For years, people have gathered around the television, USB-powered microphones in hand, and tested their singing prowess across a wide variety of musical genres. Karaoke games like SingStar and Lips track pitch and timing to rate how a singer is doing, but because rap songs involve more rhythmic speaking than tuneful singing, the genre has been underrepresented in such games. Enter Def Jam Rapstar. As the instantly recognizable name suggests, the game features songs from some of the most famous rap acts in the world, both past and present. The songlist is impressive, and though there are some questionable choices when it comes to what parts you do and don't sing on a given song, the added dimension of lyric tracking allows the game to reward you for singing the right words. Rapstar can not only rate your performances, but record them as well, and there is a community Web site dedicated to creating a video-fueled social network where players can emulate the pros by posting their videos, representing their crew, and challenging each other to popularity contests. The community features add some depth to what is otherwise a fairly predictable karaoke game, making Def Jam Rapstar an entertaining endeavor for both aspiring emcees and weekend wannabes.
Any self-respecting karaoke game lets you get straight to singing from the get-go, and Def Jam Rapstar does just that. In any mode, one player can sing solo, or two players can either sing a duet or battle each other for a high score. Party mode offers most of the robust songlist right away, from old-school tracks like Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" to recent hits like "Live Your Life" by T.I. feat. Rihanna. Lyrics range from tongue-twisting (Busta Rhymes' "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See") to mind-numbing (Soulja Boy Tell'em's "Turn My Swag On"), and though there are some notable omissions, Def Jam Rapstar covers an impressive cross-section of the genre. The game is, however, rated T for Teen, so some of your favorites may have gaping holes where lyrics should be (especially if you're a Lil' Kim fan), though you can fill them in without penalty. Seeing the references to older songs in more recent songs helps cultivate a neat sense of continuity across the 45-song catalog, and there are already more tracks available for download and purchase from the online store.
There are two types of judging mechanics at work in Def Jam Rapstar. Melodic sections are represented by bars that indicate the relative length and pitch of each note in the phrase, as is the standard in karaoke games. Rap sections display a dot over each syllable, and a bouncing ball indicates when you should speak each one. The pace of the ball is meant to dictate your cadence, but it is small and moves quickly, so it doesn't make a very good guide. While it's possible to use the pitch bars to guess what the pitch and duration of a given note are, players who are unfamiliar with a song will likely have a harder time picking out the rap sections. If you're braving an unfamiliar track, your best bet is to listen to the rapper and try to follow his or her cadence, though some artists make that easier than others. Some tracks can also cause problems for solo players because of odd phrasing that, for example, makes you sing the lead vocals and the chorus in rapid succession (like "Put On" by Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West). Nelly's "Hot in Herre" has you sing both the male and female parts of the call-and-answer chorus, while some other melodic sections have you sing a pitch that isn't the obvious choice. Finding a spare moment to breathe and picking out the right pitch can occasionally be challenging, but on the whole, Def Jam Rapstar does a solid job of presenting the songs and tracking your performance.
Nailing the lyrics gives you big bonus points, but even if you just manage to mumble along to the beat, you can still get a reasonably good rating on most songs. Doing well fills a multiplier meter that boosts your score and rewards you for chaining successful phrases together. The difficulty levels are forgiving and allow players of all skill levels to progress through the five-stage career mode. Success in this mode unlocks a few new songs, a bevy of effects to use in your videos, and new tracks for Freestyle mode. Songs in Freestyle mode don't have any lyrics; they just provide a background track for you to experiment with. Whether you thoughtfully compose your own verses or just let loose some freestyle flow, this mode is a unique opportunity for creativity that most rhythm games don't offer.
Def Jam Rapstar also encourages you to be creative with your performance videos. If you have an Xbox Live Vision camera plugged in, every song you sing is recorded in full, whether it be in Party, Career, or Freestyle mode. Once you've finished, you can review the video and pick a section that lasts up to 30 seconds to edit and upload. You can grab only one section per performance, and if you don't select it right after you finish, you won't be able to get it back. After picking a section, you can apply a variety of effects to the video to spice it up. You might want to add some stickers of cash and gold to complement the lyrics of "C.R.E.A.M." by the Wu-Tang Clan, or decide that some flowery animations are just the thing to lighten up DMX's "Ruff Ryder's Anthem." You can easily customize the size, color, and transparency of these images as you decide where they should appear in your video and for how long. Video effects let you go black and white or sepia tone if you want to add a different kind of old-school flavor to your performance, and the audio options not only let you add reverb, echo, and the like, but also allow you to adjust the volume of any overenthusiastic performances (though with no Auto-Tune, you're on your own with regards to pitch). Not all microphones are created equal, and some can use all the help they can get to sound reasonably good.
Once you've got your video produced, uploading it to the Def Jam Rapstar community site is a painless process (you can also upload a video file you produce elsewhere, though only the first 30 seconds will post to the site). You can create an account from your console, and this also allows you to view community videos on your TV. You can download and rate videos from a few different categories, and browsing other people's efforts from the comfort of your couch provides some familiar YouTube-y fun. The community Web site lets those who are so inclined get more involved. After checking out videos, you can become a fan of other players or send them friend requests. Of course, the rap industry isn't exactly famous for friend requests, and Def Jam Rapstar lets you challenge other players to battles to see who is the better (or at least most popular) performer. A satellite map facilitates regional representin', and there is architecture in place to allow players to band together in crews, though it hadn't been implemented at the time of this review.
Spending time on the community Web site is appealing, and it's fun to give props where props are due (and hopefully receive some props of your own). It has the potential to blossom into something unique as the player population grows, and it gives Def Jam Rapstar a more social and creative outlet than many other rhythm games. Of course, at its core Rapstar is just another rhythm game, especially for those without Internet connections, and though there are some rough spots in the game's execution, it stands firm as a solid karaoke experience. The songlist is unlike any other on the market, and whether you prefer the smooth Slick Rick or the manic Beastie Boys, anyone with even a passing interest in rap is likely to find something to enjoy here. Def Jam Rapstar confidently captures this underrepresented genre in a unique way, giving you an entertaining new way to rock your living room mic.