Wednesday, October 15, 2014

album review: 'blood moon: year of the wolf' by the game

I haven't thought about The Game as a rapper in... damn, probably three years now, when I wrote a review of The R.E.D. Album back when I was doing these reviews on Facebook. It's been a long three years, so let's catch up, shall we?

So, The Game. West Coast MC, gangsta rapper with a solid flow and some occasionally offbeat lyrics that allowed him to stand out in the crowded mid-2000s. He struck it big with two legitimately great albums in 2005 and 2006, mostly thanks to extremely solid, hook-driven production and an embarrassment of collaborating artists. In fact, if we're to consider The Game's career as a whole, one of his most distinguishing factors is his networking abilities and his Master P-inspired tendency to overload his records with guest stars - which hasn't always been the best of choices, because he frequently mishandles them or allows them to blow him off the stage, which started early with Eminem on The Documentary and has continued to happen whenever Kendrick Lamar or Common are invited on the record.

But as the 2000s continued, The Game hit a serious rough patch. Between criminal charges, he released LAX in 2008 and the disastrously troubled The R.E.D. Album in 2011, the latter of which was a mess of epic proportions that only seemed to highlight The Game's inconsistencies in not only his own rhymes, but in his guest stars and his production. Thankfully, he managed to pull some consistency back together for Jesus Piece in 2012, but as an album trying to explore the dichotomy between being religious and still being a gangsta, it felt lightweight on actually reaching solid points. Because here's the thing: there's a reason I haven't really thought about The Game in three years, and that he's never really stood out to me as a rapper beyond a few great songs, some solid production, and his knack for calling everyone under the sun to guest on his records.

So until I got a request for it, I had no idea The Game was dropping a new album this year, and honestly, I had no idea what to expect from Blood Moon: Year Of The Wolf. I mean, there was no Kendrick Lamar verse to look forward to, but Freddie Gibbs was on the back half of the album, and surely that'd make up for the contributions from Chris Brown, Tyga, French Montana, 2 Chainz and Soulja Boy, right?

Well, honestly, I'm not sure it did. But then again, I'm not sure anything could have made up for this album, because Blood Moon: Year Of The Wolf is a very fragmented and frustrating album, a record that can't decide if its playing in bloody hardcore gangsta rap or the debauched side of luxury rap. And while there are some solid tracks that do show The Game's knack for this brand of violent wordplay and making it sound convincing, there are also a surprising number of problems from production to lyrics to even concepts that makes this album feel less than the sum of its parts.

So let's start with the easiest element to discuss, instrumentation and production. Now The Game has had a knack for solid producers in the past, and to some extent he delivers here, because there are beats I liked on this album, the majority owing debts to eerie, grimy horrorcore and trap. I liked the boom-bap balanced against the piano on 'F.U.N.', I liked the bells and symphonic trap vibe of 'Really', the echoing melancholy of 'The Purge', the oldschool vibe of 'Trouble On My Mind', the bombastic punchy percussion on 'Best Head Ever' and especially the jagged synth lines on 'Hit Em Hard'. But beyond that, many of the beats fall into your typical trap-inspired production, with many of the melody lines turned way down and stuck at the back of the mixes like on the otherwise pretty solid 'Black On Black', which never seem to have as much depth as they really should. What gets worse is the perpetually oily vibe that crops up on songs like 'Fuck Yo Feelings', 'Take That' and 'Food For My Stomach', not helped by the Autotune that slathered over the more commercial-leaning tracks like so much spoiled mayonnaise. I don't know why so many rappers decided that imitating Future was a good idea, because it only takes away from the gritty voices many of these rappers have and detracts from the overall menace of the tracks.

And speaking of rappers, The Game has brought together another overloaded guest list, and like on most of his albums, he gets hit-and-miss performances from all of them. The best tracks on the album are where The Game can get them to just go off for pure dominance. And there are two tracks where this definitely happens, the first being 'Really' where Yo Gotti and especially T.I. go off with some pretty impressive verses and even 2 Chainz manages to curb his typical debauchery to spit some solid bars, and then The Game manages to top all of them! Best of all, he sticks Soulja Boy on the hook where he can't do much damage, and does the same on 'Hit Em Hard' with Bobby Schmurda. And on that track, as good as The Game is and I did like newcomer Skeme's verse, Freddie Gibbs' drops into his double time and easily dominates the song with the best wordplay. Hell, in terms of new arrivals, I liked both Skeme and Dubb, new signees to The Game's Blood Money Records, and it would have been nice for the latter to have actually have more than just a solid verse on 'Trouble On My Mind' to set an impression. This is mostly because 'Food For My Stomach' slathers autotune all over both of them and 'Married To The Game' sticks him with a bad rhyme scheme that has him ending all of sixteen bars with the word 'motherfucker'. I can only assume that rhyme scheme was used to help French Montana, who isn't in the same ballpark as either Dubb or The Game, who actually brought a few pretty damn funny lines to his verse, but it's a song that suffers the problem of being one of The Game's commercial tracks that fails to realize saying 'married to the game' on the hook might have a double meaning when you're a rapper named The Game, especially when that song involves sharing a girl with three other men. 

