HNHH sat down with The Game to talk "The Documentary 2" & his eternal quest to keep it 100.
“My nostalgia is one hundred percent Compton and zero percent snitch" - The Game
3:35 PM, HNHH HQ, one Monday in September: the elevator door groaned open. There stood The Game and his entourage. I couldn’t actually see his face, but I could still see him, amid the flood of bodies pouring out of the elevator and into the adjacent room -- a camo snapback floating above the crowd, cocked up and backwards at the jauntiest angle possible.
Six years ago I ironically made his R.E.D. Album alternate cover art my Facebook profile picture. On that cover he wore a puffy red jacket, two red bandanas, one red skull cap, and a murderous glare. Here, as our affable video director Justin introduced me and we shook hands, he wore a green flannel shirt buttoned all the way up, a stylish counterpoint to his scruffy beard, youthful brown eyes, trademark LA Dodger cheekbone tat, and camo snapback.
Twenty feet away, his entourage packed like sardines into the tiny office kitchen to observe the interview, which couldn’t begin in earnest until they stopped muttering. From his reclined position on the big black sofa, The Game silenced them with his raspy growl: “Hey, yo… can you please shut the fuck up!”
He was in New York on a press run to promote his sixth studio album The Documentary 2, the sequel to his 2005 debut album The Documentary -- an absolute smash that sold over 500,000 copies in its first week, and a perfect storm of talents that has come to be regarded as one of the finest specimens of ‘00s hip hop – a savory blend of G-funk, soul-influenced, sample-based production, and hardcore gangster shit.
Discovered by Diddy and signed to Aftermath in 2002, The Game was immediately initiated into the rich Dr. Dre tradition of excellence and installed as the west coast branch of 50 Cent’s G-Unit. Dre & 50 co-executive produced The Documentary and recruited an all-star roster of noted hitmakers that included Scott Storch, Kanye West, Just Blaze & Timbaland to lend their production talents to the project. In this sense, The Game hit the lottery, but it is also true that he was the complete package, a genuine star -- a rugged, charismatic, and lyrical MC with a handsome face, a dyed-in-the-wool Blood from Compton, borne into the traditions of the streets, the traditions of the funk.
The Game’s rap career began the moment his drug dealing career ended, in late 2001, when he was ambushed in his apartment and shot five times. Lucky to be alive, he emerged from a coma and immersed himself in the hip hop canon, listening to classic albums and folding them into his own life experiences to form the basis for his entire rapping style. These albums were clearly at the front of his mind as he recorded TD1, which is heavily peppered with shoutouts to Jay Z, Nas, Biggie, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, 50 Cent, and Dr. Dre -- his patron saint, mentor, and friend. His reverence for Dre bordered on idol worship. “I’m the second dopest nigga from Compton you’ll ever hear/ the first nigga only puts out albums every 7 years."
The Game’s POV on TD1 was not only historical, but geographic – to say he repped Los Angeles would be an understatement. He did not simply represent LA, he was LA incarnate. Compton was not his divine muse so much as the lifeblood that coursed through his veins. He was a champion of the streets and a mouthpiece for the streets, an uncommon combination of hubris and humility. It didn’t take much but a quick tow from Dr. Dre for The Game to spread his wings and take flight.
Not long after releasing TD1, Game left Aftermath and submerged himself in a turbulent, heavily publicized beef with 50 Cent. His 2006 sophomore album Doctor’s Advocate was a commercial and critical success, and his reputation on the mic or in the streets has never wavered over the course of his four albums since. But TD1 is still generally seen as his defining album, the magic of which he has never fully replicated. The cynical view would attribute this to his falling out with 50 Cent and the lack of Dr. Dre production on subsequent albums. A more generous onlooker would point to the chronic label drama that has plagued his career. “Fuck Interscope” has long been the motto, even still in 2015, three years after he got out of that deal and founded his own label Blood Money Entertainment. The Documentary 2 is his first independent album.
The Game seemed irritated when I asked him if he had attacked TD2 with a different “mindset” and immediately dismissed the notion that his approach to music has ever been anything more than that of a humble reporter, “just letting everybody know what’s going on the streets.”
