The Game recalls the precise moment he vowed to get out of Compton.
“I was fuckin’ five times Platinum and still getting in shoot-outs in my neighbourhood,” he booms. “The thing that changed my life was when a bullet went through my son’s car seat and I was just about to go into the house and get him and put him in the car. A bullet hole was in the car seat where his head would have been. And on that day, I moved out of Compton and got me a condo in Beverly Hills.”
Almost 20 years later, the veteran rapper is speaking from his home in Calabasas, the starry Los Angeles suburb that counts Kanye West and Kim Kardashian among its residents. To go from Compton to Calabasas, you have to cultivate the kind of career that The Game – aka Jayceon Terrell Taylor – has enjoyed since his smash 2005 debut album ‘The Documentary’, which featured the era-defining 50 Cent collaboration ‘Hate It Or Love It’.
Taylor, once known for rapping bruising truths with youthful abandon, turned 40 last year. The milestone clearly put him in a reflective mood, coinciding with the release of ‘Born 2 Rap’, his blockbuster ninth album.
The 25-track record cleverly combines the rapper’s trademark West Coast soul with a more modern trap sound. Both a victory lap and a clear-eyed look back on a storied career, it weaves classic samples – such as Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s ‘Get Money’ – around hard-won observations from an elder statesman of rap. He sounds in awe at the transportive power of hip-hop, and faces his own frailty on the elegiac ‘West Side’: “Ain’t no ‘S’ on my chest… Born in the trenches with the crack.”
A month before its release, The Game revealed on Instagram that ‘Born 2 Rap’ would his “last album”. How come?
“I been in the game a little while, man,” he bellows down the phone. “It takes a lot of energy, time and love to put together these classic albums. There’s a lot of moving pieces to put together the quality of music. These days, man, I don’t have that time no more. My kids are getting older and they’re more active in their life. I just wanna chill, man.”
Instead he’s resolved to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, Dr. Dre, and become a hip-hop mogul, recruiting and producing new talent through his own label, Prolific Records. “I wanna do what Dre did with [his label] Aftermath. You find your Snoop Doggs, Eminems, 50 Cents and The Games and Kendrick Lamars. Dr. Dre doesn’t make mistakes. Everybody he’s put to the forefront is a fucking superstar.”
Now a father of three, The Game has avoided the fate that can befall older artists, and doesn’t romanticise his own heyday at the expense of emerging talent. He insists on ‘The Code’: “I ain’t got nothin’ against new hip hop / I fuck with all you n*ggas.” On his last album, ‘Kamikaze’, the then-45-year-old Eminem poured scorn on the current crop of rappers, such as Lil Pump and Lil Yachty, who found fame on SoundCloud. The Game is more sympathetic.
“I don’t have any hate for anybody bettering their lives,” he says. “Any time there’s an entity that allows underground artists and new artists to make a name for themselves, that’s amazing. All of these kids are getting amazing opportunities to show that they’re great and have the talent to add great additions to what is already an amazing genre.”
Yet he’s confused by certain aspects of contemporary hip-hop: “The only con to it is that there’s so many of them – how do you appreciate them? It’s like they replace each other every fucking day. As soon as I get into one artist, this one goes to jail, this one comes up, I like this one, then this one fades out, this new guy comes out…”
He is complimentary about Eminem, too, who surprise-released his 11th album ‘Music To Be Murdered By’ just days after our interview: “The thing I admire most about Eminem is his will to stay at the top of his game. His longevity – just the fact that he’s been around so long. The only rapper that is still around and has that skillset and is still at the top of their game is Lil Wayne.”
Marshall Mathers featured on ‘We Ain’t’, a defiant track that appeared on ‘The Documentary’ and on which The Game exclaimed, “Get Dre on the phone quick – tell him Em just killed me on my own shit!”
“At that time I was starstruck,” he admits, “even though I would see him every other day because we were both signed to Aftermath. I was just this humble kid from Compton. I would love the chance of getting to go back in with Eminem being at the top of my game and being who I am now. I know that I can hold my own and I definitely wouldn’t get killed on my own shit.”
So is an Eminem collaboration the only thing that might tempt The Game out of retirement?
“Maybe an Eminem collab or a Jay-Z collab – either of ‘em’d do it for me.”