And this is where we run into the first big problem with this album - as much as The Game is a natural fit for tracks where he is that violent gangsta, he's a lot less distinctive on commercial leaning luxury rap, and he's not great at making sure his guest stars have a consistent focus. The most prominent example is the final track 'Black On Black', where The Game is talking about giving a good life to his family on a pretty lightweight instrumental, but then you get Jeezy and Kevin Gates rapping about dealing drugs in increasingly desperate cadences, forsaking any vestige of a moral high ground for cash. And that's not even touching on The Game's songs about women, like 'On One', where he blows off a girl who he's been screwing and who expected more, only to get peeved when he discovers she's at the club and actively hates his guts. I'd say it's well-framed except it's very clear we're supposed to be on The Game's side because the girl 'clearly' is just a tease who really wants him and can't admit it to herself and then it just feels kind of unpleasant, although not as bad as 'Or Nah', a strikingly obnoxious track produced by DJ Mustard where The Game and his guests are trying to get laid by buying this girl things and asserting some brand of dominance - and what really gets grating is the uncredited female voice on the chorus backing it up. Or there's the track 'Best Head Ever' which is about exactly what it sounds like and is supported by Tyga's uninteresting wordplay and by Eric Bellinger mimicking Chris Brown. It's played a little classier on 'Take That' thanks to the R&B vocals from Pharoah Jackson, but that's a song where The Game isn't featured at all... so why is it on this album again? The worst miscalculation on this album, however, is 'Fuck Yo Feelings' with Lil Wayne and Chris Brown, which puts Lil Wayne on the chorus and for some ungodly reason Chris Brown as the rapper who steals the girlfriend of the listener and screws her in explicit detail. Charming.

Now at this point some of you would be forgiven for thinking this is just another shallow commercial gangsta rap album full of blood, sex, and brand names - and yet in the middle of this album, The Game decides to go political with 'The Purge' and 'Trouble On My Mind', two songs where he thinks the best way of solving the problems of the world by killing all the 'bad guys'. And particularly those surrounding racial tensions in the United States, his targets are mostly cops or plainly racist aggressors against unarmed black youth. And you know, on some level, I get why The Game is as royally pissed as he is, and I get why, from his perspective, the only solution is violence - because that's what he knows that gets results. But there are a few issues with this, the first being that The Game really isn't the best person to put forward this message, especially when he perpetuates exceedingly violent imagery and gang affiliation across this album, and especially when that imagery is likely responsible for perpetuating negative images surrounding black males. The second problem links back to The Game's name-dropping tendency, because he calls out so many rappers on this album - including mentioning all the rappers he thinks are bigger than him on 'Bigger Than Me' and telling Frank Ocean to, quite literally, 'fuck all the competition'. And of course he calls out all names both of victims and perpetrators of violence against unarmed black males, but just the names of collaborators often feel like a list to boost The Game's credibility, the lists here can't help but dehumanize both his victims and targets even further, reduce them to recognizable reference points for his violence. And this contributes to the biggest issue of this album, in that The Game doesn't exactly go for depth here. He doesn't delve into the complex morality of this sort of conflict and fighting fire with fire, he doesn't touch on the human side of this issue or even the impact on his psyche beyond sheer rage. I get the visceral catharsis that might come from this sort of reaction, but it's one-dimensional and reductive to an issue where The Game's brand of hyperbolic violence will likely make things a lot worse.

Look, I know some of you are wondering why I got political on a gangsta rap record that's clearly intended as a violent fantasy, as entertainment - but when you step into very real situations that are active right now, and a slew of angry people who will be inclined to take The Game's word's at face value and won't consider it entertainment, you run into these real issues. Because at the end of the day, Blood Moon: Year Of The Wolf works when it stays simple, gratuitous, and firmly lodged in that fantasy. But when it tries to go for depth it can't handle - or, conversely, go for commercial tracks that scream of obnoxiousness and with their production only strip away personality - the record really suffers. Combined with technical wordplay and instrumentation that wasn't stellar, I'm giving this album a cautious 5/10 and only a recommendation if you need another fix of gangsta rap. But frankly, in a year where we have Freddie Gibbs, Schoolboy Q, and Styles P among others dropping stronger projects, The Game is capable of better than this.

No comments:

Post a Comment