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The Game, ‘Jesus Piece’ (Interscope)

You just lost, The Game
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: December 11, 2012
Label: Interscope

Blame Kendrick Lamar for this one. Now that the former war zone of Compton has been soothed by warm waves of righteous goodwill, courtesy of Lamar’s critical smash good kid, m.A.A.d city, even the CPT’s former orthodox nihilists are embracing the positive side. So it is with the Game, who has gone from holding fort as his hometown’s last gangsta-rap star to his fifth solo album, wherein he aims to “deliver the good word.” Yep: He’s gone and opened up the Church of Rap.

Dude has done his research, at least, and hits the main tenets of all the most popular religions. Mortal sins will be punished brutally: As the book of “Scared Now” decrees, “Chase that nigga down — put him on World Star!” Salvation is always an option, especially if you’re a woman of the world who’s strayed into a strip club: “You ain’t ’bout that life / You don’t bounce that ass like, ‘Oh, Lord!’/ Then climb back up the pole and meet Christ.” There are jolly hymns for merry carolers like “Hallelujah,” with its rousing refrain of “Halle-motherfuckin’-lujah / All my real niggas, I salute ya / All the bad bitches, I’m-a run through ya / Hop in my holy ghost, hallelujah!” Many star-studded martyrs get their shout-outs: Elvis Presley, Arthur Ashe, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Crips gang founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams. There’s the makings of a savior figure who yet may return from the otherworldly abyss to save us all, with Biggie’s name subject to a trilogy of hushed mentions (complete with the suggestion that Diddy may be the devil behind his death on bonus sermon “Blood of Christ”). And there are great feats and religious miracles, as when our leader reveals, “I part the Red Sea in red Louboutins!”

For all its preposterousness, this testament seems to have attracted a fine congregation. Jesus Piece plays host to a whopping 27 guest verses across 16 songs (numerological significance unknown) from nearly every rapper currently active on a major label, including 2 Chainz, Rick Ross, Kanye West, Common, Pusha T, Lil Wayne, and, yes, Kendrick Lamar (who appears twice, with one spot wasted on the spoken-word nonsense tacked onto “Murder,” but judge ye not). The Game seems pleased with his disciples, and if in the past he’s been accused of over-name-dropping in a bid for respect-by-association, here he goes one better and often plays the chameleon, adapting his flow accordingly. For Kanye’s guest spot on the title track, he adds a little whine to the end of his own lines; 2 Chainz sounds worryingly constipated on “Ali Bomaye,” but Game celebrates his energy by quickening the pace of his raps to match his guest’s yelps.

To this point, Jesus Piece sounds like a passable stab at a bizarre concept album. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with a rapper who’s not exactly at his best trying to confront themes with more than one layer. When confined to a single subject (rappers he hates, usually), he excels, but the Game’s not a writer who embraces metaphors. Rather, he thrives on the sport of powering forward and dishing out knockout lines. He’s a rabble-rouser, not a deliverer of life lessons. The most persuasive track here, “Blood of Christ,” is an open attack on his sizeable list of foes, but it only appears as a deluxe-edition bonus track, and by then, Jesus Piece has long since unraveled into a uniquely peculiar mess.

Much of the problem is that at least half the guests seem unaware that this was a concept album. “I Remember” co-stars Young Jeezy and Future — the result, not surprisingly, is better suited for a trap-rap mixtape. “All That” samples D’Angelo’s “Lady” to sorta-euphoric effect, but the guest raps from Weezy, Big Sean, and Fabolous are pussy-pursuing missives that contrast starkly with the preceding “Church” (which attempts to parse a song about strippers in terms of salvation). Pusha T drops a “pearly gates” reference into “Name Me King,” Common plonks the phrase “Christ-like” into his verse, and Scarface plays along with the “Murder” theme of musing on conspiratorial deaths, but these are rare moments of synergy. (The hidden gem is J. Cole’s verse on “Pray,” which builds on the worldly mien he flaunted on Major Lazer’s “Get Free” remix and suggests that, with his ever-huskier voice, he might become the rare rapper who can preach without sounding preachy.)

This disconnect between Jesus Piece‘s gambit and its execution, between Game’s intention and the raps served up by his guests, results in the headliner being reduced to a mere spectator on too much of his own album. Instead of standing proud as the preacher, he merges into the flock. He may have been sincere about founding a Church of Rap, but Jesus Piece is not its bible.