2019 BET Experience - BETX Celebrity Basketball Game Sponsored By Sprite
Leon Bennett

Ranking The Game's Discography

With the release of his final album 'Born 2 Rap,' VIBE revisits Game's catalog.

Most likely, the first time you saw Jayceon Taylor was in the background of 50 Cent’s “In The Club” video. It was a nondescript cameo for a future platinum superstar. If you’re an avid follower of the game show Change of Heart, you may have seen him there on the wrong side of a change of heart. Even with that prior knowledge of his existence, when he officially arrived as The Game it was a refreshing and earth-shattering revelation.

As the West Coast representative of 50’s G-Unit, Game leaned into that persona, never failing to let the listeners know where he was from or what he had done. Raised in Compton by parents who were members of the Crips, Game gravitated towards the Bloods thanks to the influence of his older brother. After giving basketball a try, Game dove into the streets and when he was shot in 2001 it was a turning point in his life.

After a three-day long coma, Game decided rap would be his path and spent months studying some of the greatest albums of all-time. What emerged from all of that was one of the most talented rappers of his generation, with a propensity for paying homage to his rap peers via name-dropping. Game also boasts one of the greatest ears for production ever, making every time out a pristine listening experience.

With a debut album that sold over five million copies worldwide, Game was a superstar from the gate and has spent the rest of his career trying to live up to those lofty standards he set back in 2005.  This past Thanksgiving weekend, on his 40th birthday, The Game released Born 2 Rap, what he has said will be his final album. So how will his career be remembered? Was The Documentary his best album, or are there others in his catalog that can compete? Here are all of The Game’s nine studio albums (including a sequel and a sequel of that sequel), ranked.

9. The R.E.D. Album

Released in 2011, The Red Album very much represents the mid-career slog many legends suffer through as the years grow longer. Then a greybeard in the game, something he once scoffed at, Game relied on far too many tropes and familiar sounds rather than forge his own new identity within his own framework. On one track, he’s trying to out crazy a demonic Tyler, The Creator, on another he’s predictably wooing the fairer sex with Wale. It makes the album feel generic for long stretches, in a coaction where you can see the seams and threads of the tapestry.  Rather than creating his own new album, The Red Album feels like Game took leftovers off the cutting room floor from other superstars and tacked on his own verses to retain ownership.

That’s not to say the album is a waste entirely. This is the only place where you can get Rick Ross and Beanie Sigel on the same track, rampaging through a brooding Streetrunner production with a cascade boss talk and war-ready rhymes. Game also famously spends nearly six minutes trading bars with a motivated Kendrick Lamar on “The City.” Game menaces his way through the haunting Cool & Dre production, perfectly settling the table for K. Dot’s closing acapella verse.

Later, Game would say the album was created in a time where he “was kind of lost in trying to re-find the love for hip-hop." That explains the uneven outing, but when a career is as long and storied as Game’s there are bound to be a few misses.

8. LAX

The critical reception to Game’s third album haunted him so much he decided to rap about it on his next album. Admitting you’re “stressed the fuck out” about the lukewarm reception of an album is basically an admission of guilt, and he’d be right to feel that way because that’s about exactly what LAX was.

There’s really nowhere else to go but down when you open your career up with a classic and a possible, so some slippage was to be expected from Game. What fans got with LAX was a little bit more than that, though, as he just never seemed to get his footing right.

The album is a lethargic, by the numbers affair. The plan was obvious, as Game went after radio-friendly production with guest appearances to boost the appeal. Keyshia Cole pops up for a song that screams “summer time in Los Angeles” in the laziest way possible. Ne-Yo is there for what is supposed to be a flirtatious ode to women and ends up being a clumsy proposition for threesomes instead.

That’s not to say the album is a failure entirely. On “Angel,”  Kanye West provides a production that sounds like a sunny day in 1980s LA in a lowrider as palm trees sway above you. That just makes it easy for Game and Common to float all over beat and churn out an earworm worthy of repeated listens.

Then, of course, the album is bookended by a soulful Hi-Tek instrumental that Game and Nas rip to shreds for nearly six minutes on  “Letter To The King.” In one fell swoop they give LAX its lasting highlight, one of the greatest songs in Game’s career, and annoy by teasing what a focused Game could have provided here. Poignant commentary on race relations on top of a powerful production from a legend? Imagine if Game focused and knocked out 10 of these.

7. 1992

There’s nothing inherently wrong with 1992. It’s a fine album, ripe with decent production and a neat concept that Game relishes in. Nostalgia and retrospection has become his brand over the years, so really hammering it down with an album full of those two ideas only make sense. It starts with a classic Marvin Gaye flip, and includes nods, homages and outright remakes of classics from Ice-T, D.O.C., Wu-Tang, Ice Cube, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and more. It’s fine.

The problem is, we’ve heard this all before, both figuratively and literally. Game’s album immediately preceding this thrived within this sphere, giving new takes on familiar sounds. Here, instead, he’s just recycling them and rapping over things we’ve heard already, years and decades ago.

