The Game isn’t a “great” gangsta rapper–a fact sadly confirmed here, on the weakest of his three albums–but he’ll go down as the last “big” gangsta rapper. With the disastrous turn in 50 Cent’s career and the failure of the refashioned Busta Rhymes–both brought to you by Dr. Dre, who’s made a career out of packaging gangsta rappers–a once ubiquitous archetype is suddenly an endangered species. We’re now in the age of the Kanyes, Weezies and Lupes, rappers whose very careers are to some extent premised on their departure from the gangsta model.
Suddenly, the ever-reliable Game is the best rapper left spitting hard about cars, guns, drugs, women and (occasionally, evasively) his feelings. How perfect, then, that LAX is book-ended by prayers from one of Game’s biggest East Coast predecessors, DMX. Another gangsta for the cultural trash heap, the once vital DMX needs more than a prayer these days to escape his cycle of stupid arrests and misguided releases. More fitting, even, is Ice Cube’s (disappointing) appearance on the chorus of “State of Emergency”: The first rapper to completely embody the gangsta paradigm appearing alongside its final incarnation.
Tellingly, some of LAX‘s best moments come from those who’ve edged gangsta rap off the charts. Here, Game–left without Dr. Dre’s headstrong flair for image-crafting after their recent falling-out–strives to adapt his persona to the changing winds of hip-hop style. Lil Wayne provides the roboticized hook on Cool & Dre’s melancholic “My Life”, a moving rumination on hardship and perseverance. Later, on “Angel”, Game and Common casually wrap their words around Kanye’s amazing Gil Scott Heron sample, an enchanting hybrid of fluttery, synthy psychedelia and deep, funky West Coast bass.
Even Nas, appearing on the unimpressive Martin Luther King Jr. elegy “Letter to the King”, provides Game a useful model for shape-shifting. From observant urban storyteller to fictional gangsta superstar to bumbling embarrassment and now mainstream rap’s political conscience, Nas is proof that self-aware rappers can adapt. Game doesn’t seem so malleable, though. Crushing the massive 1500 or Nothin’ beat on “Dope Boys” with a riveting mix of bling-bragging, gang violence and drug kingpin anecdotes, it’s hard to imagine Game straying too far from the formula he’s kept alive almost single-handedly since his 2005 debut.
Like other “big” rappers, Game’s albums are as much about production as they are about lyrics, but LAX falters where his first two were non-stop contests of one-upmanship by top-tier producers. Aside from that Kanye entry, two Cool & Dre beats, and a few others, LAX‘s 19 tracks disappoint. Like its lyricists, rap’s biggest producers aren’t so focused on reinventing the gangsta aesthetic as they were a few years ago. As a result, there’s nothing so amazingly awesome as Timbaland’s space anthem “Put You on the Game&” from The Documentary, or Just Blaze’s drum-fueled party-starter “The Remedy” on Doctor’s Advocate.
The absence of upbeat tracks works to LAX‘s advantage, though, giving the album a gloomy backdrop befitting its subject. Taken as a subgenre’s swan song, Game’s goodbye to gangsta rap is appropriately somber. From opener “LAX Files”, through the Eazy-Biggie-Tupac tribute “Never Can Say Goodbye” to the closing MLK Jr. memorial, LAX isn’t the state of the union album that Game’s first two were. Instead–as the disc’s title suggests–it sounds like the gangsta rapper’s last stop, his final destination on a decades-long journey Westward.