back to the Black Table

White people, desperate to seem hip, occasionally find themselves in the quandary of having to pretend to like stuff they're biologically incapable of understanding: blues music, Chris Rock, Booty Call. Put another way: Whites aren't getting any closer to accurately judging black artists. Hip-hop is especially problematic:

  Criticize it and you're an unsympathetic racist or a prude; embrace it and you're either a scene jumper or blind to the music's rampant homophobia and misogyny. Doesn't matter which way you fall, though; the superstars will go double platinum, guaranteed.

That struggle between celebrating an art form and detesting the cynical manipulation of a few rich businessmen pervades The Game's The Documentary, the debut of Dr. Dre's newest protégé and 50 Cent's former-pal-now-sworn-enemy. I recognize the proficiency of the rapper and his


high-profile production buddies, but I couldn't deny the bubbling sensation in my gut any longer. I hate this album -- and I hate it precisely because of how skillfully groomed and manicured it is.

First, let's get the obligatory hip-hop backstory out of the way. Jayceon Taylor, impressionable young Compton gang member and drug hustler, gets shot up in a robbery. He falls into a coma. Miraculously, he wakes up. Stuck in bed recovering, he immerses himself in classic hip-hop: specifically N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. Like Denzel Washington's prison transformation in Malcolm X, Taylor sees the light. Changes his ways. Becomes a rapper. Calls himself The Game. Months later, he's the biggest thing in West Coast rap since Dre's old group first hit the scene in the late '80s. Or so he says.

The Documentary suggests that the Game has a mildly active social conscience -- he dedicates one track to the slain sister of Venus and Serena Williams, and he celebrates the birth of his son on the disc's finale. But the album is so perfectly calibrated to ensure big sales that it's difficult not to straight out detest the record. It's idiotic to dismiss commercial rap as crap -- I can name you 10 albums you need right now if you feel that way -- but The Documentary positions The Game as nothing more than a hip-hop American Idol winner. He passed the audition, and now his shapeless qualities can easily be molded by the likes of Dre, Eminem, Kanye West and Timbaland. Too easily, in fact.

Whether it's that freaky metal mask donned by Doom or the gunshot wounds brandished by 50 Cent, MCs need a persona -- or, in a pinch, just a gimmick -- that distinguishes themselves from one another. But wherever The Game turns, his shtick's already been copped by one of his betters. Are any of us surprised anymore by some young buck trying to be the Reformed Thug, or the Devoted Hip-Hop Purist, or the Renegade Outsider? Flunking these disguises, Mr. Game's major lyrical twist seems to be reminding us that he's recently hooked up with some pretty famous homies. He's already nailed the laid-back confidence the game requires; his sneering vocals rarely fluctuate from track to track. But mostly, he sounds like he doesn't want to risk rocking the lucrative boat he stumbled aboard. It's this lazy creative cynicism that links gangsta rap to its unlikely spiritual twin: teen pop.

If The Documentary was just the work of a marginal talent on a major label, we could toss it aside and move on. But that wouldn't take into account how juiced these tunes are. With an A-list producer helming just about every track, The Game's raw voice feels more epic, more important, than it would twisting in the wind on its own. Perhaps that's the sobering discovery about The Documentary: The beatmasters are forever king; they just need to plug in whatever new guppy comes down the pike and it's all good. And you don't have to worry about the audience, either. We don't care if the record sounds familiar; this is the shit, we're told, and we'd better recognize. And so we obey, fearful that questioning such hardness would somehow prove how pussy we are.

In a way, The Game's utter disposability is the point. Even before this kid's emergence, Dre had created a brand as potent as Dick Wolf's Law & Order franchise: tweak the formula enough to be different, but keep it recognizable. Hence Dre beget Snoop Dogg (the younger Dre) who beget Eminem (the white version with more empathy) who beget 50 Cent (the next generation of thug). Each was its own ingenious spin-off, but The Game feels like one sequel too many. Nonetheless, as with L&O groupies, gangsta rap disciples have flocked to The Documentary because its reaffirms the brand. Hey, if you like the Hilary Duff CD, you'll probably buy the Lindsay Lohan one too, right?

Most who dismiss gangsta rap usually do it on moral grounds, or because they have tin ears which can't discern originality when it's couched in "bitch" and "nigga" talk. But that's also the weak defense gangstas hide behind: that those who object are afraid of the "reality" being presented. But reality has nothing to do with it -- and you can forget "danger" too. Regardless of The Game's violent past, The Documentary playacts its thug scenarios. It's not dangerous, it's boring, so enamored by its sealed-off world of materialism and macho posturing that it can no longer relate to anything outside its narrow perspective.

When Straight Outta Compton hit the streets, N.W.A.'s lyrics, pigheaded or otherwise, rattled cages, mostly because we had never heard such disturbing sentiments in an angry-yet-casual way. Debates about whether it was "reality" were beside the point; it felt real, which is close enough to reality for most of us. A landmark more for what it established than for what it achieved, Compton confirmed gangsta's legitimacy -- and, hey, what luck, it was a real good seller, too.

Unlike true hip-hop storytellers such as Public Enemy or Ice-T, Dre is more of a moodmaker than an investigative reporter. (Details were always Ice Cube's bag.) From The Chronic on, Dre has made millions cleverly enhancing and recycling his central motif: the 24/7 tough-guy party. Think "Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang." Think Snoop's "Gin and Juice." Those silky strings, those hard piano chords, the beats that never quite land the way you expect -- love him or hate him, Dre smashed craters into the musical landscape. He made Snoop and Fiddy scary, but only Eminem seemed to push Dre to greater heights: His work on Em's records, including Encore, has a genuinely unhinged quality that goes beyond the fiendish pop hook of an "In Da Club." But The Documentary is just an opportunity for Dre to coast in high style. Who's gonna stop him? You?

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of popular music will be able to ID Dre's tracks on The Documentary, and it's equally a cakewalk figuring out who else did what. Kanye West's "Dreams," for example, sounds like The College Dropout without a lick of the charm or passion that made that record essential. The Documentary is an expensive amalgam of the biggest, most popular sounds going on in commercial hip-hop today; this is one polished piece of product. Backpackers the world over would kill for the bounce of Em's "We Ain't" or strut of Dre's "Westside Story," especially since the lucky guy at the mic fades from memory pretty rapidly. A lot of label money and studio time has been expended to guarantee Jayceon Taylor's superstar aspirations. But it's soulless and utterly devoid of personality -- although you'll probably remember the genius beats. I wonder what Dre could do for Fantasia.

Believe the Hype Rating: 1 out of 10


Want more?


Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.