In the mid-noughties much was made of The Game’s gang affiliations – hence that close call shoot-out back home in Compton. Violence and rivalry were part of his life well into his commercially successful rap career. Although they created two huge hits together – ‘How We Do’ and ‘Hate It Or Love It’ – he and 50 Cent feuded for more than a decade. In typical fashion, it began small (the release date of 50’s album ‘The Massacre’ clashed with that of The Game’s debut) but over the years mutated and contorted to seem more important than it really was.
The Game put an end to the animosity in 2016, telling a crowd at a strip club in LA: “I fuck with 50. What happened, that shit was 12 years ago.” Was it a relief to finally put those demons to rest?
“Ah, I felt like a pussy,” he admits. “But I mean that’s just me. At one point me and 50 really wanted to kill each other. I had a deep hate for him and he had a deep hate for me. We literally should have been another version of Biggie and Tupac. We both should have died in that beef. There was a lot of dangerous shit going on. We were shooting at each other; our squads were shooting at each other. It was on sight. It was gun shots and people getting stabbed. It went even bigger than 50 and me and our entourages – it was our fans. The fans had to pick and they were split up and even they were fighting.
“So yeah, squashing that beef was probably the best thing for me and him to do. I’m glad we did it. Beefs usually don’t get squashed until someone gets murdered. That’s just how it is where I come from.”
The UK has recently witnessed two of its most famous rappers, Wiley and Stormzy, holding a pint-sized battle of their own. They swapped diss tracks after the former suggested that the latter had sold out by working with Ed Sheeran. It turns out that the Game, a scholar of UK rap, is well aware of the situation.
“I like ‘em both,” he says. “But Stormzy is not selling out – he’s just elevating himself. You have to allow people room to grow. Those days of having to lie to yourself that you’re who you were in the beginning are gone, man. It’s just not honest to ignore your own accomplishments. If you’re making waves and climbing the ladder in music and life, why should anybody hate on that? You should congratulate that.”
He references boxer Floyd Mayweather’s infamous 49-0 win tally, something of a Holy Grail in the ring. “That’s like telling Floyd, ‘Well, damn, you sold out, you’re 49 and 0,’ and sending him back to when he was fighting in small casinos in front of like 400 people. Should he go backwards? No, he’s gonna show you half a billion dollars, chains and 90 million fucking Bentleys and get elevated as a person, man.
“We gotta stop this crab in the barrel mentality that says everyone has to stay broke. You can’t stay hood forever. If you do, we see what happens to those guys. They get murdered or locked up. Let’s say Stormzy kept making money, but he stayed in the poverty stricken neighbourhood he’s from. Somebody’s gonna shoot or stab, or he’ll get robbed by someone who has less than him.”
His voice is more booming than usual. “Why the fuck are we hating on someone’s evolution, man? You have to damn near sacrifice your life to stay in that old state of mind and be that person you were.”
It he sounds particularly invested here, it’s because his wisdom has been harvested from bitter experience. The Game’s close friend Nipsey Hussle was a successful and influential rapper whose philanthropy earned him saint-like status in his hometown of Crenshaw, South Los Angeles, where he opened his own clothes shop, Marathon Clothing. The 33-year-old was shot dead outside the store last year.
“Every morning my first thought is of Nip,” the Game explains. “I got a statue of him in my room, which was made by a dope artist from Africa. As soon as I wake up, man, I say my piece to it and cross my heart. Nipsey was the people’s champ. He had what fucking Martin Luther King had, what Malcolm X had.”
Nipsey Hussle makes a posthumous appearance on the ‘Born 2 Rap’ track ‘Welcome Home’. Here he and The Game depict a lifestyle in which they have “20 million dollars” but act “broke”, and Hussle tragically raps: “Probably die up in these streets but I survive through my name.”
It’s testament to the average hip-hop fan’s open-mindedness that The Game has retained artistic credibility while releasing commercially minded material. Sorry, Wiley, but it’s Ed Sheeran who opens and closes his latest album. According to The Game, the Suffolk crooner doesn’t own a smartphone, making him a hard man to get hold of.
“What’s cool about Ed is that you have to damn near go back to the Old English days and send a messenger on a fucking horse to get reach him, man,” he says. “It takes five days to get there, he’ll read it and it takes five days to get a fucking response. But once he gets it and responds, the answer’s always gonna be yes.”
Actually, it turns out gangsta rapper The Game is a big fan of Brit crooners: he loves Sheeran, Sam Smith and Adele. He’s previously said that his favourite place to listen to music is in the car. It’s quite delicious to picture him hitting the freeway, blaring out Sam Smith’s melodramatic Bond theme ‘Writing’s On The Wall’. Well, you can’t really be snobby about mainstream music when hip-hop’s unequivocally become the most dominant cultural force in the world. Did The Game ever anticipate that happening?
