He’s survived the mean streets of Compton and high-profile beef with rap’s biggest bully. He sells millions of records when other artists are starving. You’d think The Game would be happy. You’d be wrong.

Written By: Clover Hope
Photos By: Kenneth Cappello

Look at the dog!” shrieks Toniqua, dissolving into a fit of giggles.

Heads turn to the center of a vast, white, windowless room inside West Hollywood’s Smashbox Studios, where a celebrity photo shoot is being interrupted by a freaky scene. Photographer Kenneth Cappello’s frisky female Chihuahua, Cicciolina (named after the Italian porn star turned politician), is furiously humping a fuzzy stuffed-toy terrier. You guessed it: doggystyle.

Toniqua, her friend Myleik, who provided clothing for today’s session, bodyguard Kevin Williams and local producer Tre Beatz stand with jaws agape as the onanistic display goes on for a good 30 seconds. Cicciolina is a shameless exhibitionist.

The official subject of the photo shoot doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t much notice. Thumbing away on his iPhone, he’s far from smiling. But he’s not his usual mean-mugging self either. He looks different. It’s not just the mini Mohawk fade he’s sporting, in lieu of his customary low-cut, beneath his black L.A. fitted. It’s not even the new red star tattoo that graces his right cheek. No, Jayceon Taylor, better known as the rap star The Game, seems sad.

He has reason, you’d think. It’s three days before he has to turn himself in and begin serving a 60-day sentence for a gun violation stemming from a February 2007 incident. But that’s not really what’s eating him. Jail seems small potatoes, he says, compared to the personal demons and family strife he’s presently wrestling with. “My life right now is… It’s not what I expected it would be after gaining fame and fortune,” he says. “My life was better when I was gangbanging, shooting, robbing, stealing, getting shot and selling drugs. I’m so fucked up inside and so emotionally driven down to the ground that I can’t… I can’t replace the hurt. I can replace the thoughts, but my heart knows what’s on my heart, and my heart won’t let the pain go.”

While he’s known for airing his feelings through lyrics on wax, he usually maintains an exterior as hard as the streets he came up on—as a Compton Blood born of two former Crips. Today, his chest a little less puffed, the 27-year-old MC is, perhaps, tired of talking tough. “I got the best album of my career,” he says glumly. “And I wish that I could tell you that I was happy.”

Midway through the shoot, Game occupies a brown leather couch at the back of the studio, eating a catered lunch. Pristine black-and-white Chucks peak out beneath his dark denim jeans. He sets his plate beside a can of raspberry tea Snapple, leaving his plastic fork sticking straight up out of a chicken breast. “I think that jail is gon’ serve my mind right,” he says. “I’m really at a point in my life where I need to figure some things out and really get a grip on what I’m doing from here on out, for myself, for my family and for my future and my music.”

With today being Feb. 29, a date that comes only once every four years, Game has an extra 24 hours to spend with his sons, Harlem, four, and King Justice, who turns one on April 25. He’ll finish this photo shoot and then go home. After the boys are in bed, he might head to the recording studio, if his pal, Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, is down for a session. A mixtape, Free Game, featuring new music from him and his Black Wall Street Records roster, will come out tomorrow. Then, March 2 at 8 p.m., he will officially turn himself over to the Sheriff’s Headquarters Bureau in L.A.

He’s seen the inside of a cell before—eight times since his teenage years. For “stupid shit,” he says. “Nothing serious that’s kept me in jail longer than a month.” Still, “Ain’t no way to prepare to go to jail. Except to just put your head down, close your eyes and run into the bars.”

This stint might not have been necessary, had cooler heads prevailed on the afternoon of Feb. 24, 2007. During a pick-up basketball game at South Central’s Rita Walters Educational Complex, Game says, an opposing player started taunting him. Game punched the guy, whose name is Shannon Rodrick, and, according to police reports, pulled a gun and threatened his life. Game denies the gun part. “I tried to ignore it for as long as I could,” he says. “And, after a while, I just couldn’t no more. A little scuffle broke out. And that whole situation is something that I take the blame for. I’ll be the bigger man, ’cause I could’ve avoided it, should’ve avoided it, and will in the future.”

Two of the initial three charges against Game were dropped in a plea deal, but, on Feb. 11, he pleaded no contest to possession of a firearm in a school zone and received 60 days in jail, 150 hours of community service and three years’ probation. (Game would be released March 10, as XXL went to press, after serving only eight days—a fact he’d keep secret for a week, while recording a new song, “Big Dreams.” On the 13th, Rodrick would file a civil suit, seeking monetary compensation for the assault.)

The courtroom has been something of a second home for Game over the past three years. He’s beaten three cases: one for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest at a Greensboro, N.C., mall on Oct. 28, 2005; another for possession of a dangerous weapon, after Burbank police found brass knuckles in his car in May ’06; and another, six months later, after an NYC cab driver accused him of impersonating a police officer. A prior charge, for assault and battery on a D.C. disc jockey in 2005, was dropped. “I’m just tired of going to court,” says Game, rubbing his eyes to validate the fact. “Tired of putting on suits and nice shirts and getting up at 8 o’clock in the morning. I ain’t got up at 8 o’clock in the morning since high school. I hate people telling me I gotta be somewhere, gotta do this. I live free.”