“When I created the first Documentary, I was just telling my story,” he said, “and this time, 10 years later, it’s the same thing. [I’m] just adding to my legacy."
Maybe it’s recency bias, maybe it’s the fact that he’s been liberated from the tyranny of Interscope, but it’s hard not to feel that the stakes, and expectations, surrounding TD2 are significantly higher than they were for his last album, Jesus Piece. Beyond the obvious symbolic importance of naming the project The Documentary 2, it is a 38-track colossus that features by far the most stacked ensemble of rappers, singers, and producers of any Game album to date, and Dr. Dre's presence is greater than on any Game album since TD1.
The Game is swinging for the fences, and the consensus out of his camp is that The Documentary 2 is a grand slam. Dre said it’s the best rap album in 5 years. Diddy said it’s his best album yet. And even though the Game insists that his mindset is the same as ever, he agrees.
“The Documentary 2 doesn’t compare to any of my albums because it’s my best body of work,” he told me matter-of-factly.
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
He responded without missing a beat, as if the answer was obvious, self-evident. “Because it is,” he said. “I heard it, that’s why. And when you hear it, you’re gonna feel the same exact way.”
The idea to name the album The Documentary 2 came about sometime in the middle of 2014. The Game had invited Dr. Dre to the studio to listen to some stuff he'd been working on.
“He asked me, ‘Well what you gonna name it?’” Game recalled. “I was just joking with him, I said The Documentary 2, and he just backed back like, ‘What?? You ready for that?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know man.’ Once I left the studio and got in my car, I kinda thought like, ‘I think I am ready for that.’ I’m up for the challenge, I like challenges. So I started working with Dre on the album and then it got pretty classic pretty fast.”
“Classic” – that is the TD2 watchword that The Game repeated over and over. TD2 has been an undertaking three years in the making, propelled forward always by the desire to make it “more classic.” The initial plan to release it in January, on the 10th anniversary of the release of TD1, was scrapped, and even when the album was done in March, (“it was still classic at that point”), Game wasn’t satisfied. “When my fans find out why it took me that extra seven months to complete my album, they’re gonna fucking flip their wig.” He estimates that Bongo the Drum Gawd produced 85% of TD2. Bongo didn’t enter the fold until February 2015, which would suggest that the album has been drastically overhauled since then, and gone through several iterations over the course of its three-year life span.
Much of the production on TD2 is handled by a Bongo-led contingent of youngbloods on the rise that includes Cardo, Johnny Juliano, & Sevn Thomas. Reprising their roles from past Game albums is a whole gamut of veteran producers, ranging from Kanye West to Pharrell to Swizz Beatz to David “Jelly Roll” Drew (of Snoop Dogg-affiliated production team “Nine Inch Dix” notoriety).
The Game's eyes lit up when he got to talking about these old heads. On Alchemist: “[He’s] just my Mobb Deep roots.” On Scott Storch: “Whenever Scott Storch is on the keys, it’s gonna be a problem.” On DJ Premier, who produced the album’s title track: “It’s by far the most lyrical [on a] lyrically insane album. I just went in and murdered that motherfucker. Three verses, all the way through. [We’re] in a day and time when 3 verses might be a little too much. But over a Premo beat, you just need all the ammunition you can get it.”
The Game has always stocked his albums with a Pro Bowl full of guest features, and The Documentary 2 is undoutedly his most ostentatious squad yet. He gives his LA/Aftermath boys some shine, but it's still top-heavy; the first half alone features, among others, Snoop Dogg, will.i.am, Future, Ab-Soul, Diddy, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, and Drake.
The studio, centrally located in Hollywood, was a hub of activity during TD2 sessions, a place that blurred the distinction between work and play. “Diddy said it felt like one of those ’93 Bad Boy sessions,” The Game said. “It was a lot of good energy, good people, it was liquor, good food, women... everyone just wanted to come by and hear the album, and more so just hang out, and have a few drinks and chill.”
