The Game’s R.E.D. Album arrives, limping and bloodied, in stores this week. The culmination of three years of development, innumerable push-backs, and a humiliating trail of failed first singles, the occasion of its release feels less a victory lap than a death spasm; Interscope Records has finally given up and decided to cut its losses. The remaining crowd of message-board lurkers can now click “download” on the .rar file and move on with their lives. And Game now owes his record label an unimaginable amount of money: the “R.E.D.” in the album’s title might stand for deficit-column ink.
Indeed, The R.E.D. Album might go down in history as the costliest losing battle a rapper has ever waged against his own irrelevance. Game’s albums have always been community affairs, and The R.E.D. Album is no exception: the guest roster this time is the most crowded ever. But no amount of shared pushing can get the doomed project off the ground, and hearing a murderer’s row of collaborators—including Drake, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Big Boi, Young Jeezy, Beanie Sigel, Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, The Creator and even Dr. Dre—step up and pitch their talents into the void over the album’s interminable 21-track expanse is one of the year’s most dispiriting experiences.
The all-consuming vacuum at the center of The R.E.D. Album is Game himself. Once upon a time, he could be counted on for simple pleasures—a gruff voice, a doggedly plowing delivery, a satisfying way with West Coast gangsta boilerplate. His embarrassing, clumsy namedropping, shrill neediness, and arm’s-length relationship to reality were lamentable, but mostly ignorable. Since then, however, he has pulled some basic coherence muscle, and now everything he bellows is irredeemably goofy. Even the minor pretext that used to link his pointless name-drops has evaporated, so now we get lyrics like: “I click-clack at you and fuck with your conscience like backpackers do/But I ain’t Talib Kweli, Black Thought or Mos Def/ But I see the most deaths.” Or: “Wayne just came home, and T.I.P. back on the yard, dog/ Guess Pujols ain’t the only one playing hardball.”
Worse, he has exaggerated his tendency to mimic the rappers he surrounds himself with: on “Paramedics,” he alters not just his flow and cadence but also the tone and grain of his voice to uncannily resemble guest Young Jeezy. Why would anyone do this? He does it again on “Speakers on Blast,” high-stepping his vowels and clipping his consonants neatly like Big Boi, who shows up later in the song to gripe ironically about style biters. On “Martians vs. Goblins,” he grouses like an angry teenager next to Tyler, the Creator. On “All The Way Gone,” Game even deigns to ape Wale’s flow. For his part, Wale seems so flattered by the experience that he delivers his first truly lively verse in an eon.
The production, meanwhile, consists of a bunch of region-less, facelessly competent Any Bangers that could have plausibly made it onto any B-level hip-hop album of the last six years. A few could have been something—the huge, clattering horn loop “Ricky”; the wailing soul beat of “Good Girls Go Bad”—but alas, they are on a Game album, where relentlessly shopped-around tracks go to die. Game has long been praised for his shrewd ear for production, but when you have no idea what to do with any of it, the riches around you cease to have meaning.
Three songs on The R.E.D. Album hit their mark. On DJ Premier’s “Born In The Trap” and the Pharrell-produced “Mama Knows,” Game keeps his head down, stays in the pocket, and simply raps hard and on-beat for the duration. It works. On the DJ Khalil cut “Drug Test” (co-produced and buffed to sheen by Dr. Dre), he rattles off a catchy sing-song verse that gets caught like gum in the song’s grinding gears. It reminds you of the strengths that got him signed to Aftermath to begin with: ferocious commitment, a palpable love of hip-hop, a great voice. When there is a firm hand reining him in, Game can still make good rap music. Left to his own devices, however, he produces a dismaying mess. This might explain why Game has carried the torch for Dre so desperately since his exile to Geffen in 2006; the man needs someone to save him from himself.