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Live review: The Game at Key Club

March 19, 2012 |  2:00 pm

The Compton-raised rapper leaves the bad times behind as he explores his position in the West Coast scene, proving he can still compete through musicianship alone.

Money flies during Game's show at the Key Club on Friday.
Someone threw a bra at Game from the upstairs balcony during the Compton-raised rapper’s Friday night set at the Key Club. After stopping the show to learn more about the specific provenance of the airborne underthings, he asked his hypeman how much such a garment would cost these days. “$50? $60?” the guy answered. “Those things are expensive,” Game replied and tried to toss it back to the lady to save her a return trip to the intimates shop.

That’s the kind of rapper Game is — enough of a star to warrant flung lingerie during headline appearances but still invested in street-level concerns. Although much of the oxygen in L.A. hip-hop has been sucked up lately by Odd Future and Kendrick Lamar’s Black Hippy crew, Game’s Friday set was an unexpectedly visceral reminder of what made him a mid-aughts star and why he’s crucial to the region’s rap future.

The MC born Jayceon Taylor vaulted to megastardom with his 2005 Dr. Dre-produced album “The Documentary,” which paired trunk-bounce pop swagger with emotionally nuanced gang-banging tales. He’s remained a major force in West Coast rap circles and the pop charts ever since, but his career got sidetracked by unforced errors (such as the time he asked fans to apply for an internship on Twitter and posted the phone number of the Compton station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, prompting hundreds of fans to clog the lines) and bizarre twists (such as when footage surfaced of him competing — and losing — on the dating game show “Change of Heart”). Still, he’s turned such sagas into some pretty compelling music.

At the Key Club, however, his wisecracking persona filled the whole stage. Game’s backing band, 1500 or Nothin, is one of the most incendiary outfits in live hip-hop, which adds even more heft and swing to songs already sporting plenty of both. But Game, an imposing but careful student of the mechanics of California rap, took the occasion to explore his favorite topic: his position in the West Coast’s changing hip-hop mythology.

Game dug into chest-beating tracks such as “Westside Story” and “Red Nation,” each of which simultaneously surveys the state of West Coast rap, offers a diagnosis of its issues and attempts to reclaim its legacy for himself. But thanks to Black Hippy and Odd Future, West Coast rap is actually doing just fine right now. Game’s most recent official full-length, 2011’s “The R.E.D. Album,” landed a U.N. summit of A-list guests, but that gesture came with airs of uncertainty about his own status. Was Game prophetic or out of the loop?

Well, Game is nothing if not self-aware: On Friday night, he got Warren G onstage to do “Regulate.” On another song, Game himself delivered Tyler, the Creator’s guest lyrics on “Martians Vs. Goblins,” which are about how Game relies on guests too often. And it’s those contradictions — encyclopedic genre scholarship roughed up with legal woes and emotional desperation — that kept Game’s set interesting. The dub-drenched “It’s Okay (One Blood)” seemed prescient in exploring how bass and echo would become paramount in music. And he played slower burns such as “My Life” and “Pain” not as the poverty laments they are on record but as swaggering proof that he’s come around the bend from his bad times.

Where that will take him is uncertain, though — his flinty dexterity isn’t the best fit for today’s glossy production trends, as “Pot of Gold” proved at the end of the set. But even though the major label machinery that made Game a star is less relevant today, with acts surfacing on the Internet for free, he proved he can compete through sheer musicianship. Still, expensive underwear never hurts.


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-August Brown

Photo: Money flies during Game's show at the Key Club on Friday. It was an occasion for him to explore his position in the West Coast's changing hip-hop mythology. Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times