GAME ON ‌ THE "I" IN ICON 

Def Jam Icon wallows in hip-hop recording stereotypes

Nobody can say that photographer didn't have it coming to him.

Seriously. Harassing my man Ludacris, all up in his grill and trying to get a picture. I had no choice but to bust that stalkerazzi. You know, gotta keep it real and all that.

Ahem. Excuse me while I stuff my white-boy street shtick back into the closet where it most definitely belongs. But hey, sometimes you have to resort to extreme measures when you're trying to keep the likes of Ghostface Killah and Method Man happy — and signed to your label.

And this is the violent vibe of EA's Def Jam Icon (Electronic Arts, PlayStation 3/Xbox 360), a mash-up of street stereotypes that happens to be wearing a silk business-sim sportcoat. In what has to be some kind of schizoid cosmic anomaly, it's the first fighting game in which the story mode is a lot more compelling than the fisticuffs.

Def Jam Icon's backdrop is the recording industry, one of the two professional arenas the media holds up as a fast track to fame and fortune for today's African-American youth. (Athletics being the other.) In the game's "build a label" mode, you're a bar-brawler taken under the wing of Carver, the don of this particular wing of the recording universe.

Before long, your character's doing all the things a budding hip-hop recording exec might actually do — signing actual Def Jam artists like Mike Jones and Young Jeezy (and paying the bills when they behave badly) making tough decisions about how much cash to allocate for marketing and distribution on their latest singles and dealing with corrupt law enforcement officials.

As the plot winds and the number of artists in your stable expands, you begin to realize Def Jam Icon is almost more street-cred business sim than button-mashing fighting game, meaning that you can argue — with a straight face, even — that it's at least as valuable an educational tool as any of the thousand-plus tycoon games we've endured over the last five years. (Against dreck like Mall of America Tycoon and Lemonade Stand Tycoon, it's probably more valuable.)

The wild and hysterical plot twists make for fascinating stuff, even if the whole affair is steeped in every racial and hip-hop stereotype known to man. And it might even have made for a great game, if not for the fact that being a rising recording exec also apparently means smashing the face of every bastard that gets in your way. Even the addition of environmental hazards that trigger when you spin the analog sticks like a DJ spins a turntable — gas pumps exploding into fiery destruction, sonic waves from banks of club speakers, strip-club pole dancers delivering vicious kicks — can't raise the thrill factor above mediocre.

For better and, unfortunately, for worse, Def Jam Icon also serves up all the dark aspects of hip-hop culture that tend to make headlines, both on the front page of The Post and Courier and Entertainment Tonight — the rampant thuggery, the conspicuous consumption, the drive-by shootings, the shameless misogyny (early on, Carver warns against letting the advances of the sort of women to whom the Rutgers basketball team was so unfairly compared get in the way of bizness). Then there's the ultra-authentic soundtrack, packed with unfiltered rap lyrics (E-40 and Nas, anyone?) that inadvertently add yet another level of credence to Jason Whitlock's arguments about where the rage over Don "I-Man" Imus's bone-stupid comments is more appropriately directed.

As a fighting game, Def Jam Icon's a disappointment. As a reflection of the best and worst aspects of the hip-hop culture in which it's so deeply steeped, it's a punch right in the gut of gamers — and American culture.


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