“I don’t think nobody could have foreseen music being what it is today,” he replies. “Except [Interscope co-founder] Jimmy Iovine. In early 2005 he was the only one saying, ‘Music is going somewhere else – it’s not gonna be on CDs; it’s gonna be on thumb drives and people gonna be streaming in 10 years.’ We were like, ‘What the fuck is a stream? Jimmy Iovine’s like the fucking Wizard of Oz.”
SoundCloud has offered hip-hop a wealth of talent, but does The Game miss anything about the bad old days, when he was an unknown rapper who’d burn CD mixtapes and hand them out on the street?
“Yeah, I do” he says. “Because that brings out the grind and the grit and really makes you who you are as an artist. That’s the person and the process that people fell in love with. I miss it all the time. I miss when I really had to put on for somebody to become a fan. Like, really give it to ‘em, you know?”
For all its triumphs, SoundCloud rap has been dogged by tragedy, with enormously influential scene titans XXXTentacion and Juice WRLD dying at the respective ages of 20 and 21. The former was murdered in 2018; the latter suffered an accidental overdose last month. As both a veteran of hip-hop and a father of a 16-year-old son, Harlem, can The Game make any sense of these devastating losses?
“The new culture feels like when Biggie and Tupac died,” he replies, heavily. “Losing anybody in hip-hop. Losing Nate Dogg. Losing Eazy E. I been alive for all of those. You feel sad, it hurts your feelings, you don’t wanna see it happen, but you understand the process of life. These drugs and the lure of social media plays a different role in people’s untimely demises versus the ‘90s.”
Like most people, The Game fears social media has warped our perceptions of real life, believing Instagram has made out-of-control drug use seem normal and helped rappers to exaggerate their wealth and broadcast their whereabouts, almost inviting attackers to rob them. This does make the fearless gangsta rapper sound like a worried 40-year-old father of three, but he also might not be entirely wrong.
He even reserves some sympathy for hip-hop pariah 6ix9ine, who, in an apparent bid for credibility, joined a gang after he found commercial success. The 23-year-old is serving a two-year sentence for racketeering, weapons and drug charges.
“I feel bad about 6ix9ine because he’s not about that life but he’s doing jail time for pretending to be something that he was not,” says the Game. “He coulda chosen a different path for himself but he chose to glorify gangsta shit. He wanted to be in a gang so bad, and this is where he ended up. That to me is sad.”
The Game has watched hip-hop shift and reinvent itself, with macho boasting replaced by raw vulnerability. But, while he hails from a different era, he’s more than capable of introspection. On ‘Born 2 Rap’ he acknowledges he’s no longer in the centre of the cultural zeitgeist and today admits that his life has been pock-marked with unsavoury episodes (last year he lost the right to appeal a $7 million sexual assault case, which NME has been banned from bringing up).
“I do not live with regret and I wouldn’t change anything in my career or life,” The Game says. “I wouldn’t take the bullet scars off my body and I wouldn’t change the way I am. Everything I went through has made me who I am today – and I am in love with who I am today. I came in raw and hood and I had to make mistakes to be the person you’re on the phone with.”
That’s why he’s so open-minded about young rappers: “When I was young people told me not to do this, not to do that, but I didn’t listen. I could have died. So I can’t take the grind or the rough patch out of the beginning of anybody’s career. That would be unfair.”
Last summer he threw a lavish birthday bash for Harlem, whose life was almost over before it began due to that shoot-out in Compton when he was a baby. What has The Game learned from him?
“Harlem has taught me how to be an amazing family member,” he says. “That is an amazing big brother, man. I could have been a better big brother, but I was really focused on myself and the streets. My kids look up to him as if I wasn’t around and he was their father.”
Despite still living in the county he was born in, The Game has scaled heights that would give most people vertigo. He has often claimed that he isn’t afraid of anything. On the cusp of middle-age, with all that messy life experience behind him, and as he allegedly puts his recording career to rest, is that really true?
“The only thing I fear is not being able to see my kids reach their full potential,” he insists. “And when I say that I just mean being adults and having families and kids. After all my kids are where they wanna be and they are happy as adults – then I can perish. There’s nothing else I need to accomplish on Earth and I’m content with going to the concert in the sky.”
– The Game’s ‘Born To Rap’ tour hits the UK on February 1