moment seemed to have passed.
Needless to say, a heavy burden of anticipation lies on The Documentary 2. Not only does the record carry the name of Taylor’s first and most landmark work, the artist has not shied away from declaring that the record is his finest yet. Aiming for a classic, a who’s-who of contemporary hip-hop A-listers have been assembled for the record: a bevy of beatmakers such as Mike Will Made It, Cool & Dre, Hit-Boy, Boi–1da, and DJ Premier handle production duties, while the plentiful guest verses are supplied by a dream-team of old-and-new school rhymers. It says something for Taylor’s lasting relevance among his peers that he can call in everyone from Kanye West to Ice Cube, will.i.am, Puff Daddy, Q-Tip, Future, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Drake. With all those assembled bringing their very best verses on The Documentary 2 and Taylor himself re-embracing his 2005-era sound, this could very well be The Game’s best record yet.
On Me is the opening song, appearing after a brief cinematic introductory track of the sort common on rap albums aiming for epic instant-classic status. Spaced-out modern production flourishes and a choice Erykah Badu sample backdrop hard-toothed verses from Taylor himself, alongside a cleverly chosen Kendrick Lamar guest spot, comprised of rapid-fire staccato couplets like those the young artist has been fond of using in recent rhymes. "Ain’t no gimmicks ’round here, this Compton/ Me, Doc and Kendrick/ Chronic, Good Kid, my first year, 3 documentaries," spits Taylor ferociously, in the zone as he once again explores his career-long penchant for borrowing the rhyming patterns and flow of those guests who appear alongside him on a particular song, in this case the young Lamar. "Now I’m blockin’ sentries, 16 Impalas/ They bounce like they need a dollar/ That’s on my mama, niggas up and did me a solid/ I put that on me."
One of the hardest rap beats of the year explodes into existence at the beginning of Step Up. Here, Taylor reverts to his usual gangsta rap clichés, albeit with more conviction than on last year’s disappointing Blood Moon. “The Compton lyricist, you niggas can’t get with this/ Used to tap Dre on the shoulder like, ‘Nigga come hear this shit’/ He thinkin’ he slick and shit, nigga sweeter than liquorice/ Los Angeles god, we mob like Infamous,” he declares, and Taylor sounds at his charismatic best, dodging and weaving the siren-like wail of the beat. “Ain’t from Queensbridge or Brooklyn, but we done shook ones/ Bullets, I done took some/ Crack, I done cook some/ Don’t stand there and look dumb/ Ain’t no honor amongst thieves, especially when the hook come/ Lives, I done took some.” With hooks supplied by both Sha Sha and Dej Loaf, Step Up is a runaway success, the sort of tough-talking street-level rap Taylor was born to make.
Following track Don’t Trip, featuring Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and will.i.am, is less musically successful, but it’s a pleasure to hear Taylor rhyming alongside the former two N.W.A. luminaries. It’s fitting that Taylor’s tenth anniversary in the music business is heralded by a return-to-form record, and coincides with what has been a massive year for West Coast rap, boosted by the massively successful Straight Outta Compton film and Dr. Dre’s unexpected final solo album. Tracks like Don’t Trip and the Snoop Dogg-featuring album closer L.A. are timely reminders that Taylor carried the torch for rappers like Cube, Dre, and Snoop, during an era when hip-hop seemed destined to leave the golden era of West Coast rap firmly in the ’90s.
The DJ Premier-produced title track is a fantastically nostalgic banger, with Preemo’s signature vinyl scratches and amped-up drums carrying Taylor through rapid verse after rapid verse. For a man who once boast-rapped 400 bars in one track, The Game has rarely sounded as lyrically on-form as he does alongside Preemo on The Documentary 2: “I’ve been rapping for 12 years, six months, 16 days/ Now I’m a veteran, spit a 16 sixteen ways/ Sixteen in a clip, spit it 16 ways.” Taylor’s gruff, deep voice commands boom-bap beats like few rappers working today, and it’s refreshing to hear him once again so unashamedly embrace the sounds and styles of his primary ’90s influences.