He’s still telling us he went 5x platinum on his first album. He’s still telling us about his relationship, or lack thereof, with Dr. Dre. He’s still telling us about Biggie and Pac influencing him. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

If anything, it’s a testament to Game’s talent that he can make this a listenable and enjoyable experience after a decade in the industry. In fact, “All Eyez” became a modest hit thanks to a seductive chorus from Jeremih and tons of wit from Game to turn what could have been a flop into a bouncy little bop. The album’s highlight is “The Juice,” another jog down memory lane for Game with Lorine Chia adding haunting vocals between Game’s musings about his life and career highlights.

6. Jesus Piece

After two lackluster outings in a row, The Game came back with a vengeance in 2012, reestablishing himself as one of the most respected emcees in all of hip-hop. Per usual, he did so with a ton of friends along for the ride, but unlike the past few years preceding Jesus Piece, Game had a renewed vigor and focus that made it so those guests didn’t overwhelm or outperform his own effort.

The lead single alone features superstars  Lil Wayne, Chris Brown, Tyga and Wiz Khalifa, making “Celebration” another modest hit for Game. But contributions from the likes of Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Kanye West, Common, J. Cole, Pusha T and of course Kendrick Lamar that make the album an impressive and lasting piece of work.

Armed with a biblical theme to keep him focused, Game seems at ease as he rides every beat he’s provided effortlessly. It could be that’s what he has always needed to reach his peak, focus and motivation to hone in on one particular idea or concept for direction. The theme here gives him framework to work within, and even when he strays away to touch on other topics he deems worthy of commentary, he makes sure he doesn’t stray too far and betray the rest of the album.

The album starts as aggressively as possible, with Game throwing his weight around on “Scared Now,” with Meek Mill before the energy reaches a triumphant high on “Ali Bomaye” with the aforementioned Ross and 2 Chainz. It never really dies down from there either, only taking brief breaks before shifting right back in fifth gear.

“All That (Lady)" is a welcome reprieve, featuring a flip of "Lady" by D'Angelo as Game, Big Sean, Wayne, Jeremih and Fabolous all take their favorite women on massive shopping sprees.

The album represented a return to form for the Compton legend, but was just the beginning of a massive resurgent run a full decade into his career.

5. Born 2 Rap

Retirements in rap are usually about as temporary as one of those tattoos out of a vending machine, but Game swears his retirement is legit. If so, Born 2 Rap would be his swan song, a massive but enjoyable mix of old and new all in a tightly wound, kind of contradictory and bipolar package. It’s The Game in a nutshell, mostly for the better and certainly on his own terms.

On this 25-track opus, Game seems to empty his coffers, relying on the mind’s nostalgia and reverence for hip-hop classics from all over the map as a sweetener for the dish he’s serving. That may not be new, as Game seems to enjoy giving listeners the rap version of Tory Lanez’s Chixtape series, what is refreshing is just how deep he dug on this album. While he has mostly wallowed in the shallowest and most cliché waters possible, here Game gets more introspective than ever before, recalling his struggles within the industry, battles with his brother, fear over death, his insecurities and so much more.

Yes, there are name drops, Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Dr. Dre references and tons of California clichés, but more than anything Game reminds us he’s possibly the biggest hip-hop fanboy there ever was. Whether he’s shouting all those greats out, or giving his own take on their records – there’s even an impressive take on Nas’ mind-bending classic “Rewind” – his only doing so as a fan who is just happy to be mentioned on the same breath as them.

But Game truly does sound like a man at peace with his place amongst the greats that came before him and will come after him. “I been rappin' at this level for like 15 years,” he says almost modestly on “One Life.” But that’s after he let it be known “Last 15 years of my life, I cut any hip-hop nigga fuckin' throat with this mic,” earlier on “The Light.” It’s only he spits out one thought, in two separate ways, and it’s effective each time. It gets no more Jayceon Taylor than that.

4. The Documentary 2 

After nearly three years away from the industry, The Game returned refreshed and obviously motivated in 2015 with the sequel to his revered debut album. Like most Game albums, The Documentary 2 was loaded with guest appearances, as everybody from Diddy to Ice Cube and many, many more pop up throughout.

When Game struggled through a mid-career rut, it was due to him stuffing several albums full of lazy rehashes and generic attempts to recreate other rapper’s styles. On D2, he added a twist, instilling more of his own rambunctious energy on top of flips of classics we’d all come to know and love. This allowed him to still pay homage like he loves to do, but at least made it refreshing and new this time around.

Take, for instance, the album’s opener “On Me,” a flip of Erykah Badu’s “On and On” featuring Kendrick Lamar. Here, he gracefully approaches the tranquil Pops production, until later he decides to speed up the flow and rumble through the finish line with a riveting third verse.

The second half of the album is buoyed by two superstar guest appearances that Game expertly navigates, giving them room to operate while refusing to be overwhelmed by the presence. On “Dedicated” Future sets the table for Game with an anguished chorus and verse that feels straight out of his Hndrxx album two years in the future. Game takes the baton and dishes out his own bit of impassioned scorn over everything from a custody battle to the prices of purses.

Eventually Game does what just about everybody has done this decade when it comes album time: lean on Drake. But he may have done it the best. On “100,” Game gets the best of both worlds as The 6 God gifts him with a memorable hook along with a lengthy and somber verse that helped Game own a chunk of the summer in 2015.  It all leads to Game’s best outing and years, plus a sense of renewed confidence in his ability from his fans, and rightfully so.

