For years, people have gathered around the television, USB-powered microphones in hand, to test their singing prowess across a wide variety of musical genres. Karaoke games like Karaoke Revolution 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 the added dimension of lyric tracking allows the game to reward you for singing the right words. However, without the video recording and community-sharing features of the other console versions, the Wii version is merely a straightforward karaoke game. This makes some of the game's flaws more apparent, like the imperfect display and some questionable choices when it comes to what parts you do or don't sing on a given song. Def Jam Rapstar isn't the best karaoke game around, but its unique songlist still delivers a lot of entertainment.
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, though it's a shame there is no online store from which to download more tracks.
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 a 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 other melodic sections have you sing a pitch that isn't the obvious choice. Finding a spare moment to breathe and pick 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, as well as new tracks for Freestyle mode. Songs in Freestyle mode don't have any lyrics; they just provide a background track with which you can experiment. 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.
Unfortunately, that is the extent of what Def Jam Rapstar does offer. On the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, players can record performance videos, add visual effects, and upload videos to the community website for other players to rate and share. Although Wii owners (and anyone else with a Web browser) are free to peruse the online community, the game doesn't connect to these features at all. Without this social outlet, Rapstar is just another rhythm game, 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.