Eleven years ago, when The Game was exiled from G-Unit, few rap fans might have guessed that the L.A. rapper would outlast the commercial viability of every other soldier in his former crew — including its general, 50 Cent. But he did. And now Game is pushing 37 years old, an age worth noting because he once picked a fight with Jay Z in which his best attack was that his opponent, then 39, was far too old to be rapping.
But time does fly, and now Game might be regretting the deadline he once set for personal obsolescence, especially considering how little he has accomplished in the way of musical milestones, apart from survival and prolonged relevance. Compared to Jay Z, Game is barely distinguished or even distinct, almost by design; his most remarkable quality has always been his penchant for summoning and impersonating other rappers. He’s a one-man hip-hop tribute band.
The Game’s new album is called 1992 to commemorate the L.A. riots, as well as the year when he says he was introduced to street life and crime in Compton. From a fan’s perspective, 1992 is also the year that functions as the approximate square root of the rapper’s imagination. Game isn’t retro in a technical sense — he raps his age and era, without aping vocoder melodies — but he has clung to soul samples in a decade where the rest of his graduating class, including Rick Ross and Kanye West, have all moved on to big booms and modern synths. Game is comfortable on trap beats, too, but they’re not his forte. The man loves his old-school rap samples. His last two, unimaginatively titled albums, The Documentary 2 and The Documentary 2.5, are sample-clearance fire sales; a tribute “to old-school, cash-flush, crowd-pleasing, too-big-to-fail hip-hop album making,” as the critic Ian Cohen describes the former. On 1992, Game carries on in this tradition, rapping over classic records from the D.O.C., Soul II Soul, Ice-T, et al. The second single isn’t even the first time we’ve heard Game rapping over “Colors.”
But otherwise, 1992 isn’t your typical Game album. In fact, it’s such a late-but-decisive change of pace that I spent my first few days with the record wondering whether it’s counterfeit or unfinished: Where are all of the overbearing tropes that, hate ’em or love ’em, assure me that I’m hearing a Game album? There are no name-dropping sprees, save for on one song called “I Grew Up On Wu-Tang.” There’s no star-studded tracklist. A couple of young, L.A. rappers make guest appearances, and R&B singers tackle a hook or two, but Game has otherwise scrapped the overstuffed guest lists that have accompanied all of his albums since Doctor’s Advocate, released 10 years ago.
At long last, Game is creeping on a solo mission of self-discovery. When stripped of his affiliations, his rivalries, and all his homages, who do we finally see?
There’s Game, and there’s Tyga: two disproportionately “relevant” L.A. rappers who thrive, in part, due to friendships with Kanye West and the Kardashians. The key difference between them is that no one’s ever gonna tell you that Tyga has made classic, or even near-classic, rap music. Within hip-hop, Tyga is just the funny-style kid who made “Rack City.” Game, on the other hand, is a social climber turned relationship broker who inserts himself into squabbles in the manner of Don King. Game has always been a drama king and a bully. He and 50 Cent adopted the programmatic disrespect of battle rap, exported it to the mixtape circuit, and then grounded career arcs in unrelenting rivalry with such-and-such and so-and-so. Game baited Jay Z for several years. He’s seized on Meek Mill this time around, briefly humiliating Philly rap legend Beanie Sigel in the process. If there’s any product that Game is exceedingly good at making, it’s beef.
Game’s always made great alliances, too. It’s a paradox given his combativeness, but Game’s longevity is largely due to his ability to make and sustain exactly the right friendships — with Kanye, Ross, Lil Wayne, and Drake — at pivotal points of his rap career. As early as 2006, Game’s brand of bandwagon diplomacy yielded the comically massive “One Blood” remix, a 12-minute posse cut featuring 25 guest rappers repping 11 different cities. It’s this fanboy passion for homage that turned 2007’s “300 Bars & Runnin’,” which is functionally a diss record of G-Unit, into a nostalgia tour of Sam Goody and the five boroughs over a mix of 27 classic rap records. And those two examples aren’t even the half of it; the hip-hop website DJBooth went so far as to tally and analyze all of Game’s name-drops on The Documentary 2 alone. (145 total, if you’re counting.) “It often felt like Game had simply turned on his phone, opened up his Contacts list, and started rapping,” Nathan S. wrote. Based on the website’s statistics, the Game may indeed the most sycophantic rapper of all time.
