It starts with the story of a consumer. On October 1, 2001, an 18-year-old Compton native named Jayceon Taylor was playing Madden in the apartment he sold drugs out of when two unknown assailants kicked in the door and shot him five times. Taylor was able to call himself an ambulance, but soon slipped into a coma. (In the future — when he was on the precipice of becoming a star — Taylor would rap: “I was two beeps away from a flatline.”) When he woke up in the hospital three days later, he had one request for his brother: that he return with copies of as many classic hip-hop albums as possible.
While he’d been a hip-hop fan from an early age, it was during his recovery that Taylor studied these records with a renewed attention to detail. He taught himself to be a rapper in the macro and micro — trying to emulate not only the musicality in The Notorious B.I.G.’s verses, the precision of Jay-Z’s and the IV drip of charisma that flowed through Snoop Dogg’s, but also the way those men and their peers pitched themselves to the public, framed their careers and manicured their legacies in real time. As his body got stronger, so too did Taylor’s conviction that he would one day enter the canon he had begun to obsess over.
If the aspiration was not unique, the follow through was. Just over three years after that nearly fatal shooting, on January 18, 2005, Taylor — who had rebranded himself The Game, a nickname his grandmother gave him because she loved the 1997 David Fincher movie — would release his debut album, The Documentary, through Interscope Records, Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment, 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records and Game’s own Black Wall Street imprint. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was certified Double Platinum by March. More importantly, it confirmed Game as the first bona fide mainstream star to emerge from Los Angeles County in the 21st century.
By the time The Documentary hit shelves, Game had navigated several lifetimes’ worth of hardship. Jayceon Taylor was born in 1979 into a Compton that was already being carved up by gang divisions: His mother, Lynette, was a Hoover Crip, while his father, George, was from another Crip set, Nutty Blocc; his older brother, Jevon, followed his father into the latter set. But when Jevon was 17, he was shot during an altercation at a gas station. Shortly after visiting him in the hospital, Jayceon, who was only 13 at the time, got the call that his brother had passed away.
After Jevon’s passing, Jayceon followed his older half brother, also named George — but better known as Big Fase 100 — into a Blood set, the Cedar Block Pirus. Through his teen years and into his 20s, he lost several close friends and became embroiled in the sorts of activities that would eventually lead to the attempt on his life. Surviving this period only underlined the sense of destiny that would propel Game through the next phase of his life.
From the moment he left the hospital, Game worked diligently to refine his sound, recording mixtapes on his own and making industry inroads, most notably with JT the Bigga Figga, the San Francisco-bred rapper and founder of Get Low Recordz, which would eventually issue several albums of his early, independent work. The majors swooped in almost immediately. P. Diddy nearly signed him to Bad Boy Records, but was edged out by another Compton native: Dr. Dre, the figure who would cast the longest shadow over Game’s career, and whose legacy the rapper desperately wanted to honor.
While most reports have Game officially signing to Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment at some point in 2003, he can be seen dancing in the background of the video for 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” which was shot late the year prior. In any event, it seemed that things were moving quickly. Eminem had made Aftermath the juggernaut that many doubted it would ever become following Dre’s mid-’90s split from Death Row Records, the label he’d co-founded with Suge Knight; the good doctor’s own 2001 confirmed he was as vital as ever. And in 50, Dre had secured the most sought-after free agent in rap, and was well on the way to minting him as yet another superstar under his tutelage. All that was left, it appeared, was for him to find a protégé from his hometown.
Only Game was not put on the fast track. As rapidly as he’d gone from a hospital bed to the Interscope offices — from the dope spot to a rented condo in Beverly Hills — things just as swiftly ground to a halt. He kicked around the label’s shelves for months on end, hungry but without anything to show for it. But he kept writing, and he kept recording. One of the first records he cut under his deal hears a rasping, desperate quality in his voice: the detritus of the bullets that pierced through him. A couple years in the future, while finalizing the tracklist for The Documentary, Dre refused to let Game replace these with new vocal takes, wanting to retain the unique energy they capture.
