The Grass Ceiling: The Game chronically sticks to old complaints and war stories.
The Grass Ceiling: The Game chronically sticks to old complaints and war stories.

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There are plenty of respectable ways for fledgling musicians to lean on more famous artists for support. Soliciting guest hooks or verses works. Performing as an opening act does too. Then there are the opportunistic, ridiculous ways that artists hitch their wagons to better-known performers. The Game has exploited his 50 Cent obsession practically to the point of stalking. And though Solange Knowles, sister of Beyoncé, can’t escape her family connections, she can’t keep quiet about them either. On their latest albums, the Game’s LAX and Solange’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, both artists prove that parasitic music-making is a tough gig. You’re only as good as your host.

The Game arrived in 2004 with a great debut, The Documentary, that set the rapper’s gruff, Compton-accented voice against 50 Cent’s catchy hooks and Dr. Dre’s updated G-funk production. But the Game’s break with 50’s G-Unit clique has since become the overwhelming focus of his work, even though nobody besides the Game now cares about the reasons for the split. A well-placed beef has launched many a hip-hop career, and while it was initially fascinating to hear the Game’s rage in interviews, on mix tapes, and at live shows, LAX shows that he needs either a new shtick or a new fight.

Consider the Nottz-produced “Cali Sunshine.” The song is about the viciousness of Compton in summer, and he rhymes about how celebrities aren’t immune to violence. “Last year Jazzy Pha got stuck inside the Grand Lux/The most recent was 50 in Angola/That’s what’s up/Any rapper can get touched/Any bitch can get fucked/Under the California sun.” If the track’s thesis is that Los Angeles is the Wild West, mentioning producer Jazzy Pha getting mugged at a Beverly Center eatery makes sense. But how does mentioning that 50 had a chain snatched while performing on a different continent fit? These random jabs might’ve landed if it were still 2005, but now they bog down the disc.

Solange Knowles has similar timing issues. In 2003 she released an album titled Solo Star, which contained the sort of light love songs and empowerment jams we’ve come to expect from Beyoncé—without the sexy persona and the vocal chops that make that material interesting. With her pregnancy at 17, her less-than-dynamic singing voice, and her oft-expressed yearning to escape the curvy shadow of her big sister, she’s Jamie Lynn Spears, Ashlee Simpson, and Prince Harry rolled into one. Her lot is only as interesting as the sister who saddled her with it, and Beyoncé is becoming less interesting by the minute.

So are plenty of music stars, given the current crap time for music sales. Beyoncé and 50 Cent can barely attract interest to their own projects, let alone ones by baby siblings and irate former collaborators. Beyoncé’s 2006 album, B’Day, and 50 Cent’s 2007 album, Curtis, were both critical and commercial letdowns. Their personas have changed, too. Beyoncé, who sold her sexiness as much as her music, is now settled down and married; 50 Cent, who’s as much about about tired gangster posturing as rapping, looks less hard-core with each new story about his property disputes.

Which means that the Game’s dusty marketing tactic—that he’s the only guy bad enough to take on hip-hop’s bully—no longer works. Even couched as old war stories, his anti-50 talk fails. The Game has gone from selling tickets to a heavyweight prize fight to Twittering links to a video of two dudes wailing on each other in a backyard. A skit on LAX, “Hard Liquor,” imagines what people think and say when they see the Game on the streets of Los Angeles. Women want to sleep with him, men admire his ride, and a homeless guy shouts, “Dre and 50 took all his got damn money!” No one is talking about that anymore, Game, not even the indigent.

But though the Game hollers about how he’s better off without his old mentors, he emulates them throughout LAX. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear that the hook on the bonus track “Nice” was written and performed by 50, and that “House of Pain” was produced by Dr. Dre, not DJ Toomp. The G-Unit fixation does have an upside: By comparison, his Compton gang talk, which died along with Spice 1’s career years ago, and his rote songs for the ladies sound almost inspired. But there are a couple of moments where he succeeds by focusing less on sex, being a Blood, and 50, and getting a little personal: “My Life” is autobiography that skips the G-Unit years, and “Game’s Pain” pays tribute to his favorite artists, which gives him another opportunity to not mention his nemeses.

Solange has taken the inverse approach by actively disassociating herself from a fading icon. Everything about Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams screams, “Look at me! I’m not like her! I’m cool and artsy and unique!” The cry extends to the album art, which includes a picture of Solange dressed as a schoolgirl and writing, “I will not have a famous family” and “I will not get pregnant at 17” over and over on a posterboard. That tactic allows her to work two audiences. If you’re still interested in Beyoncé, you might be interested in what her little sis is up to. If you’re totally over Beyoncé, you might give Solange a chance to prove she’s doing something different.

Which she is: She thumbs her nose at the easy dance-pop hybrids that have been Beyoncé’s moneymakers. The album’s opener, “God Given Name,” is a trippy, meandering, alternative-soul track that, like the woman gracing it, aspires to be more like Gnarls Barkley than Beyoncé.

She drives that point home by singing, “I’m not her and never will be/Two girls gone in different directions/Travelin’ toward the same galaxy.”

That’s not the most refined poetry, but it’s easy to imagine the Jan Bradys the world over locking themselves in their bedrooms and putting it on repeat. Even if it’s probably just a gimmick concocted by her dad, the crafty, diabolical Matthew Knowles, the track does feel like a touching, earnest effort by a young girl to assert her individuality. And the whole album fulfils that promise: It makes you want to give Solange a big hug and assure her that she is unique and special and that her big sister’s last album wasn’t all that, anyway.

Nobody will confuse Solange for Erykah Badu, but she does steer clear of Top 40 influences, recruiting the best alt-urban music talents working—producers Cee-Lo, Mark Ronson, and the Neptunes on production, guests Estelle and Bilal. The eccentric production helps cover for her vocal shortcomings. The lead single, “I Decided,” is a Winehousian ’60s-style jam crafted by the Neptunes, and one of the disc’s best moments, “Dancing in the Dark,” works not so much because of the singer but because of its horn-thick sample from Heinz Kiessling’s ’60s track “Feeling Young.”

The old-new aesthetic runs through the whole album, especially on the Bama Boyz’ “Valentine’s Day” and Ronson’s “6 O’Clock Blues,” which take classic soul elements (funky guitar, organ, girl-group grooves) and give them an update. Whether you’ll think the album is better than the average Beyoncé disc is a matter of taste. But consider this scenario: It’s karaoke night, and you can listen to your friend with a great voice sing a shitty song. Or hear your friend with the awful voice sing a great song. Or you can just hang by the bar and listen to some guy ramble on about how he used to hang with one of the biggest rappers of all time. What do you choose?