Elsewhere, The Documentary 2 finds its most unlikely success in the laid-back sub-bass single 100, where Taylor is joined by Toronto’s finest, Drake, the unlikely reigning king of contemporary rap. “Y’all better not come to my studio with that fake shit/Y’all better not come to my funeral with that fake shit/ Y’all better off realizing there’s nothing that y’all could do with me/ All I ever ask is keep it 8 more than 92 with me/ All I ever ask is 100,” Drake half-sings for the hook, before the stroke-of-genius beat booms in at the beginning of each verse. “I would have so many more friends/ If I lost my success and my confidence/ I’m in the club every time that they play the competition/ If they even play the competition/ I seen the response they get,” raps the Canadian star in his signature tone of unfazed-introspection. “Nobody’s even hearin’ it on top of the pyramid/ Might go to Jamaica, disappear again/ My circle got so small that it’s a period.” For his part, Taylor takes the opportunity to preach to Drake about the risks and riches of fame: “See I know how it feel to be platinum plus/ Niggas is jealous of you so they try to wrap you up.” It's a pairing that probably shouldn't work, yet 100 makes for one of Drake's finest guest spots in recent times, and for a subtle-yet-noticeable modernising of Taylor's tough L.A. style.
Predictably, The Documentary 2 falls shortest when Taylor unwisely strays outside of his comfort zone. It’s clear that with erstwhile club tracks like the Future and Sonyae-assisted Dedicated or the faux-R&B misogynistic head-scratcher Bitch You Ain’t Shit, Taylor is overreaching in his attempts to include something for everyone on this album. There are flat-out misses, too, that should have been left on the cutting room floor, not least to cut down on the bloated 73 minute album runtime. The terrible Hashtag, and bizarre Mula - on which Kanye West unadvisedly sings the would-be-singalong chorus - seem like tracks that would be better back-shelved for The Documentary 2.5, a second-disc half-album due to be released independently of TD2 next week. It says something for Taylor’s work ethic that this 2.5 half-album is itself 17 tracks long, and filled with a fresh bevy of big-budget hits starring big names: Lil Wayne, Nas, Scarface, E–40, Busta Rhymes, Skrillex.
Taylor has a lot of famous friends, and he is tastefully complemented by them on these songs. But he’s certainly a capable enough rapper that - though his records are always hugely collaborative affairs - the Compton native can carry these tracks alone, guest verses or not. True, some of the lyrics fall into cliché without conviction while other compositions are simple filler, but The Documentary 2 is perhaps the most consistent record of The Game’s inconsistent career. However, it can’t help but feel disappointing to reflect that Taylor’s best album may have just been a modern classic if he had exercised a little more creative control when choosing the songs that made the final cut.
Still, Taylor has always let his albums outwear their welcome over the course of 60 minutes plus, and old habits die hard. Blessed as he is with a great ear for standout beats, The Game’s latest album works best when viewed as a sonic tapestry of West Coast rap tradition past and present. In this way, The Documentary 2 is a logical companion to Dre’s August comeback Compton, though with less pressure incumbent upon it, Taylor’s work feels less overwrought and likely more repayable.
Ultimately, the majority of The Documentary 2 is a success because Taylor plays to his strengths here. There has always been a particular aesthetic to The Game’s music, and though he still time to time apes the styles of others (like on Summertime, where he shamelessly bites the flow of J. Cole), Taylor has done well on his sixth album to largely craft a collection of songs that sound natural to him alone. A tough-but-calm musical mood, an acerbic gutter-mouth, and a uniquely L.A. perspective have always been combined on The Game’s best tracks, and that tradition holds true in 2015. It’s too late to soundtrack this year’s American summer, but The Documentary 2 will ensure that Taylor’s legacy is alive and kicking for many summers to come.
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