Game began working with two Aftermath A&Rs, Mike Lynn and Angelo Sanders. While the latter cast a net over the industry’s A-list producers, looking for beats to coax another Platinum debut out of a previous unknown, Lynn pushed Game to stop obscuring his personality beneath doubled vocal tracks. He also urged him to steer clear of the trap so many Aftermath signees then fell into: aiming to please Dre rather than realize their own creative visions. Game recorded a dozen songs, then another, then more still. In the eyes of the label, he was still cutting mixtape material. He grew impatient, pushing for a release date to no avail.
Things began to change after a Nelly-hosted party at Niketown in Beverly Hills. Game, who took pride in his freestyling abilities, heard that a producer from Chicago thought he could take him in a battle. So he, Kanye West and a crowd of onlookers skipped out of the store and headed to a nearby parking structure. By Game’s own account, he lost the battle — shocked that a beatsmith in tight jeans and Air Maxes could get the better of him. But the two formed a relationship; soon, a Kanye West beat would help get him off the shelf.
The song that changed everything for Game was “Dreams.” The first version of that track, over West’s flip of Jerry Butler’s “No Money Down,” opens with Game witnessing 9/11, and is framed as a letter to George W. Bush about the conditions in which he grew up in Compton. But as it developed, it was rewritten to focus more on the musical legacies whose arcs Game had traced, whose grooves he hoped to deepen — even if they originally ended in tragedy. He raps about his own coma (and about West’s near-fatal car crash), but for most of “Dreams” he is observing, as if still in the hospital room, these mythic figures move across a stage in his mind’s eye.
It was “Dreams” that convinced Dre his new signee was ready to work in earnest on his debut album. The first song the pair recorded together was “Westside Story.” Game wastes no time setting out the stakes of the partnership. “Since the West Coast fell off, the streets been watching,” he raps at the song’s beginning. “The West Coast never fell off — I was asleep in Compton.” The song is technically uneven: Game twice reaches for something like a double-time flow to make a verse more dynamic in its middle, only to back off when the approach doesn’t quite land. But he is undeniably ravenous. While “Westside Story” was the kind of song that could convert a hip-hop fan into a Game fan, it was not the type of record that could break into radio rotation — at least, that is, until a third party got involved.
When 50 Cent added his lilting, singsong hook to “Westside Story,” the contrast — his smoothness with Game’s serrated verses — elevated it into that elusive thing for a new artist, the street single with potential to cross over into the mainstream. By the end of 2003, 50 was perhaps the biggest rapper on the planet, with his debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and G-Unit’s Beg for Mercy each commercial behemoths and undeniable street-level phenomenons. So when he got involved with The Documentary, he made it even more of a priority to Aftermath’s parent company — but his presence also assured there would be controversies over authorship and creative control.
The powers that be at Interscope and Aftermath chose to market Game as a member of G-Unit, a role that the Compton rapper took to enthusiastically, dropping 50, Lloyd Banks, Young Buck and Tony Yayo’s names into his verses with abandon. And with “Westside Story” already buzzing on the mixtape circuit, the label went with two more 50-Game duets to market the album. It worked: Swaggering lead single “How We Do” and the contemplative “Hate It Or Love It” would hit No. 4 and No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively. But it also contributed to the impression that Game was a protégé who had hooks written for him, perhaps whole songs.
But when The Documentary came out in January of ’05, it was a phenomenon all its own. It moved 586,000 copies in its first week — more than Beg for Mercy, more than the debut albums from Banks and Buck, more than Dre’s 2001 and Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, the 1999 LPs that kicked off this phase of the label’s dominance. There is an argument to be made that 50 steals each of those two singles from Game — with his sneering victory lap on “How We Do” and the unforgettable four-bar opening to his first verse on “Hate It Or Love It” — but on the rest of The Documentary, the Compton rapper wrestles the spotlight squarely onto himself, his world, the hunger that threatened to consume him.
