Juelz Santana’s What The Game’s Been Missing

Juelz Santana is firmly convinced he’s a rap star. And that’s really the only thing that saves his new album, What The Game’s Been Missing, from being another in a long line of mediocre-to-terrible rap sidekick albums. And every rap fan knows how torturous those can be; just ask anyone who bought an album by Jay-Z’s number two, Memphis Bleek.

Santana is Harlem rapper Cam’ron’s sidekick and a founding member of Cam’s Diplomats crew.

The Diplomats, or the Dipset, have made a name for themselves with mixtapes and mix CDs full of hard-edged, absurd wordplay, eg. “Range color of Yoo-hoo/ I’m the shit, call me Pepe Le Poo-Poo,” and bombastic beats. This all-hyped-all-the-time style has brought them a boatload of mainstream attention, including a shout-out from indie pop star M.I.A. in The New York Times or critical love from hip music gatekeepers, Pitchforkmedia.com. For many fans of the Dipset, the joy in listening to their music comes not from their gangster attitudes or crack rock-talk, but from the fun they have with language and the way pop culture references, from Flintstones vitamins to old school wrestler Bam Bam Bigelow, find their way into otherwise by the book gangsta rap.

With this in mind, Juelz Santana’s sophomore album was released with pretty big expectations behind it. His debut, From Me to U, meant to capitalize on the success of Cam’ron’s Roc-A-Fella debut, Come Home with Me (and its top 10 single and party classic “Hey Ma”), was a huge flop, with many critics jokingly wondering if Santana’s severe lack of lyrical skill and super-heroic confidence was a possible sign of mental retardation. All of this must have really pissed the man off because he came back with two mix CDs, Back Like Cooked Crack 1 and 2 and the self-assigned title of “Human Crack in the Flesh.”

What the Game’s Been Missing has many of Cooked Crack’s highlights, including the Young Jeezy and Lil’ Wayne collaboration, “Make It Work For Ya,” the “Welcome to Jamrock” sample-stealing “Murda Murda,” and the ridiculously intense banger “I Am Crack.” These songs are typical Santana, all angry bragging and short, shotgun blast lines over monster beats. But the big surprise is that Santana does the exact same thing on more reflexive songs with slower tempos. On the elegy for the good ole’ days song “Good Times,” Santana spits lines like “Remember the block parties and cookouts/On the block partyin’ and cookin’ out” with sad sharpness, using his conviction to make up for his lack of lyrical details.

And on songs like “Mic Check” and “Rumble Young Man Rumble,” it’s that very conviction that will convince all but the more hard-nosed skeptics that Santana is a rapper to watch. Bringing to mind such East Coast rap classics as Biggie’s “Unbelievable” and Nas’s “Halftime,” both songs celebrate the pure joy of talking like you’re the king of the world, even if, like Santana, you’re an industry joke and your last album went triple plastic.

What The Game’s Been Missing is far from a masterpiece, but it’s also far from a train wreck. Its best songs bring back an intensity and purpose that’s been missing from East Coast rap since 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying, and its worst songs are still better than any Black Eyed Peas or Mike Jones song.