For all its booze-soaked bonhomie and head-nodding musical surprises, a "listening party" for "LAX," the new album from the multi-platinum-selling Compton gangsta rapper the Game, on Monday night proved to be the rarest kind of orchestrated media event.
"This is the most 'hood listening party you're ever going to see," said the Game, puffing deeply on an herbal cigarette and clutching what he announced was his fourth Cadillac margarita of the evening. "You can take the boy out of the 'hood, but. . . ."
It was intended as a grand unveiling for one of the most hotly anticipated hip-hop albums of the year -- the first time the Game (given name: Jayceon Taylor) would play his third album (due July 22) for an intimate gathering of hip-hop tastemakers, bloggers, mix-tape DJs and radio programmers from across the country.
But the listening party was an unmistakable victory lap for one of rap's most embattled performers -- a heavily tattooed, gang-affiliated 28-year-old who served an eight-day jail sentence in March for felony possession of a firearm in a school zone and who recently broke down in tears during an interview with hip-hop magazine XXL, admitting to thoughts of suicide.
Perched atop a small stage in Santa Monica's Thom Thom Club on Monday, however, the Game was uncharacteristically all happiness and sunshine. With his grandmother, mother, daughter, sister and aunt in attendance -- as well as at least two dozen thickly muscled young men conspicuously clad in red shirts and hats, the color favored by the Cedar Block Piru Bloods, a street gang with which the rapper proclaims his ties -- he reminisced about his Los Angeles upbringing: shopping at the Fox Hills Mall, getting shot in the heart while dealing crack, releasing his breakthrough album, "The Documentary," with his now-estranged musical mentor Dr. Dre.
"It brings me joy to say that I completed my third album," he said. "I'm from Compton. I remember how it feels to be poor, broke, shot."
And the Game took his moment in the spotlight before introducing his album to give unqualified appreciation to his former nemesis 50 Cent -- a big surprise considering the two rappers' "beef" ranks as one of the most acrimonious feuds in hip-hop history. The Game contrasted his differences with the Queens rapper with the East Coast-West Coast rap feud that ultimately resulted in the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.
"I ain't got no beef with 50," the Game said. "All that . . . was on wax. I never shot at him, he never shot at me. Both of us done said a lot. But we're not Biggie and Pac. I appreciate homey for helping me on my way up."
From there, gangsta rap started pumping through the speakers. Having by his own estimation spent "every day in 2008 in the studio," the Game corralled an impressive and diverse array of collaborators on "LAX" (its spoken name is "Los Angeles Times" owing to the songs' lyrical content dealing with a uniquely urban Angeleno worldview).
His hero Ice Cube, formerly of the Compton collective NWA, turns up for a duet on the gritty street anthem "California Sunshine," while former Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker got behind the kit for the euphoric club banger "The Dope Boys," a song that had radio programming directors and hardened gangbangers alike throwing their hands in the air. Chef Raekwon from Wu-Tang Clan contributes a fiery 32 bars on the densely layered, New York hard-core-inspired "Bulletproof Diaries." And Chicago rapper Common spits streetwise verses on "Angel," an '80s electro-sounding song produced by Kanye West.
Most notably, though, rap's million-plus-selling man, the Louisiana MC Lil Wayne (whose new album “Tha Carter III” topped the national album chart last week), guests on two of the Game's new songs: "Red Magic" and "My Life." Both were produced by hip-hop hit-makers Cool & Dre earlier this month and seem to mark the beginning of a beautiful rap friendship; arguably, no two solo artists have collaborated so fruitfully since Method Man and Red Man teamed for a string of hits in the '90s.
As the night wore on, the get-together took on a woozier tenor. The Game proclaimed from the stage that he was drunk, slurring his words, skewering the members of his rap collective Black Wall Street and even flubbing the name of the president of his record label as he gave him a shout-out from the stage -- he confused Interscope Geffen A&M marketing chief Steve Berman with sportscaster Chris Berman before being corrected.
The Game made amends with the boss by embracing him with a bear hug. "You're the first white man I ever had love for," he exclaimed.
By then, the club was almost empty but for men dressed in red semi-engulfed in a cloud of herbal smoke.