Dr. Dre’s third album may not reach the legendary status of his first two efforts, but his swansong may just be the most interesting and daring record of his career.
When it comes to hip hop, few rappers can have as daunting a legacy to live up to as Dr. Dre. As a producer, he’s been the guiding force behind some of rap’s biggest stars including Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent and Kendrick Lamar. His two previous solo albums, The Chronic and 2001 produced some of the most recognisable hip hop tracks of all time. Even your nan’s probably heard Next Episode or Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang a couple of times. Arguably, no other single figure has had such an influence throughout the genre’s history.
So when it was unexpectedly announced earlier this month that Dre would be releasing a third album, the music world was understandably curious. What would a 50 year old Dre sound like? Does hip hop have a place for Dre in 2015 or was this just a quick cash-in on the upcoming NWA biopic?
Compton: A Soundtrack proves that Dre’s still capable of producing entertaining and original material. The record manages to sound modern without sounding like it’s trying too hard to keep up with a new generation. The album also has an unexpected depth to it. Considering hip hop’s propensity for unbridled bragging, Compton might have been a standard celebratory rags to riches tale. Instead Dre adopts an introspective tone, looking around at today’s world with a mixture of anger and disillusion.
In fairness, the album’s hardly afraid of revelling in it’s creator’s success (“I just bought California!” Dre declares on Talk About It). But alongside the money and the other trappings of hip hop mega-stardom, there’s also a recognition that it’s not worth a whole lot. Dre sounds like a man who’s been through the Hollywood dream and seen it for the illusion it really is. On For The Love of Money he warns “These numbers don’t lie/ but your love is superficial/ it’s the simple shit you need to pay attention to.”
Throughout the album there’s also a sense of reflection. This is supposedly Dre’s last album and it feels like he’s taking the opportunity to look back over a career he scarcely seems to believe. While he emphasises the struggles of his early days there’s also a hint of longing for a time before the success. The final track, Talking to My Diary, reminisces on being in the studio with the other members of NWA. On the song Dre admits “damn I miss that…shit a nigga having flashbacks.”
It’s far more personal territory than Dre’s ventured into on previous records. The Chronic was a buoyant party record that ushered in the g-funk era. 2001 was a defiant blast against the critics. But neither contained the sort of insight into his life that Compton does. Perhaps it’s indicative of an artist who has nothing to lose. Dre hardly has to worry about album sales and at this point he doesn’t really have to prove anything.
The album’s not all deep reflection though. Alongside that there’s a strong current of anger. Dre may be older but the same rage that made NWA so incendiary still seems to remain with him. On Medicine Man he goes in on the problems of the world with a mixture of dismay and disgust. “Girls be thirteen acting twenty two/niggas be fourty four acting half they ages/ somebody tell me what the fuck is going on?”
While Dre’s music has always contained an element of aggression, it takes a new, more direct and more righteous angle on the track Animals. The track brings two legendary producers together, with Dre working alongside New York’s DJ Premier. It’s one of the standouts of the new album and also a hard hitting protest song. Against a bouncy beat, Dre and newcomer Anderson .Paak, attack middle America’s perceptions of the ghetto. “Please don’t come around these parts/and tell us that we’re all a bunch of animas/the only time they wanna turn the cameras on/is when we fucking shit up.” Obviously this isn’t Dre’s first brush with social issues, but it’s probably his most eloquent.
Of course, the anger’s not all as righteous or as easy listen to. There’s been some controversy over the skit on Loose Cannons that sees Cold 187um shoot a pleading woman dead. Similarly some people have taken exception to Eminem’s line on Medicine Man where he claims “I make even the bitches I rape cum.” It’s the sort of thing that was common place in hip hop a decade ago and probably would have passed by relatively unnoticed. Eminem achieved global success with albums filled with visceral descriptions of violence against women and rape jokes. But hip hop’s moved on and that same content seems strangely outdated and unwelcome on a modern record. Additionally, considering Dre’s past with women, including the infamous assault on tv presenter Dee Barnes, he might be wise to steer clear of such material.
Thankfully though the missteps are few and far between on Compton. In terms of collaborations, Dre has played it perfectly. The usual team are all here, Snoop, Xzibit, Kendrick. The Game even gets a song to himself on Just Another Day. But Dre also includes a couple of relative unknowns to keep things fresh. Anderson .Paak and King Mez are present throughout the album. On the basis of Compton both have promising careers ahead of them and serve to illustrate that Dre hasn’t lost his ear for talent. King Mez in particular provides a number of attention grabbing verses such as on Talk About It.
The decision to go with long-term collaborators and rising stars is a good one. There’s no sense here of trying to piggy-back on the fan-bases of the latest flavours of the month. In a genre where features are seen as a great way of guaranteeing album sales, Dre bucks the trend. Every artist who contributes to Compton seems as if they were picked because they suited the purpose of the album rather than to draw a few more itunes downloads.
The production on the album, is as you’d expect, pretty amazing. Dre avoids the pitfall of trying to ape today’s hits. The music retains that distinctive West Coast bounce while managing to sound fresh. Those looking for nostalgia may be disappointed but it’s a testament to Dre’s ability to move with the times that this sounds like one of the most original efforts of the year.
Compton will likely never achieve the genre-redefining reverence shown to The Chronic or the world-conquering success of 2001. In today’s ultra-fast paced, social media driven world there just isn’t the space or time for an album to command the attention of the culture as it once did. And truthfully, perhaps Compton isn’t on the same level as those first two records. But put the comparisons aside and this is still a seriously impressive offering. Music’s moved on a lot since 1999 and there’s every chance that Dre wouldn’t have been able to keep up. This could easily have been a regrettable late attempt to be brushed over when people look back in hindsight on his career. Instead it is a worthy addition to the catalogue. Tracks like Animals are amongst the best things Dre has ever done. The album does occasionally stray into more unpalatable territory, such as on Loose Cannons, but the positives ultimately outweigh the negatives. Compton is a satisfying curtain call to a legendary career.