Monday, October 19, 2015

album review: 'the documentary 2 / the documentary 2.5' by the game

Let's talk a little about double albums. Now I've covered a fair few double albums this year, most notably 'Summertime '06' by Vince Staples and 'The Powers That B' by Death Grips. And in both of those cases, I was left feeling that positioning them as double albums might not have been the best decision as they both could be slashed down to tighter single records with less filler - or in the case of Death Grips, they could have just stuck with Jenny Death. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not averse to the double album as a concept - one of my favourite records of all time, Ayreon's The Human Equation, is a prime example - but even Arjen Lucassen struggled with his double album The Diary under The Gentle Storm namee. Yeah, I can appreciate making both a heavy and light version of each track and then encouraging your audience to mix and match, but that could have been a much tighter release.

So when I heard that west coast MC The Game wasn't just releasing a sequel to his critically acclaimed record The Documentary, but structuring it as a double album release called The Documentary 2 and The Documentary 2.5 - yes, I know each disc was released a week apart, but it's a double album, let's be real here - I was seriously worried. Even assuming the best case scenario that each of the hour-plus discs would come together, the odds of this project being just an exhausting endeavor to work through seemed likely. And even though Blood Moon: Year Of The Wolf wasn't apparently a full project from The Game, instead more of a compilation, it was hard to overlook that it was a fragmented mess that had too many guest stars and opted for way too much style over substance.

But then again, maybe I'm being unfair. Many people absolutely loved the song The Game effectively made his own on Dr. Dre's Compton, and considering he was directly positioning these records as sequels to the one that made him huge, I had some hope this could work. Of course, he also brought out all the stops as hip-hop's best networker since Master P, and on this double album we have Kendrick, DeJ Loaf, Ice Cube, Dre,, Fergie, Puff Daddy, Ab-Soul, Q-Tip, Future, Kanye West, Drake, Snoop Dogg, Anderson .Paak, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, Nas, Lil Wayne, Scarface, DJ Quik, E-40, Ty Dolla $ign, YG, King Mez, Jon Connor, and Busta Rhymes, and those are the names I immediately recognized... although considering his hype and his Blood affiliation, I'm shocked Young Thug doesn't show up. So I expected this to be an overlong, bloated mess: was I right?

Well, here's the thing: after the first four or five times I listened through these, I was thinking that covering both at once was a mistake, because of course I'd get burned out on The Game. But a few more listens confirmed two things: if I didn't cover these at the same time, I'd run out of things to say, and since both of these albums are overlong, I'd get burned out anyways. I will say that listening to The Documentary 2 and 2.5 did solidify a few suspicions I had about The Game, the biggest being he has more talent than ideas and yet he tries so damn hard that I want to root for him. And yet I can't say that either of these albums are anything more than decent but messy stabs at gangsta rap that doesn't do enough to stand apart. And while both discs have distinctly different issues, the easiest way to improve both of them would be cutting a good four or five songs apiece.

So let's start with the big common element, The Game himself, who has always been a contradiction of a rapper. He's got good flows and sounds good on a beat, but his technical rhyming skills are haphazard and can get lazy. He's got tons of charisma, yet feels the need to collaborate with everyone and constantly namedrop, which can come across as tacky and frankly desperate. And for as many songs as he sounds good with his own flow, once again he spends a significant chunk of this record copying other people's cadence's and even delivery - which, yes, does show talent, but it doesn't help you stand out on your own. And just like previous records, he's all over the place in terms of who he wants to be as a rapper: hard-edged gangsta vs. conscious thug, reality-show luxury rap player vs. responsible father figure, half glorification, half subversion, and all of it delivered with so much sincerity that you just wish The Game would make up his goddamn mind. And I'm very tempted to blame this on his tendency for calling up so many guest stars and then falling into their style: as I and so many other critics have said, I'm convinced The Game could make a good solo album with no features - hell, when you give tracks like the title track 'Documentary 2', he's pretty solid.

But since that's not happening any time soon, let's go through the ones that actually stood out. Kendrick was solid, as you'd expect, even though he's done better this year, Dre and Ice Cube are decent though nothing they both didn't do better on Compton - and it doesn't help that The Game spends both songs imitating Kendrick. He does something similar on 'Dollar and a Dream' imitating Kanye - which he does off-and-on - but Ab-Soul delivers a decent verse and overall it's a pretty damn good song. Hell, when Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock show up later, they clean up on 'Gang Bang Anyway', with Jay Rock easily being the standout. Then Anderson .Paak shows up for two songs on The Documentary 2.5 to prove that Dre definitely made a good choice co-signing this guy, both for hooks and conscious bars - similar case for King Mez later on 'Moment Of Violence'. The big surprises came with Jelly Roll hollering his lungs out on the explosive 'Hashtag' and later cooling off on 'Summertime', Skeme and AD being pretty solid on the posse cut 'My Flags/Da Homies', and of all people actually delivering some decent hooks that weren't drowned in effects and a sports-reference loaded verse on 'LA' that was passable. But outside of that, Future's moaning did nothing, Snoop Dogg definitely underwhelmed me after how strong he was on Compton, and Drake's verse on '100' really was nothing I found incredibly special, especially considering the rest of his output this year. And then there was Kanye on 'Mula' and Lil Wayne on 'From Adam' and E-40 on 'Outside' and Jon Connor on 'Moment Of Violence' and Busta Rhymes on 'Like Father Like Son 2', which are prime examples of The Game completely wasting his guest stars - you get two of the biggest rappers of the past decade and three more solid spitters and just stick them on the hook and ad-libs?