3. Doctor's Advocate

By the time Game was set to release his sophomore album he was a superstar in turmoil. Yes, he’d had one of the biggest years of any rapper in 2005, but it was time for him to follow that up and this time he’d have to do it without two of the biggest weapons in his arsenal. Gone were 50 Cent and Dr. Dre, the results of infighting that left Game on the outside looking in, jettisoned from G-Unit and Dre’s Aftermath Records. He landed on Interscope subsidiary Geffen, taking matters into his own hands and nearly surpassing his stellar debut album – a feat that virtually none of other Dr. Dre’s collaborators have been able to do after parting ways from him.

This time around, Game leaned heavily on traditional West Coast sounds thanks to a who’s who of producers like Kanye West, Just Blaze, Swizz Beatz, Hi-Tek and more. Lyrically, Game practically screams Los Angeles on every song, beating you over the head with West Coast staples like ’64 Impalas, Chuck Taylors, Bloods and Crips. On the aptly-titled “Compton,” he even screams it over and over: “I’m from Compton.” The album almost feels like a throwback to early Dr. Dre, making it a minor miracle that Dre doesn’t lend any production or insight to the project.

There were a few moments when Icarus flew a little too close to the sun, though, most notably the album’s lazy second single “Let’s Ride.” The formulaic, clear radio reach was produced by former Dre protégé Scott Storch, and featured Game name-dropping Dre and mimicking his invoice to the point you’d be remiss if you thought it was Dre himself singing the chorus. But that’s not nearly enough to derail this worthy follow up to a classic, where Game steps out onto his own and creates his own space within the hip-hop universe, even if begrudgingly.

2. The Documentary 2.5

Released just a week after The Documentary 2, this outing was instantly hailed as the better of the two. While the original seemed to focus on new takes on familiar sounds, on 2.5 Game chose to create something wholly new. He sounds rejuvenated, finding new ways to attack within his trademark framework. Yes, Dr. Dre is mentioned often, as are many other rappers, but Game feels refreshed, motivated and like a man with a lot to get off his chest.

On “The Ghetto” he exchanges verses with Nas twice, with will.i.am there to organize all of the madness and bridge each verse with a vocoder to amplify his agony. It’s an example of the vastness of the album, wherein Game lands in so many boxes effortlessly, it’s a wonder he can pull them all off. On each song he seems to leap into another world, roam around it like it was his own before leaving abruptly to join another superstar in their own world seconds later.

After “The Ghetto,” is an especially pained outing with Lil Wayne titled “From Adam,” where he seems to sob through his first verse as he eulogizes fallen friends. A few songs later Scarface shows up to heartbreakingly pay tribute to 2 Pac. There are more jubilant moments throughout, but it’s when Game wallows in misery and terrifying bouts of anger where the album really shines. Whether he’s menacingly waving his red flag around with a laundry list of Los Angeles emcees on “My Flag/The Homies,” or he’s more remorseful for the same thing on “Gang Bang Anyway” alongside Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock, Game knocks it out of the park.

There’s no single chasing or pandering for multiple audiences here, just The Game in an unrelenting onslaught for nearly 20 tracks for his best outing in over a decade.

1. The Documentary

As the years have gone by, there has been some debate about just where The Game’s debut stands historically, and what its exact classification should be. If you need any extra confirmation of its status as a capital C Classic, look no further than the album’s first five songs. In that initial burst of songs, the listener is treated to three Dr. Dre productions, a Kanye West classic and a smooth Cool & Dre instrumental with some touch ups from Dr. Dre. Amongst those is two Top 5 hits, and another Top 40 banger, making The Documentary’s opening third one of the most iconic openings to a career ever.

The 50 Cent influence is apparent, not only in the arrangements within the tracks or the sing-songy nature of the choruses, but with his actual presence as well. The G-Unit boss makes appearances on massive hits “Hate It Or Love It” and “How We Do” as well as the album’s opener “Westside Story.” Though both artists have debated just how much work he did on the album and each specific song, 50 sings the chorus on each record, handing Game the palette he’d used to become the biggest artist in the world over the preceding two years.

But it was up to Game to take that recipe and run with it, and he did, taking it further than any of his other G-Unit cohorts. On The Documentary, his rap style is straightforward, foregoing any lyrical gymnastics in lieu of passionate recollections of his past, boastful quips about his present and the hopeful extrapolations for his future.

Game invites a slew of guests onto the album, including bucket list additions like Eminem, Mary J. Blige and Busta Rhymes, holding his own next to all of them. As the album progresses and he gets further from 50’s tutelage, Game gradually carves out his own sonic identity.

It’s abundantly clear that while his background haunts him and has shaped Jayceon Taylor before his rap career, The Game is little more than a student of hip-hop with a thirst to pay homage at every turn. On The Documentary, he wanted to prove that he’d furiously studied for this very test, as he looked to ace it on his very first attempt. He did that, earning the classic and respect from his peers he’d so desired, and kicking off a career that spans decades and eras.

From the Web

More on Vibe

D'Angelo at the VH1 Men Strike Back concert at Madison Square Gardens in New York, USA on April 11, 2000.
James Devaney/WireImage

The Incantation of D'Angelo's 'Voodoo'

“Envision this: a lone man in a haunted room surrounded by glowing instruments. What sounds are evoked from a room where Jimi once slept? What are the rewards of those who tend to their God-given talents as they would have the Creator tend to their spirits and daily lives? What happens when the artist becomes the conjur man?”

