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The Scene: Reviews of Jay-Z, The Game and Snoop Dogg

by Robert VerBruggen

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Since the dawn of gangster rap in the mid-to-late '80s, the genre has gone through three major phases. First came the "G-funk" of the early '90s, then the East Coast success a few years later. Now, artists simply recreate old sounds - while non-gangster rappers like Kanye West, Talib Kweli and Eminem rap circles around them.

Rappers from all three eras released CDs recently. But Jay-Z, The Game and Snoop Dogg only show that new ideas are sorely lacking.
 

Jay-Z - Kingdom Come
Rating: 3 Stars

Jay-Z's Kingdom Come is easily the most anticipated of the three. After The Black Album "Hova" retired; it's only been three years, but the new record is a "comeback" of sorts.

There must be some reason the rapper decided to return. A buildup of great ideas, thanks to some time off? Something he absolutely needed to say?

Try boredom. Kingdom Come is nowhere near as good as The Black Album, to say nothing of Reasonable Doubt. It proves for the umpteenth time Jay-Z can rhyme without effort, but rhyme and compelling narrative are two very different things.

Where the best rap songs tell emotional stories - the gangster tales on Doubt, the childhood memories of Black - Kingdom Come tackles little beyond women, bling and how awesome Jay-Z is. The occasional reference to drug dealing sounds forced and distant, as the lame "30 Something" is probably the most honest characterization of Shawn Carter's current life.

Even the bonus disc, with live recordings of three Reasonable Doubt songs, is disappointing. The delivery is half-hearted, the backing vocals are off. A newcomer might think Jay-Z has always been as uninspired as he is on Kingdom Come. 

That's not to say the record has no merit whatsoever. "Minority Report" covers the Katrina aftermath, though Hova really stretches himself to sound anguished. "Show Me What You Got" has a jazzy class to it, and Beyonce's melody in "Hollywood" is infection. The production is stellar, excepting the too-loud snare in "Trouble" (painful through headphones).

"Beach Chair," featuring vocals by Coldplay's Chris Martin, is uncharacteristically trippy with muffled drums and a lurking atmosphere. It's too bad Jay-Z couldn't top the background with anything other than talk about himself.

Kingdom Come is best seen as yet another so-so release from an artist with a very up-and-down career. Diehard fans will need it - and even casual radio listeners will find much to like - but it lacks the substance the term "comeback" demands. Preview and Purchase This CD Online
 

The Game - Doctor's Advocate
Rating: 3.5 Stars

When The Game debuted last year, lots of critics talked about how Dr. Dre's mentorship and production had brought a mediocre rapper onto the national stage.

So, The Game insulted Dre, switched to a new label and recorded 16 tracks sans the doctor.

He can't quite break the mold, however - the record is called Doctor's Advocate, for crying out loud. And a guest on "Looking at You" even announces that "he's a reflection of Dr. Dre in his heyday in the worst way." A snarky music journalist couldn't have said it better.

On the very first track it seems Dre is actually guesting, but no, The Game has simply lowered his voice to make it sound that way. With a few exceptions this continues - on the album's title track, a whiny (if unusually poetic) plea for Dre to forgive him, The Game finally shines his true colors in a higher and grittier tone. "It's Okay (One Blood)" also drops the charade.

All of that said, Doctor's Advocate is a lot of fun in a "poor man's Dr. Dre" kind of way. Kanye West adds his trademark soul samples to "Wouldn't Get Far," and Snoop Dogg guests over G-funk synthesizers (which rip the melody from Dogg's own "Serial Killa") of "California Vacation."

There really isn't a cut here that's unlistenable, except arguably "Compton," what with the annoying sample in its chorus: "The gangster boogie, the gangster boogie! The gangster boogie, the gangster boogie!"

Originality isn't The Game's strong suit, so his claims to be "the number one since B.I.G. and Pac departed" are kind of amusing. But Doctor's Advocate is a fun listen - a throwback to the days of George Clinton samples, gangster bravado and endless talk of chronic and Compton. Preview and Purchase This CD Online
 

Snoop Dogg - Tha Blue Carpet Treatment
Rating: 4 Stars

Rap fans looking for some true West Coast gangster innovation can always turn to Snoop Dogg, right? No, not always - while Tha Blue Carpet Treatment beats Kingdom Come and Doctor's Advocate, it can't go beyond the overdone message "I'm a Crip and I have sex a lot."

But thanks to the production talent Snoop hired, much of the record is pretty impressive. Gone are the often-annoying beats from R&G (see "The Bidness" and "Can I Get a Flicc Witchu" in particular), replaced by sleek, catchy, hip-shaking rhythms courtesy The Neptunes, Soopafly, Dr. Dre and others.

"Crazy" is fresh and innovative, with a swooping bass line, "That's That S-" is so catchy it's absurd and "I Wanna F- You" has a nice vocal processing touch. "Round Here" is a more minimalist take on Dido's "Thank You" than Eminem's classic "Stan" was.

And even if Tha Blue Carpet Treatment simply revisits age-old themes, the lyrics are ultimately listenable. "A B---- I Knew" might be the filthiest song Dogg has ever recorded, and "Gangbangin' 101" sees The Game (a Blood) tagging along. (Crips and Bloods may kill each other, but a shared love for drugs, promiscuous sex and crime really brings them together!)

On "Imagine" Dogg and Dre answer the question, "What if gangster rap never existed?" Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. are still alive, but the poor no longer have hip-hop for social mobility. Because so many people have gotten rich off rap, of course.

Even the stereotypical gangster songs sound genuinely threatening. Despite a distracting monotone bass line, the vocals to "10 Lil' Crips" pop off the speakers, and "Vato" invokes the over-the-top storytelling of Doggystyle (even if B-Real's guest rapping is rather disappointing).

There are a few tracks that come up short. Even Ice Cube doesn't save "LAX" from its essential lameness, and "Candy (Drippin' Like Water)" can't recreate the primitive club vibe of "Drop it Like it's Hot." "Beat Up on Yo Pads," about Dogg's youth football league, is just embarrassing. Preview and Purchase This CD Online
 

Some genres, it turns out, are more malleable than others. Gangster rap reached its peak years ago, in an age when Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur all reached their peaks. Nothing today can compare.

Still, Jay-Z, The Game and Snoop carry the torch. There's nothing new on any of their records, and they rarely even venture into the kind of social commentary that made "2Pac" more than just another thug. But in a way, the entertainment value hasn't suffered that badly.
 

Robert VerBruggen (http://robertsrationale.blogspot.com) is an apprentice editor at The National Interest and an antiMusic contributor.
 


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