But now we have to talk about content... and look guys, there's a limit to what I can say here because it's not like The Game switches up his formula that much, and it really comes down to the points where he does it well - bragging, violence - although not nearly as graphic as he's been in the past - repping for Compton and the Bloods, and especially on the first disc tracks about his stream of issues with women, the latter of comes up on the absolute worst two songs on this entire project: 'Dedicated' and 'Bitch You Ain't Shit', the latter of which might as well be the sequel to 'Drips' by Eminem and Obie Trice except gratuitously scatological and a lot worse - although the hookup on 'Sex Skit' is pretty far from flattering. But it's the Bloods affiliation that raises a lot more interesting questions on this record, not just because ScHoolboy Q is affiliated with the Crips, but for as much as The Game holds that banner, The Documentary 2.5 tries to raise some commentary on the gang violence and the bigger picture, including a re-enactment of the famous murder that started that gang war. And while I'm not going to say it completely backfires, I definitely question whether The Game is the right person to make that commentary, especially when his deeper insight or questioning is so painfully thin. Sure, Nas does his thing on 'The Ghetto' by describing the underlying poverty, but then The Game drops one of the more telling lines addressing critics: 'I ain't tryna kick knowledge, just a pair of graphic parables'. So not only do you undercut the moments where real knowledge and insight could have been dropped, but if we're supposed to treat all of this just as your life stories, all of the weight of the record then falls on whether we find The Game compelling as a character. So when on the very next track he talks about how he thinks he was set up by Bloods when he got shot and he thinks about quitting gangs entirely, and on the next song how he goes right back to saying he'd give up the money because he loves being a Blood, I have zero reason to sympathize with him. And then he follows it with 'Last Time You Seen', a tribute to 2Pac that really is saved by Scarface's heartfelt verse because The Game rambling how the deaths of several rappers were a LAPD conspiracy and saying the last time he saw Tupac was in the mirror runs up to the line of good taste. And then in a complete tonal whiplash instrumentally and lyrically, after a radio skit interlude, the album goes straight for g-funk hedonism and abandons any attempt to be remotely thought-provoking until the song for his sons 'Like Father Like Son' and the brief stab at politics on album closer 'Life'... well, at least for the first third. 

But believe it or not, there's a lot I can forgive if the production can hold up, and The Game got a murderer's row of in-demand producers to flesh out these records with some explosive, aggressive beats with plenty of west-coast G-funk touches... although, again, he sacrifices the overall cohesion of both albums to do it, and it's rare that we get much grit or texture. What's telling is that many of these beats sound more tailored for the guest stars than they do for The Game himself, most immediately noticeable on the TDE collaborations with maybe the exception of Ab-Soul on the bass-heavy soulful swell of 'Dollar And A Dream', which was pretty damn solid anyway. That's probably the reasons why '100' and 'Dedicated' felt like cuts from Drake and Future albums - and not good ones - and 'Mula' felt like a warped, swamped out version of Kanye's newest tracks that honestly doesn't go as hard as I was expecting and really didn't flatter that Phantogram sample. That said, there was definitely some production on that first disc that I enjoyed, like the processed horn bounce on 'Standing On Ferraris', the menacing guitar wobble against the stomping beat on 'Hashtag', and the scratchy, piano-saturated title track courtesy of DJ Premier and Dre, and I'd argue that things get even better on The Documentary 2.5, with the great funky hook with the horns on 'Crenshaw/80s And Cocaine', the impressively bleak crescendo off of the ghostly pianos on 'Gang Bang Anyway', the gleaming horns against the scratchy bass of 'From Adam', the Kool & The Gang sample driving 'Up On The Wall', to that real menace off the bass against the distant guitar of 'Moment Of Violence'. Unfortunately, those great moments have to share space with the shift to smoky g-funk and quirky, borderline 80s disco courtesy of DJ Quik - which sure, was funky as hell, pretty damn fun, but it's not like The Game remotely tried to ride the groove and it came across as inconsistent.

But then again, inconsistent is the word I'd use for both of these discs, no matter how much I wanted to like them. Because that's the most frustrating thing: The Game is a good rapper with real charisma, a solid sense of humour, a underappreciated knack for vivid storytelling, and can be convincingly visceral. But he's diluting his brand by flooding the market with material when if he chopped this double release down to one record of purely the best cuts, he could have a sequel worthy of The Documentary. As it is, which of The Documentary 2 or 2.5 you like more will depend on what you're looking for from The Game, as I'd argue the latter disc has more unique flavour and a little more thought, but not the big commercial features. But even though The Documentary 2.5 is more experimental, it also has some of the most questionable lyrical moments - with the exception of 'Bitch You Ain't Shit'. Either way, if I'm going to rate these albums, The Documentary 2 gets a light 6 and The Documentary 2.5 gets a strong 6, which rounds out to the same number in the middle. For fans of The Game, you've got him for over two hours. For everyone else... well, I can promise you that you won't be bored, and really, that's saying something.

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