Twenty years ago, poet Saul Williams posed this question in the liner notes for D’Angelo’s sophomore offering, Voodoo: notes that served as a listener guide while exploring the long-awaited follow up to 1995’s Brown Sugar. Voodoo is considered by most as D’Angelo’s definitive work. (In fairness, he’s only graced us with three studio albums in his 25-year career.) Upon release, the LP was widely celebrated; it landed near the top of every major year-end list for 2000, and garnered the Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2001. In the years since, living up to its name, Voodoo has become something spiritual for many – a totem of musical greatness and genius. Okayplayer declared it “neo-soul’s most salient creation,” and no doubt this month there’ll be a flood of pieces examining the project’s importance in R&B music. Indeed, D’Angelo’s debut and sophomore albums each marked turning points in R&B. The Virginia native’s first outing came two years before the phrase “neo-soul” was coined. Add Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), Erykah Badu’s Baduizm (1997), and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and you have the four musical horsemen of neo-soul. Baduizm inspired executive Kedar Massenberg, who also oversaw Brown Sugar, to create a descriptor that came to define a subgenre. But when Brown Sugar first hit the streets, it simply felt like an extension of the jazz and classic soul influences found in the work of D’Angelo’s future collaborators from A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.

Five years later, Voodoo bowed at the top of a new millennium, at a time when the R&B genre was evolving and fracturing in ways that R&B and soul purists are still lamenting today (Hi, it’s me. I’m lamenting). In 1999, TLC’s Fanmail and Destiny’s Child’s Writing’s on the Wall signaled the pop-leaning, bounce and tempo-driven, slickly-produced direction R&B was heading toward to maintain a presence on hip-hop dominated airwaves. Voodoo was a collective resistance, a labor of love from some of the finest artists of the era. A harkening back to musical foundations. Rolling Stone dubbed it “an ambitious record that seeks nothing less than to unstick black music from commercial considerations and leave it free to seek its muse.” Questlove wrote of the album effort shortly before release, “It was a love for the dead state of black music, a love to show our idols how much they taught us. (T)his was the love movement. (A)nd this was the beginning.”

“We have come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie, all artists formerly known as spirits and all spirits formerly known as stars. We have come in the tradition of burning bushes, burning ghettos, burning splifs, and the ever-burning candles of our bedrooms and silent chambers. We have come bearing instruments and our voices: Falsetto and baritone, percussion and horns…We speak of darkness, not as ignorance, but as the unknown and the mysterious of the unseen.”  - Saul Williams

The Avengers-esque origin story of Voodoo is part of the album’s power and mythology. The project inspired the formation of the Soulquarians collective, a superhero music taskforce that began with D’Angelo, Questlove, J. Dilla and James Poyser (all Aquarians), taking over the long-dormant Electric Lady Studios – former studio home of Jimi Hendrix – to create something new and real. The crew expanded as Common and Erykah also camped out at Electric Lady to work on their upcoming projects, and other collaborators including Q-Tip and Raphael Saadiq fell through in regular rotation. Quest, D and camp went full music nerd, using the studio’s vintage equipment and keeping everything as organic and analog as possible to create a retro energy and sound. They studied old performances of Prince, Stevie Wonder and other Yodas -  their name for the masters - obsessively, channeling the spirits of their heroes. Voodoo was the start of a legacy.

Famed music critic Robert Christgau said Voodoo is “widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era.” And it is…but are we puttin’ too much on it? I do believe D’s lack of visibility and minimal output since Voodoo adds a preciousness to the album (not unlike Miseducation, which might be discussed differently if there was more work to talk about).  But also, Voodoo is not an R&B album; it’s some unnamed sh*t (calling it neo-soul is reductive) that the Soulquarians pioneered and mastered. You can’t approach it casually; you’re not gonna just throw this joint on while cleaning the house. Quest additionally said of Voodoo in his (admittedly biased) review, “Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas. (N)umber one: those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment and number two: those who use it for mere background music. (T)he thing is, this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence. (T)his record is the litmus test that will reveal the most for your personality.”

“Here is a peer that is focused wholly on his craft and has given himself the challenge of bettering himself. I mean really, D could have come out with any ol’ follow-up album after Brown Sugar dropped so that he could double his sales “While he’s still hot.” You know, an album that sounds just like Brown Sugar, uses all the same formulas, so that audiences don’t have to think….or grow, they just keep liking the same shit. He could even sample songs that you’re already familiar with so that you don’t have to go through the “hard work” of getting used to a new melody or bass line. Y’all don’t hear me.” – Saul Williams

Voodoo is without question a superior album to Brown Sugar, technically and sonically. It takes the formula D’Angelo created in his mama’s Virginia home, blending soul, funk and a dash of hip-hop, and elevates it. Late trumpeter Roy Hargrove added jazz’s controlled chaos. J. Dilla’s beat alchemy and Premier’s deft precision rendered the few samples used almost unrecognizable. Pino Palladino contributed his legendary bass lines. Rounded out with Tip and Ray Ray, plus Quest steering the ship as co-captain along with D’Angelo – it was a soul fantasy league. Yes, Voodoo is a stronger album, but I’d argue Brown Sugar is more focused (though some would say it’s just more formulaic). It’s definitely a more accessible work. The New York Times, examining how the Soulquarians brought Voodoo together, said the process was “vague, halting, nonlinear.” Voodoo is a long jam session – literally. They approached much of the completely original material through retro engineering: long jam sessions of hero material - Prince, Curtis, etc - would evolve into a new song. You can especially pick this up in “The Line,” which feels like it was maybe going to be an interlude and just kept going, and “Chicken Grease.”