Theory: Game gets all these high-profile guest features because he is a popular guy, and a lot of big names come through the studio to just sip and check out the album. But then they all get drunk, and Game convinces them to hop in the booth to spit some heat. As the executive producer of the album, the master of his domain, it is his solemn duty to set the proper tone. Positive vibes only!!
Game’s Instagram feed supports this theory, especially if you look at the last few months. A who's who of hip hop (and James Harden) paid the studio a visit. Dre was in there more often, and the atmosphere seemed more gregarious as the album approached completion. One post depicted Game ripping shots in the booth with Busta Rhymes. Another post depicted him simultaneously taking a shit and rapping sneeringly into a mic he’d set up next to the toilet, along with the caption: “I ain't been home in 30 days & I live 20 minutes down the freeway. I don't have a second to waste.... & I promise #TheDocumentary 2 is literally SHITTIN' on niggas !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" He explained to me that he wasn’t actually taking a shit, he'd gone in there to get a good *clap* sound (bathroom acoustics, yo), and sensed a photo op.
When not in the studio, The Game could usually be found doing one of two things – spending time with his four kids, or playing Madden “until the sun go down.” His passion for Madden -- “When I started rapping, I told myself, ‘Man, all I want is a Mercedes-Benz and an apartment and some internet so I can play Madden'" -- and his virtuosity on the sticks have been well-documented over the years, mostly by him. At one point the top-ranked Madden 09 player on the planet, his greatest gaming moment came in 2008 when he put down $100,000 on a single game of Madden against Bow Wow. It was a raucous affair, as Game entered the arena wearing a football helmet and proceeded to stomp Bow Wow 55-23. The next year, when Bow Wow wondered aloud on Twitter which record label he should sign with, Game had a suggestion: “sign to I'mAbUM@madden Records nigga !!!”
He’s still a devoted Maddenhead, as he brought the game to New York on his TD2 press run so that he had something to do in his free time. His current team of choice is the Falcons. “You can run in to me online,” he said. “It’s just ‘The Game.’ You can get that ass whooped on any day of the week.”
The Game’s Madden obsession nicely encapsulates the way in which he conducts his entire life. His personality is not an amorphous, shape-shifting, people-pleasing goop, but rather an inflexible metal rod. His competitive, confrontational, confident nature has been a constant over the course of his career, and it is responsible for his multitude of beefs and legal troubles that he has almost seemed to embrace as a part of his lifelong quest to keep it 100.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a rapper, or anyone, with a thicker file of beefs than The Game. Shit-talking is second nature to him. His element isn’t earth, air, water, or fire – it’s beef. He thrives on beefs. His best-known beef, with 50 Cent and G-Unit, culminated in arguably his best song ever, the timeless 15-minute diss track “300 Bars.” He’ll start beef with anyone who rubs him on the wrong way, rapper or non-rapper (“I'd kick David Beckham's ass on any given day”).
His affinity for conflict has not waned in recent years, and social media has only enhanced it. Social media tends to reward rappers with outspoken, outsized personalities, and seeing as it is now the primary venue in which rap beef plays out, The Game's beef game is stronger than ever. Meek Mill should probably be taking notes.
Social media basically confirms what we’ve known about him all along —he has zero filter. The Game you see is the The Game you get. He’s sparred recently on Instagram with the likes of Young Thug and he has no qualms about going after nobodies who bait him (i.e. struggle rapper/person Stitches). In September alone he threatened to break the jaw of both Wackstar, Chris Brown affiliate, and DJ Star, New York radio personality. The Game doesn’t take kindly to shit-talkers.
The point is this: while it is true that success and wealth have altered The Game's living circumstances -- he resides in a mansion in the breezy, celebrity-friendly Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, where he regularly chills with his neighbor, Aubrey Graham -- it is also pretty clear that success and wealth have done little to the alter the fabric of his personality, or diminish his propensity for getting into legal trouble. He is currently facing up to three years in prison for an incident in March, in which he punched an off-duty cop during a pick-up basketball game. While it is quite possible that he had no idea the punch-ee was a cop, he has repeatedly made clear his disgust for police. No rapper has been more outspoken in regard to police brutality against black Americans. He penned an eloquent op-ed in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots; when two NYPD officers were murdered in Brooklyn last December, he tweeted, “I guess y'all 'can't breathe' either."
