Since the start of his career, basically one narrative has followed The Game: He’s an artist whose success is completely unrelated to his talents as a rapper.
After his arranged marriage with G-Unit eventually fell out, Game was, either fairly or unfairly, charged with the task of repeating his historic success without the aid of 50 Cent, the man whose (then) infallible pop ear was basically the only reason anyone even cared about him in the first place. Though it didn’t really flop in the traditional sense, Game’s last album, Doctor’s Advocate, has yet to sell half as many copies as his breakthrough debut The Documentary, and it placed exactly zero singles—even the Kanye West feature with the expensive video—in the top 40.
Somewhere along the line, in between his fabricated role as heir to the G-Unit throne and his reemergence as the West Coast’s vengeful Moses, Game basically lost his mind. His exile from G-Unit lead to him becoming scarily obsessed with his old crew, harping on the same disses and beefs on diss tracks and freestyles that sometimes lasted over ten minutes.
His demons though, as would be revealed on Doctor’s Advocate, ran way deeper than anyone really anticipated. The album’s most stunning track, “Doctor’s Advocate”, had Game portraying himself as a wrecked alcoholic before rapping what amounted to a breakup note to his mentor and muse Dr. Dre, which included the almost heartbreaking revelation, “Sitting here looking at my platinum plaques / Thinking, ‘What the fuck am I without a Dr. Dre track?’” The rest of Doctor’s Advocate ran the gamut from pretty good bites of classic Dre tracks (the whiny “California Vacation”) to really awful bites of classic Dre tracks (the indefensible will.i.am produced “Compton”).
Though the album had as many hits as misses, Game’s persona as a bitter, depressed, lonely and alcoholic rapper who is willing to rap about being all those things made for compelling listening, especially coming from someone who started out with G-Unit, arguably the most soulless and robotic group of rappers currently working. If Doctor’s Advocate had a major fault, though, it was that its chosen aesthetic as a blatant West Coast homage blunted the complex persona that Game had fallen into. When coupled with the rear view mirror-nature of his lyrics, the beats made Doctor’s Advocate a little too cloying.
On LAX, Game hasn’t changed, but he’s picked a group of beats that get him closer to extricating himself from both his West Coast Messiah complex and the post-G-Unit narrative. And while Game has yet to carve out his own identity as a rap artist, LAX shows that, on his third album, he might be on the right track.
The album starts off on a familiar tip: with the underdog Game (“Paul Pierce to you LeBron niggas”) as Cali rap’s last hope. But where the same type songs on Doctor’s Advocate turned him out as a sort of childish mascot, the first quarter of LAX finds a forceful and urgent Game rapping over rumbling, grimy beats in a stretch of songs that are maybe the best evidence in favor of his continued relevance.
On “State of Emergency”, over a rippling N.W.A. bite by J.R. Rotem, Game tries storytelling on for size, and it results in one of the better homages he’s ever done. He even brings Ice Cube in for the chorus (“California ain’t a state it’s an army”) in an obvious baton passing moment, and while it’s not as convincing as Game probably thinks it is, the shoe fits better on “State of Emergency” than it maybe ever has.
From there, things stay solid and consistent, whether Game is sparring with Raekwon (“Bulletproof Diaries”), handing off to Ludacris (“Ya Heard”, featuring the album’s best punchlines) or going in alone, as he does on the menacing “Money” and “House of Pain”, a DJ Toomp production that splits the difference between early ‘90s West Coast beats and Tha Carter III’s “You Ain’t Got Nuthin”.
As the album progresses it starts to lose momentum, though even its softy middle of prerequisite loverman songs isn’t as cringeworthy as you’d expect. On “Angel” he clumsily follows a Common verse by riffing on “Used to Love H.E.R”, and “Never Can Say Goodbye”, although Game pulls off the rapper role-play well, is almost comically maudlin. “Game’s Pain”, on the other hand, is one of his best nostalgia trips, but “Letter to the King”, which should be an earnest and endearing tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, is marred by some of Game’s worst raps (“I feel the pain of Nelson Mandela / cuz when it rains it pours / I need Rihanna’s umbrella”).
All told, if LAX is the most important album Game has ever released—the one where he has to prove that he can sustain an artistic career beyond 50 Cent and beyond exacting revenge upon 50 Cent -— then he has proved to be more up to the task than probably anyone thought he would be. And though LAX has its debilitating faults, it certainly stands up with any rap full-length released this year, which for this point in Game’s career, might even make it a miracle.