The transitions between songs can be jarring, and the songs are so gritty and raw that some give a bootleg or demo feel – undoubtedly intentional, as Questlove and D’Angelo were studying bootlegs of their faves. Rolling Stone’s reviewer declared the album sounded “loose and unfinished” (but worth noting that it was No. 4 on their top albums of the year list later). The highest praise for a single universally went to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” D’Angelo’s outstanding homage to his and Questlove’s most esteemed Yoda, Prince. It’s one of the more familiar-sounding tracks, along with “Send it On,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Left and Right,” which feel the most like Brown Sugar follow-ups.

Those aside, Voodoo is to Brown Sugar what Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly is to Good Kid m.A.A.d City in terms of expansion and departure from the sound fans originally fell in love with. Some embraced it, some couldn’t get all the way with it. I can testify firsthand that when D’Angelo brought that jam session energy to Essence Fest in 2012 to launch his first tour in over ten years, folks were less than thrilled that after waiting so long to see him on stage again, he was prioritizing the un-danceable, less melodic cuts like “Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease” on the setlist, and then didn’t play the album versions of the hits so they could hit a two-step and sing along.

What Voodoo is, is grown. As hell. Not only is it not music for a casual fan, it’s not music for a casual love thing, either. Brown Sugar is adoration expressed publicly; let me tell folks how much I’m digging you. Brown Sugar is dating. You can let it rock at a kick back with a crew. Voodoo is intimate. It’s a relationship. You don’t play “How Does It Feel” or “Send it On” in a house full of people (and if you do, I have questions).

Which brings us to the gift and curse of Voodoo: D’Angelo becoming a sex symbol. The 20-year old, lip licking, possibly blunted D’Angelo was sexy in a dude-off-the-block way with his baggy jeans, Avirex coats, and timbs. But 25-year old D’Angelo took the baggy clothes off, and had cut abs, a v-line, and the bold audacity to showcase it, on the album cover and in the visual for the project’s third single…and nobody knew how to act. This is where Voodoo simultaneously goes left and becomes legend all at once. Also, why we can’t have nice things.

Twenty years ago, there were no blogs, no social media and no such thing as going viral. Music video channels still specialized in… music videos. And D’Angelo’s manager Dominique Trenier, and director Paul Hunter conceptualized a visual for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” that The New York Times called “the most controversial video to air in years.” The clip, eventually referred to in conversation as simply “the video,” was a four and a half minute-long, single shot of D’Angelo wearing nothing but a gold chain and cornrows. And sweat. There were no shiny suits, no dancers, no fish-eye lenses. Just Michael Archer staring into our souls through the camera.

The success and notoriety of the video propelled Voodoo to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Top 200. The plan was to break D’Angelo out of the R&B/neo-soul space to a broader audience, and it worked. Too well. By the time D launched the Voodoo tour in the Spring of 2000, the attention, grabbing, catcalling and screaming were overwhelming. As an artist, he’d put painstaking time and effort into creating the greatest piece of work possible; art that would impact hearts and minds. Spent grueling hours preparing a live show that would measure up to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic -  and fans were just yelling incessantly for him to take his shirt off. “It feels good, actually, when I do it,” D ‘Angelo told Rolling Stone near the beginning of the tour. “But I don’t want it to turn into a thing where that’s what it’s all about. I don’t want it to turn things away from the music and what we doin’ up there…I’m not no stripper. I’m up there doin’ somethin’ I strongly believe in.”

(Shout out to Anthony Hamilton’s background vocals coming through all loud and clear)

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened, and D grew so self-conscious and uncomfortable he eventually suspended the tour three weeks early, and retreated from the public eye. Over the next several years there were multiple arrests (with bloated mugshots looking kind of like Thor when he took his hammer and went home in Endgame), at least one trip to rehab, and several tentative returns before he surprised the world with Black Messiah in December of 2014 – almost 15 years later.

“Untitled (How Does it Feel)” is still a highlight in Voodoo conversations, it still evokes immediate remarks about D’s body and sex (I’m guilty of this), and it’s still a sore spot for the artist. So much so that when he reemerged in the public eye in 2012, he and Paul Hunter insisted the video’s inspiration was D’Angelo’s grandmother’s cooking and the Holy Ghost. (Insert side-eye gif here.)

But this is the challenge of a great artist: put everything you have into the work, then give that work to the world, and by doing so relinquish control over what the world does with it. So is Voodoo the millennial answer to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme? Is it the centerpiece of the neo-soul movement? Is it the Soulquarian stone? Is it just an outstanding groove? Is it just D’Angelo in leather pants and no shirt and you really don’t care about all that other stuff? The answer, according to our original Voodoo guide, Saul Williams, depends on us.

