Dr. Dre Makes His Final Rounds

Dr. Dre gives us closure.
By    August 11, 2015


Dean Van Nguyen called 911 emergency.

“I don’t need time, I need a deadline.” — Duke Ellington

Only the biggest optimist would have expected Dr. Dre’s third album to be any good. Though his first two solo LPs (themselves released seven years apart) were bold, generation-defining classics, there have been precious few Dre moments to write home about in the last decade. So when he announced—on his corporate-sponsored Apple Music radio show, a fill-in for Drake’s—that he was finally dropping the long-awaited record, and that it would be loosely tied in with the N.W.A. biopic, you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes.

The parade of greats who wrote and made beats for the Lost City of Detox couldn’t lure Dre out of hiding, but Universal Pictures and the ghost of Steve Jobs could? Was Compton: A Soundtrack even going to be a solo album? Or would this be something along the lines of 1995’s Dr Dre Presents the Aftermath, one of the good Doctor’s few unequivocal pre-Y2K failures? Late last week, in what seemed like a mid-aughts rap blogger’s fever dream, we finally had an answer to those questions. We should have been optimists all along.

Compton opens with news clips that trace the South Central hideout from picturesque suburbia to crime-riddled gangland. (Those who kept track of the rumors know that Dre once promised Detox would be a concept album about a hitman going through a 12-step program.) Compton engages with social issues: the album’s emotional engine is the pleading, Anderson .Paak-driven “Animals,” which is about as far as you can get from 2010’s stillborn “I Need A Doctor.” The newer, DJ Premier-helmed song finds Dre, 25 years removed from the “Straight Outta Compton” video, at a loss for how little has changed. “Still tryna figure out, why the fuck I’m full of rage/ I think I noticed this bullshit right around the fifth grade.” From “Loose Cannons”: “From the city where them niggas load clips and fats/ And get stabbed at homeroom, should’ve skipped that class”.

Your third decade in music isn’t usually when you start experimenting with your voice. But Compton hears Dre stepping outside of his usual cadences, his familiar flows. Not only is he willing to fold Kendrick Lamar and his careening style into the album—he follows suit. On the reflective “It’s All On Me,” Dre channels Houston’s carnal crooner Z-Ro, of all people. Early high point “Talk About It” threatens to collapse in on itself, but never does; “For the Love of Money,” is, against all odds, a passable double-time. Vigorous and intense, Dre sounds sharper than a 50-year-old headphone hawker has any right to be.

What’s more surprising is how far out of his comfort zone Dre steps on his preferred side of the boards. Musically, Compton is warm, rich, thumping, textured. Crisp drums, pristine keyboard loops, dramatic trumpet blasts, blistering guitar lines—any or all of these things might have been doled out one- or two-at-a-time on other Dre records. Here, they’re stacked one on top of each other. Each track is lush, busy, always shifting.

The album’s first half plays out at more or less the same tempo, but the songs unfurl in enough directions as to feel dynamic. There are missteps (the 16-bit guitar line on “Issues” is grating on the ear), but the complexity and sheer number of different elements at play make the stakes on any one relatively low. Because DJ Quik never gets enough credit, we usually only talk about Dre’s influences as a rapper. But Compton takes plenty of musical cues from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly too. It’s not always immediately clear when one song ends and another begins. Where Dre’s previous records have played like greatest hits collections, here there are no obvious singles and only a few real hooks. Fortunately, if you’re comparing the two albums, everything here knocks harder.

But even with Kendrick’s handprints all over, Compton leans heavily on unknowns. Justus and King Mez will be able to send their kids to college, and Anderson .Paak will parlay his six appearances into a massive contract (if he hasn’t already). There are requisite turns from Ice Cube, Xzibit, and Eminem—and a brilliant taste pick in Cold 187um—but the LP stakes itself on cohesion, not stunt casting.

It’s tempting to say that an older artist has brought their career full circle, but Dre has done something a few degrees left of that. None of us know what’s in the Detox vaults, but the leaked singles and reference tracks make it painfully obvious that as he approached and barreled through middle age, he was straining to say relevant. On Compton, Dre decides instead to embrace his long, complicated history in music. The form keeps it grounded in the now, but the core of nearly every song is a sober look in the rearview. The finale, “Talking to My Diary,” ends with a letter to Eazy-E that ignores his death, the beef, the reconciliation. It’s about one moment, with Eazy in the booth, Dre behind the boards, and Cube sitting on record crates, scrawling the next verse. For once, it doesn’t need context, doesn’t need to be tucked into a timeline. “Damn, I miss that.”

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