Game’s dramatic-ass rivalries with 50 and G-Unit, Jay Z, Joe Budden, and, most recently, Meek Mill, are all predicated on the same principle as his friendships: they’re relationships of convenience. As poorly as Meek has handled this current feud, it’s important to remember that Game only ever picked this fight with Meek in order to flatter Drake (“Getting the bigger pool the only way to diss Drake,” Game raps on “However Do You Want It”); similarly, he once framed his largely unanswered harassment of Jay Z as an airing of grievances on behalf of Kanye. The common, operative principle here is that Game’s professional relationships, whether with friend or foe, are rarely straightforward; he is always scheming three names ahead in that invaluable contacts list of his.
Historically, Game makes decent albums; he just hasn’t made a great one since his 2005 debut, The Documentary. His albums have only gotten more bloated over time, and also more dependent on contemporary tentpole stars like Kanye or Drake to lend his singles and tracklists some buzz. Game’s got the serviceable taste of an aux cord DJ whom you’d basically trust to curate the ’90s music at happy hour. Yet, he’s still a dexterous rapper, upholding the spirit and breath control he once used to diss G-Unit and Jay Z for 300 and 500 bars on end, respectively, with no hooks. Despite all the rumor-mongering about 50 Cent’s involvement in the songwriting behind Game’s earliest hits, Game is pretty undeniably passionate about his craft. He didn’t spit all those airless marathon disses for nothing. When he isn’t hopping onto songs with peers such as 2 Chainz, Ross, and Kendrick Lamar, you’ll notice he defaults to a Nas-type flow and a throwback, beat-jack mentality; his main objective is to humiliate opponents with gossip, vivid insults, and athletic flows.
Until now, Game’s Instagram had given us greater insight on his life than his music ever did. Since the release of LAX in 2008, he’s offered only the vaguest autobiographical terms to describe his gangland origins and his come-up through Interscope behind father figure Dr. Dre. On 1992’s “Young Niggas,” Game extensively recalls a childhood friend who, down on his luck, moved in with him and his family before incompatible gang affiliations rendered them strangers and, then, enemies. Game has always been rather loud about his Blood affiliation, but 1992 is the most disciplined he’s ever been in presenting that life, without getting bogged down in high-fashion tips and model-shaming, as crisis for himself and others. The opening track, “Savage Lifestyle,” is a hood petition rolled and stuffed into a Molotov cocktail, tossed through the windows of former L.A. district attorney Gil Garcetti, as well as George H. W. Bush. “So grab that gun, load that clip / Grab that torch, light that shit / Grab that stick, grab that brick / Throw it,” he raps. “It’s time to riot if you don’t see ‘black-owned’ in the window.” It’s Death Certificate in style, if not in contemporary effect; in any case, these songs suggest that Game fancies himself a local chief and party elder whose seniority suddenly obliges him to hold forth on life, politics, protest, and the like.
You’d think it’d be too late in Game’s career for all that character development. After all, L.A. is now, arguably, hip-hop’s richest kingdom, which is much more than anyone could’ve said for the city when Dr. Dre and 50 Cent recruited him into G-Unit so many moons ago. “It’s been 10 years since you heard from niggas from the Westside,” Game raps on “The Juice,” as if the past decade of his life or the careers of YG, Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, and Nipsey Hussle never happened. Game co-signed all of these guys early on some local shit, but Game didn’t help build them the way that Dr. Dre and 50 Cent built him in the ’00s. In his own right, Game hasn’t built much of anything, his defunct Black Wall Street pretensions notwithstanding. Riding coattails is no way to make a living, and Game seems to have finally, belatedly, begun to realize this much. Rap beefs aren’t the cottage industry they once were, either. But with a little work and the type of autonomy that he demonstrates on 1992, Game might be good for another 500 miles.