“D’Angelo has made his choices, carefully weaving them into his character, and has courageously stepped into the void bearing these sonic offerings to be delivered to the beckoning goddess of the new age. I do not wish to overly dissect this album. It’s true dissection occurs in how it seeps into your life shapes your moments. What you were doing when you realized he was saying this or that? How it played softly in the back ground when you first saw him or her. How you kept it on repeat on that special night. You’ll see. These songs are incantations” – Saul Williams

Continue Reading
Mike Coppola

Back For The First Time: How 'We Are The Streets' Captured The Raw Essence of The LOX

First impressions are often lasting and can crystalize our view of people, places or things, but those initial experiences can be deceiving. At times, wolves dress in sheep's clothing, and a dog's bark may be bigger than its bite – everything isn't always what it seems. One example in hip-hop of an appraisal that proved to be misleading was the rap world's initial reception of The LOX, who went from being cast off as sell-outs to being hailed among the most revered purveyors of hardcore lyricism this side of the new millennium.

Comprised of Jason "Jadakiss" Phillips, David "Styles P" Styles, and Sean "Sheek Louch" Jacobs, the Yonkers-based trio started off as a duo, with Jada and Sheek's battles alongside one another on the gridiron as kids evolved into lunchroom ciphers in high school. With Styles P later joining the fold, the trio, originally known as the Bomb Squad, settled on the name the Warlocks and began catching wreck dominating the local rap scene. Scoring their first appearance on wax in 1994 after Jada and Sheek appeared on the song "Set It Off" from Main Source's sophomore album F**k What You Think, the break that would change The LOX's fortunes for the better was when fellow Yonkers native and R&B star Mary J. Blige passed the group's demo to Sean "Puffy" Combs, who had built his imprint Bad Boy Records into the most successful and popular rap label in the game.

By then, the group, which was being guided under the tutelage of then-management company Ruff Ryders, had already built a reputation as spitters during their time on the local freestyle and battle circuits but would see their buzz skyrocket in fall of 1996 with a pair of appearances on DJ Clue's Holiday Hold Up mixtape. In addition to the song "Thumbs Up" featuring Richie Thumbs, the tape included the original version of "All About The Benjamins," which paired Jadakiss and Sheek Louch with Puffy. A string of guest spots on subsequent Clue mixtapes like Triple Platinum, ClueManatti - The Clue World Order, and Show Me The Money, as well as high-profile features alongside The Notorious B.I.G. ("Last Day"), Mary J. Blige ("Can't Get You Off My Mind"), Ma$e ("24 Hrs.To Live"), and Mariah Carey ("Honey Remix") brought their approval rating to a crescendo. However, it would be their contributions to Puff Daddy's No Way Out album, which included the star-studded remix to "All About the Benjamins," that firmly put The LOX on the mainstream radar and paved the way for their own wildly anticipated debut, Money, Power & Respect.

Hitting shelves on January 13, 1998, Money, Power & Respect, the third rap album released in the aftermath of the murder of Bad Boy's flagship artist The Notorious B.I.G. the previous year, was significant because it was the first release from a rap group in the label's history and it looked to keep the house that Puffy and Big built on solid ground. Despite being a commercial success, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and earning platinum certification, the album was considered a mixed bag that relied too heavily on the glossy bells and whistles that had made previous Bad Boy efforts platinum sellers, particularly at a time when the Shiny Suit era was drawing to an abrupt close. The songs "Livin' The Life," "Everybody Wanna Rat," "So Right," "I Wanna Thank You," and the Lil Kim and DMX-assisted hit "Money, Power, Respect" are all quality inclusions that trend closer to The LOX's realm of reality rap, but Puff's influence and finger-tips can be found all over lackluster cuts like "Get This $," "Start Rap Over," "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" and the ill-advised single "If You Think I'm Jiggy."

The LOX may have enjoyed chart success, music videos in rotation on BET and MTV, and the cache that came from being down with Bad Boy, but they also felt the subtle backlash from a large portion of their core base. Given their street roots and raw lyrical talent, many felt the group had failed to meet expectations with Money, Power & Respect and were destined to succumb to the whims of the music industry, such as donning Shiny Suits, designer shades and penning contrived singles built around disco loops. This disdain slowly bubbled over, with Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. requesting to be let out of their contract with Puffy and Bad Boy to pursue other opportunities, most notably the chance to reunite with the Ruff Ryders, who by then had secured a distribution deal with Interscope Records based off the breakout success of DMX. A fellow native of Yonkers and frequent collaborator with the group, ironically, DMX had brought the streets back to the forefront of mainstream rap with his own 1998 debut, It's Dark & Hell is Hot, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and transformed the underdog into super-stardom.

With their sights set on an alliance with their management team and its promising roster of talent, The LOX approached Puffy for a release from their contract. A notoriously shrewd businessman, Puffy and his team of lawyers initially balked at the idea of letting the prized trio go, leading The LOX to rebel. In 1999, at New York City radio station Hot 97's annual Summer Jam concert, Jada, Sheek, Styles P. and their entourage sported "Let The LOX Go" t-shirts, a public denouncement of Puffy and Bad Boy Records. In an age when rap acts often languished in obscurity due to bad contracts, the move was unprecedented. "We was the first rebels, man," Sheek noted during a sitdown with Tim Westwood. "You didn't have a lot of guys going at major people like that." With the beef now public and tension brewing between The LOX and Puff, a deal was brokered between Darrin "Dee" Dean and Puff to terminate The LOX's contract, allowing them to sign with Ruff Ryders through Interscope Records. "He said, 'All right, you know what, if they're not happy here, I'll release them," Dee recalled in an interview. "Just pay up whatever they owe."

