With rappers like Wale and Nas conducting furious cross-examinations of the genre and Lil Wayne deconstructing it into a pastiche of a pastiche, it's reassuring to know that hip-hop has a committed cheerleader in Jayceon "The Game" Terrell. From his first two albums the Game gained a reputation as an overtly anxious up-and-comer who spit out references to past heroes of hip-hop as if he had a tic. The responses to his first two albums, The Documentary and The Doctor's Advocate, were dominated by the Game's very public splits with former mentors 50 Cent and Dr. Dre. With the Game's third and best album, LAX, which drops without the baggage of a high-profile beef, we learn more about who the rapper really is: a guy who loves hip-hop, from top to bottom, and is as comfortable giving shout-outs to Will Smith and Uncle Luke as he is to Wu Tang and NWA.
The first and last tracks on LAX feature spoken-word prayers by DMX—not meant for comedic effect, it is necessary to note, in case someone mistakenly thinks that the Game has a sense of humor. We get nothing but earnest fanboy zeal from the Game, and it comes in buckets. On "My Life," a glitzy Cool & Dre production with a Weezy-tuned hook, the Game begins a verse with "We are not the same, I am a Martian," quoting a Lil Wayne track that is barely two months old. In both "Stage of Emergency," which features Ice Cube, and "Bulletproof Diaries," with Raekwon, Game does his best to match the persona of his respective fellow traveler, whether an AK-packing gang-banger in the first case or a lyrical swordsman in the second. He references Biggie and 2Pac as often as other rappers say "Mic-check, one-two."
The most surprising aspect of LAX is how well the little-brother persona works for the Game. Here is a rapper who actually has crushes—count the number of times he mentions Deelishis from Flavor of Love. It's possible that he takes it too far on "Never Can Say Goodbye," an awkward if impressively brave performance in which he attempts to rap in the voices of 2Pac, Biggie and Easy-E. What the Game has on his side here is the production, which is consistently excellent. In addition to Cool & Dre, DJ Toomp and Kanye West each supply a superb beat, and Travis Barker's contribution to "Dope Boys" is actually not terrible.
For a rapper who doesn't rap very well, the Game is proving to be amazingly resilient as well as oddly charming. Listening to LAX is like witnessing the creation of a mural of hip-hop's history in which the artist paints himself hiding among the famous faces. At some point a more confident persona may pierce the Game's mask of tribute-paying and anxiety-of-influence posturing, but here's to hoping that day remains in the distant future.