It’s been 16 years since we last heard from the Compton native and for many of us, Detox was the album we were waiting to listen to. The album which never came to fruition was announced as his latest upcoming work in 2002, 3 years after the hugely successful 2001 (released in 1999); however as per his first radio show called “The Pharmacy” (on Apple’s Beats 1), Dr. Dre said “I didn’t like it,” and “I don’t think I did a good enough job.” Given that Dr. Dre spent over a decade working on a project that he dismissed due to high expectations and the fact that he’s amassed a multi-billion dollar empire with only 2 solo records, we’ve come to expect the best from him. I gotta admit, I can’t deny he’s a meticulous, over-achieving bastard and his latest work, Compton (a.k.a Compton: A soundtrack by Dr. Dre), does not disappoint.
As with his previous work, Dr. Dre shares the limelight when it comes to lyricism but maintained control over every aspect of instrumentation. This habit may be because his true passion is production or a reluctance to focus the spotlight on his lyrical capabilities. From what I gather, Dr. Dre has always been more talented as a producer than as a rapper. And, although he combines the two, I’m more eager to assess his ability to bring out the best in his featured artists as well as the story that the album tells when listened to in its entirety.
The album starts off with a brief history of Compton city and from the sounds of it it’s probably how the movie Straight Outta Compton will start, too. As the intro winds down, the narration outlines the dark history that has now become a part of Compton’s reputation. Dr. Dre, King Mez and Justus open for the album on “Talk About It” which is a layered cloud of synth haze with a fast tempo drum beat (courtesy of DJ Dahi who produced Kendrick’s Money Trees). It’s the kind of track that’s radio friendly because it makes anyone feel like a gangsta rolling down California’s Palm Tree lined roads. As the album moves on, Dre brings out his bravado and frustration with blunt verses and catchy hooks on tracks like “It’s All On Me”.
As with previous albums, Dre incorporates samples and skits within the playlist. Each one specifically chosen to intensify a mood or highlight one of his convictions. After “Darkside/Gone”, these samples take a darker tone and the album becomes more controversial. “Loose Cannon” includes a disturbing one-off skit on a homicide inspired by domestic abuse while tracks like “Deep Water” and “One Shot One Kill” are best listened to in sequence. They retaliate against the critics while providing a glimpse to the dark reality that provoked Dr. Dre and four others to create N.W.A back in 1986. Having said that, the lyrics can be metaphoric or laconic depending on what you take as truth. I’m glad Dre can still put out tracks that shock the media (perhaps you, too) much like he did on The Chronic. Not all of the second half is hard-hitting - as with any track listing, Compton is peppered with a few switch-ups that keep you guessing. Unlike the first half which discusses the issues of living in Compton, the second half reveals what conclusions each artist came to when faced with those issues. It gives depth to the discussion on America’s socioeconomic divisions that is brought up throughout the album. Tracks like “Animals” really hit home and drive the message of systematic oppression being a part of what Dre experienced as a youth but managed to overcome, serving as the template for ’90s gansta rap lyricism.
“Still tryna figure out, why the fuck I’m full of rage
I think I noticed this bullshit right around the fifth grade
Paraphernalia in my locker right next to the switch blade
Nothing but pussy on my mind and some plans of getting paid
But I’m a product of the system raised on government aid
And I knew just how to react when it was time for that raid.”
- Dr. Dre on “Animals”
As with any album, the closing tracks reward some of the earliest fans. Dr. Dre brings back Snoop Dogg on “Satisfiction” and utilizes his iconic G-Funk sound (whiny auto-tune instead of synth, though) to relive The Chronic’s potent sound with Marsha Ambrosius and King Mez added to the mix. Eminem makes his only appearance on “Medicine Man” and brings back his Slim Shady esque rap style, which disturbs and questions listeners like he did on “Forgot about Dre“ (from 2001). The closing track, “Talking To My Diary,” is an all-encompassing conclusion to what Dr. Dre has described as a soundtrack. It puts aside his former beef with Eazy-E and comes across as a genuine expression of forgiveness along with a statement of how he’s reached a mental state of clarity. This denouement ties into his declaration that Compton will be his last studio album, via his Beats 1 radio show. I don’t believe that Dr. Dre will leave music entirely but his words are meant to let us know that this phase of his musical career has come to an end. What he does next will be something different from what we’ve come to know as Dr. Dre.
“I remember when I got started my intention was to win
Some more friends became enemies in the quest of victory
But I made a vow, never let this shit get to me
I let it pass, so I consider that part of my history
And I’m strong, financially, physically
Mentally I’m on a whole ‘nother level
And don’t forget that I came from the ghetto”
- Dr. Dre on “Talking To My Diary”
There is no shortage of talent on Compton. Featured artists range from breakthrough artists like Kendrick Lamar to legendary R&B soulstress Jill Scott. As with To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick drops conscious lyricism with dense verses and heavy sentiment, which came as no surprise. Given that Compton harbours feelings of frustration and determination, Kendrick Lamar was the perfect choice to represent what a determined Compton native can achieve. As a duo, Kendrick and Dre put together revealing verses that express the reality of growing up in hardship and document the tough decisions they both faced in overcoming systematic poverty. Lamar takes a backseat on “Genocide” thanks to Dre’s killer verses, but he steps into the limelight on “Deep Water“; dropping lines like
“Once upon a time, I shot a nigga on accident
I tried to kill him, but I guess I needed more practicin,
that’s when I realized, banging wasn’t for everybody
Switch it up before my enemy or the sheriff got me”
- Kendrick Lamar on “Deep Water”
Out of all the featured artists, I was most impressed by the way Anderson .Paak rose to the occasion. The Oxnard native is relatively unknown outside of L.A.’s indie scene and he was heavily utilized throughout the album thanks to his six appearances (the most out of all featured artists). Although Anderson. Paak provides backing vocals on most of his appearances his vocal talent continuously stood out and Dr. Dre made extensive use of it. Compton showcases Paak in a diversity of roles and he shines in each one (more so than any track on his debut album, Venice). In “All in a day’s work” (the only track to feature DJ Premier), Anderson sets the somber tone through his dialogue-style verses while on the track “Animals“, he uses poetic lyricism to speak about America’s recent bout of police shootings. If it all works out, Anderson. Paak could use this album as a launching pad for his career in the same way that The Chronic launched Snoop Dogg to fame.
“Bullets still ringing, blood on the cement
Black folks grieving, headlines reading
Tryna pay it no mind, you just living your life
Everyone is a witness, everyone got opinions
Got a son of my own, look him right in his eyes
I ain’t living in fear but I’m holding him tight”
- Anderson. Paak on “Animals”
I can’t help but think Compton is inspired by the recent events of America’s ongoing issues with racial profiling (#blacklivesmatter) much like The Chronic was influenced by the Rodney King Riots of ’92. The tone of Compton is both hard-hitting and political while being nostalgic. Unlike 2001, Dre’s efforts are focused on narrating his journey to success while speaking about the reality that many face in Compton. At times, it’s hard to recognize Dre’s voice and delivery for good and bad reasons. It seems like he’s worked on different rhythmic patterns and tones which resulted in various vocal deliveries that often compliment his featured artists. It’s a welcome departure from his reputable laid-back west coast drawl, while also challenging what we’ve come to expect. The content of the record is very in touch with today. Both the lyrics and instrumentation reflect on the post Eric Garner (#icantbreathe) atmosphere of 2014/2015, while providing us with insight on Dre’s long-held, convictions. I truly believe that this album will be worth listening to a decade from now which might be enough time for Dr. Dre to figure out if this really will be his last album.
- Mark @wkndhours