As for Puffy, he took a more diplomatic approach while speaking on the group's split from the label with MTV News. "The LOX situation, it just didn't work out," he said. "That's nothing new to any record company. Hopefully, the press won't try to dramatize that. Any record label and you have twenty acts, one, two, three of the acts aren't going to be happy. And it may be a situation that you can work out. We tried to work the situation out; it didn't work out. So we're in the process of selling them right now. And they are still to me some of the hottest rappers out. I wish them the best of luck. I'm sorry it didn't work out." With a steep price tag of three million dollars, Jada, Sheek and Styles P. were now down with one of the hottest movements in hip-hop and primed to revert back to their roots as hardened, no-frills lyricists.

Released on January 25, 2000, The LOX’s sophomore album We Are the Streets doubled as a rallying cry, with the trio thumbing their nose at all of the glitz and glamour synonymous with their former home. The album cover alone, which features each member's face cast in concrete, is a stark contrast from Money, Power & Respect, which saw them rocking shimmering leather coats and designer shades. The change in scenery was also reflected in the sound of the album, with producers Swizz Beatz, DJ Premier, P.K., and Timbaland exchanging rehashed loops and plush instrumentation for screw-face inducing drums, haunting keys, ghastly synths and more inventive usage of samples. Not oblivious to the critiques of their debut, The LOX kick off We Are the Streets with a skit in which disgruntled fans diss them, challenging their street cred and levying threats against the crew. This self-deprecatory moment is upended as the rapid snares on "F**k You," the album's introductory number, sets in, which finds Jada, Sheek and company wasting no time in addressing the haters and naysayers. Barking "If you hoped we wouldn't make it, f**k you/Talk with a heart full of hatred, f**k you" in unison, the label castaways proceed to attack the Swizz Beatz -produced track with a fervor that makes it evident that these weren’t the same guys rapping about getting jiggy just two years prior.

This message was driven home throughout the album, starting with "Breath Easy." Produced by P.K., who proclaims "No more shiny suits/None of that sh*t" at the beginning of the track, Jada and Sheek deliver the hook, with Sheek shouting "We gonna R.U double F.R.Y.D.E,"  in a show of allegiance to their new label. One of the premier offerings on the album, "Breath Easy" finds Styles P. stepping to the forefront, delivering a stanza full of nihilistic quips that foreshadowed the aggressive content he spewed on We Are the Streets and subsequent projects. As the more reserved member of The LOX, Styles P.'s succession of standout performances helped propel his reputation as a rhyme pugilist to another level, silencing any questions of him being able to flourish in the confines of a group or otherwise. Considered the de facto frontman of the group due to his elite lyrical exploits, Jadakiss had slowly crept into conversations debating the best spitters in rap, talk that he solidified with his highlight reel of verses on We Are the Streets.

Like Money, Power & Respect, We Are the Streets included a solo selection from each artist, the best of which is "Blood Pressure" by Jadakiss. Crowning himself as the streets' favorite, the baby-faced rapper scoffs "Who really the best rapper since B.I.G. ain't here," before alluding to his bad blood with Puff just a few lines later. While The LOX focus the bulk of their efforts towards terrorizing the competition and slaughtering instrumentals on We Are the Streets, their strained relationship with their former benefactor is alluded to on numerous occasions, particularly "Rape'n U Records," a scathing skit poking fun at Bad Boy's shady business practices. The skit is also notable for being the introduction of J Hood, a teen from Yonkers who would become one of the hottest young artists on the mixtape circuit just a few years later. We Are the Streets is short on guest appearances, save for a handful of features from Drag-On and Eve, the latter of whom's vocals appear on the album standout, "Recognize." Produced by DJ Premier, the song captures the synergy between the three members as they seamlessly bounce off one another, while a chopped up sample of Eve's verse from the Ruff Ryders posse cut "Ryde or Die."

In terms of singles, "Wild Out," a raucous Swizz Beatz-produced anthem, was a minor success, but its follow-up single, “Ryde or Die B*tch,” fared much more favorably, peaking at No. 22 on the US Rap chart. Produced by Timbaland, who also appears on the hook alongside Eve, "Ryde or Die B*tch" finds Jadakiss, Sheek Louch and Styles P. professing their desire for the type of woman that will please them sexually and stay loyal regardless of the consequences or circumstances. Other highlights from We Are the Streets include "Can I Live," solo efforts from Styles ("Felony Niggas") and Sheek ("Bring It On"), and "If You Know" featuring Drag-On, Eve and Swizz Beatz, which all touch on the rules of engagement and harsh realities that transpire when one lives off of experience.

Peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, We Are the Streets was eventually certified Gold and was regarded as one of the stronger group efforts of the year. Although the album failed to eclipse the success of Money, Power & Respect or their previous hits, We Are the Streets is remembered as a body of work that thrived off of the sheer fact that the artists involved were unleashed from the constraints of balancing pleasing the label with retaining their artistic integrity. In the years following its release, each member of The LOX would release solo albums, branching off to pursue careers individually, but never straying too far from the fold. The LOX would continue to record together and release material on a consistent basis, but contractual limbo would prevent the trio from crafting a proper commercial release as a unit until 2013, when they released The Trinity independently on their own label, D-Block Records. Having dropped classics in three different decades and counting, with no signs of hanging up the mic anytime soon, Jadakiss, Sheek and Styles P. are regarded as ambassadors of the streets. And while they will always be remembered for their tenure, and subsequent war with Bad Boy, in their hearts, they'll forever be Ruff Ryders, and We Are the Streets will forever be their magnum opus and shining moment.

Continue Reading
Christopher Polk

Mac Miller's 'Circles' Mirrors What Many Millennials Are Facing

Hip-hop savant Mac Miller’s death in Sept. 2018 shook the music world to pieces, because it was such a startling example of potential cut short after showing so much growth. Artistically, Mac ascended from early perceptions as a vapid frat rapper into a serious, well-rounded musician who offered soulful production, tender vocals, and was ambitious enough to bar up with hip-hop’s best lyricists and serve as a hub for some of Los Angeles’ most talented artists. But a big reason why his music was loved so much was because of his vulnerability: Mac created art that attempted to battle depression and substance abuse, which appear to have eventually taken his life. Swimming, the album he released less than two months before his death, saw him take on those demons face to face – and the new posthumous LP Circles, which  Miller’s family reveals was well into production at the time of his death, was meant to be a “companion” album to its predecessor, with a concept of “Swimming in Circles.” Such a sudden death will always haunt those who loved him, but Circles could give fans closure and healing that Mac seemed to never receive.

Circles embarks where Swimming ends with more exploration of self-discovery, seeking understanding, and working towards becoming a better person. Both records mirror what many millennials are currently facing when it comes to their mental health. Mac Miller was gripping with his desolation, battling his vices and dark thoughts, but pursuing peace and refusing to apologize for his mistakes. Despite knowing how his personal story ends, his honesty and vulnerability prompt you to root for him to make it to the other side. His confusion and frustration, like many millennials, are reflective of feeling defeated by waves of emotions with the understanding of the world as well as ourselves. According to a report released in 2019 by Blue Cross Blue Shield, millennials are seeing their physical and mental health decline faster than Generation X as they age. The report showed that depression found in American millennials increased by 30% between 2014 and 2017. However, unlike previous generations, adults between the ages of 23 to 38 have become open about their struggles with mental health. Mac Miller died at age 26, and Circles showcases his willingness to share his battles.

In a Buzzfeed article, written by Anne Helen Peterson explained how millennials are becoming the “Burnout Generation” from the intense pressure of emulating a life similar to our parents had. This isn’t surprising as many millennials have experienced the 2008 recession. After graduating, many found entry-level positions do not pay a livable wage. The constant news cycle being available to us through our phones, social media, the desperate need for a work/life balance, and the opioid epidemic have all been linked to the deterioration of this generation’s mental health. From the outside, Mac Miller seemed to have everything right – a successful career, the access to do what he’s passionate about, and money –  but his lyrics show that he was also dealing with being burned out like many of us. The most relatable song on the record is the synthy “Complicated,” where Mac laments the constant traffic running through his mind. “I’m way too young to be gettin’ old,” he tragically observes, questioning why he’s dealing with so much daily stress. In the following Disclosure-produced track “Blue World,” Mac honestly raps about the the ups and downs of depression: “think I lost my mind, reality’s so hard to find/when the devil tryna call your line.” Mac Miller was battling his opiate addiction and his breakup with pop star Ariana Grande during the creation of his final two albums, and Circles depicts a man exhausted from his constant hurdles.

The somber tone of Circles blends the jazz-hop of Divine Feminine (“Hand Me Down,” “Good News”), the lo-fi of Swimming (“Woods,” “Once a Day”) and indie rock vibes (“Everybody,” “That’s On Me”), similar to his Tiny Desk performance. “Blue World” and “Surf” are the only songs where you’ll hear Mac rapping, whereas the rest of the album shows his vocal range that sets the mood of his emotions. While the musicality certainly deserves some attribution to producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West), who also worked on Swimming, it’s also a testament to Mac’s own artistic progression over the last ten years. He learned to use a variety of tools by the time of his death, and that was on display here.

The breezing tranquil rhythm of “That’s On Me” is one of the more positive vibes on the album, feeling content with what’s happening. Listening to the lyrics after knowing how this chapter ends is hard. “I don’t know where I’ve been lately, but I’ve been all right/I said good morning this morning and I’ll say goodnight,” Mac says. With the beautiful production and his willful vocals, it makes us know that there was a time where he felt okay through it all.

Millennials are breaking the cycle of other generations that didn’t tend to their emotional and mental needs. Whether it’s through humorous memes on the internet or healing crystals and meditation, they’re finding new ways to develop self-care and improve their health. Circles and Swimming were therapeutic for Mac, a window into his psyche and his therapy sessions to see the multiple layers of who Malcolm could have been. Hopefully, they can help his fans process their pain as well.

Continue Reading

Top Stories