Dre looms large over The Documentary, in part because Game invokes his mentor constantly. But Dre himself doesn’t appear — a point made all the more interesting by the fact that he recorded a verse for the original version of “Where I’m From,” only to remove himself from the final mix. Odd as it may have seemed at the time, Dre serves the album better as a structuring absence than he would through the addition of any 16 bars. His presence would undercut one of the album’s core arguments: There’s a vacuum in Los Angeles that only Game can fill.
Across the LP, Dre’s masterful mixes bring each song to its fullest, most realized endpoint. In filmmaking there’s a concept known as depth of field, which refers to the distance between the nearest and furthest-away object that can be clearly seen in a single shot. Dre’s mixes are like images with extraordinary depth of field. Without sacrificing any instrument or warping the sound of the beat unnecessarily, he can bring the most thunderous drums and most delicate keys through in the precise proportions each track needs. But in keeping the notion of a West Coast vacuum, the beats that Dre contributes have little to do with the G-funk that he refined and exported in the early 1990s. (When the signs of this era do show up on The Documentary, they’re strictly iconographic: the low riders and creased khakis that dot Game’s rhymes.) Instead, Dre’s beats recall 2001’s digital churn (“Westside Story,” “Start From Scratch”), inject a little playfulness until his otherwise punishing 808s (“How We Do”) or hint at something new altogether (the pulsing, nearly claustrophobic “Higher”).
That last song in particular opened a unique commercial lane for Game. Where many rappers in the early and mid-2000s saw R&B-hybrid melodies as the only route to radio, “Higher” allows for — demands, actually — a rapping performance that is gruff and muscular, full enough to drill down into the palpitating beat. Where The Game on “Westside Story” is still figuring out how to fit his rough-edged raps to Dre beats in cogent, cohesive ways, “Higher” finds him in tune with the drums and other instruments as if he’s part of the song on an elemental level.
There are times when Game sounds as if he’s caught under the weight of his immense undertaking. The title track’s laundry list of classic rap LPs threatens to cast The Documentary as imitation rather than inspiration; when Game raps, on the otherwise superb “Put You On the Game,” that the song is “another memorial for Makaveli and Big Pop,” the word “another” feels too loaded, as Game has rapped about embodying Pac and Big’s legacies so frequently to that point on the record. “Church For Thugs” has a similar moment, when he takes a bar to ask Pharrell for a beat instead of attacking the excellent Just Blaze beat he’s on at that moment.
So despite its reputation as a blockbuster album with beats from the most renowned — and expensive — producers in the industry, The Documentary is perhaps unsurprisingly at its best when it’s most stripped down, when Game is allowed to dive into the quieter parts of his memory and psyche. See the Havoc-produced “Don’t Need Your Love,” where a patient but focused Game is able to mete out menace and anxiety in equal measure. (This is the song that he recorded while his chest was still recovering from gunshot wounds.) On “Start From Scratch,” he recounts the lowest points in his life, assassination attempt and all, while audibly drunk. On “Runnin’,” his concerns are refreshingly local: “I just want the same recognition that the Crips got.” And the album’s final song, “Like Father, Like Son,” comes alive not with sweeping appeals to father-son legends, but when Game actually names the doctor and nurse who delivered his baby. It’s this sort of lived-in specificity that elevates his best verses.
Throughout The Documentary, Game is chasing the ghosts of those rappers from the West and East coasts who barrelled into the canon before him, who turned their formative years into cinematic origin stories, their arcs into archetypes for the genre. But the album it has come to remind me of most is actually from one of Game’s contemporaries — a Southern rapper, no less — which came out six months after his: Young Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. On each record, a new artist raps not only with raw ambition, but about it; the striving is the subject matter. And on each record, that ambition at first outpaces the MC’s technical facilities. But like Jeezy, Game finds a way to make his unique voice the ideal vessel for his drive to become a legend. In this way, The Documentary’s title is apt: It catches the growing pains as well as the triumphs, the lows and highs in concert together.
Paul Thompson is a Canadian writer and critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in GQ, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and Playboy, among other outlets.