Indeed, The Game’s unrelenting realness is generally laudable but has produced more than a few cringing moments. His inability to tone it down is something he attributes to his LA roots, to what he believes to be the defining characteristic of LA gangster rap. “I think that the number one reason that LA rap has flourished is because, from the beginning, we never had filters," he explained. "We never gave a fuck. About what was politically correct. It was just, 'fuck the police,' when it was fuck the police. It was, 'we gang banging, and this is it.' Snoop taught the world how to Crip walk, I taught them how to Blood bounce, and we never gave a FUCK about who didn’t like it. And New York of course is the mecca of hip hop, but you guys were a little too safe. Even 'Fight the Power,' it was like ‘yea, fight the power.’" He raised his right fist solemnly. "But see, we was like" -- he grinned and sprayed the room with a salvo from an imaginary AK -- "‘rahhhhhahrhaahrrh!!!!!"
One way to try and understand The Game would be to compare him to an artist to whom his career has been linked in many ways: Kanye West. Kanye is two years older than The Game. Both of their music careers were jumpstarted by near-fatal accidents. Back when they were both rookies, they went toe-to-toe in a parking garage rap battle after a Nelly-hosted party at a Niketown (Kanye won). Kanye released College Dropout in 2004, The Game released The Documentary in 2005, for which Kanye produced the enduring single "Dreams." The were both incredibly ambitious and self-believing (their rap battle foreshadowed a friendly 10-year duel for biggest ego in hip hop), and their respective career paths would demonstrate how ambition and self-belief can take wildly different forms. Kanye has done nothing but experiment, plumb all the weird corners of the depths of his being, and strive to charter a whole new course for music and all of art and humanity.
Meanwhile, The Game can't help but continually return to his roots, as evidenced by TD2 -- or, at least, the three TD2 songs that have been officially released on Spotify. The album has partially leaked, but The Game requested that listeners hold out for the real thing. ("Thank my true fans for their patience & not fuckin wit the leaks," he wrote in Instagram. "Everybody else eat a dick !!!”)
The first song, “Don’t Trip” feat. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, & will.i.am., utilizes a stripped-down bass line that could have easily been on a Tribe Called Quest beat from 20 years ago. The second song, “Standing on Ferraris” feat. Diddy, samples the classic Notorious B.I.G. mafioso track “Kick in the Door." The third song, "100" feat. Drake, is a rich sonic tapestry organized around a nostalgic, Whitney Houston-ish R&B sample. Game and Drake journeyed from Calabasas to Compton to shoot the video, and in that video he raps his first verse from a tire shop, returning to his well-worn motif of the tire -- a symbol for LA’s car culture, asphalt, the streets, groundedness, a symbol for circularity, a return to roots. The beginning is never more than half a revolution away.
I asked The Game how his relationship with Dre has evolved over the years, and like when I asked if he went into TD2 with a particular mindset, he seemed annoyed that I would suggest that anything had changed.
“You know what, over the years [our relationship] hasn’t evolved, it’s always been 100, and it’s just pretty much stayed the same," Game said. "Some relationships don’t need evolution. They just are what they are. It was great back then, it was great now. If I need Dre, I call him, he pick up on the phone first ring, that’s just how it works. That’s my mentor, he's like my big brother, I got a lot of love for him. And it’s always going to be the same.”
While Kanye's heart resides somewhere in the great beyond, somewhere past the Eagle Nebula, The Game's heart has never left Compton, and his fierce provincialism continues to define his art. For The Game, there is no such thing as time, there is only place. A piece of art becomes a "classic" not 10 or 20 years after the fact, but the moment it is conceived.
“I don’t think ever in my life since The Documentary 1 I felt like just recording an album,” he said. “I mean The Documentary 1, recording with Dr Dre and Snoop and, you know, with 50, and us and G-Unit were at our heights, that was dope. But this album, just preparing it and getting it ready for release, man, was I think the funnest time of my hip hop career.”