After 15 years of largely playing mentor to developing artists, Dr. Dre makes a triumphant 11th hour solo return.
“Doctor’s orders / Go fuck yourself."
Defiance is writ large across venerable hip-hop producer-slash-entrepreneur Dr. Dre’s long awaited new project, Compton, from the brash lyrics themselves to the album’s very existence. Dre has been toiling away on a forever gestating project to be titled Detox since 2003, with a pair of official singles and a lot of hype preceding it (including a downright bizarre world premiere clip as part of a Dre-starring Dr. Pepper commercial).
Then, out of nowhere, Dre took to his Beats 1 radio show earlier this month to announce that Detox had been scrapped, and instead he’d be releasing forthwith a completely different project called Compton, which was implied to be a sort of erstwhile soundtrack to the simultaneously released N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton.
This isn’t quite that.
Compton in its released form is more of a thematic anthology, one certainly centered around and celebrating N.W.A.’s famed city of origin, but with a much broader scope than merely eulogizing a seminal if long dormant individual rap group. Compton’s 16 tracks are less about providing a snapshot of a moment in time and more about examining the city’s past, present and future, with nothing less than the entire post-Ferguson state of Black America at stake.
Compton initially presents itself as a “guest star” album with Dre himself largely content to shepherd the tracks along behind the scenes, but whereas on initial spins one can’t help but wish for more of Dre’s presence on the mic, it quickly becomes apparent how much he needs these additional voices to tell his story.
Tellingly, he opens things up with a track featuring King Mez and Justus, two relative unknowns, neither of which hails from Compton. The production on “Talk About It” features an uncharacteristic trap beat courtesy of DJ Dahi and Free School the likes of which don’t pop up again later in the album, but the front loaded position of this track is obviously intended to serve notice: Dre isn’t here to rest of his laurels.
In fact, leaving aside an obligatory, set-the-scene intro, Dre himself is only credited as producer or co-producer on only one of the first four tracks. He’s not afraid to turn loose of a certain amount of control in order to achieve versatility, although Compton is hardly a hodgepodge of mismatched tracks and guest artist leftovers. It boasts a cohesive sonic and cinematic vision that most definitely shows Dre acting more in an auteur role than wearing his usual producer hat, where he tends to tailor his talents to those of the artists he’s working with rather than insisting upon a vision of his own. Here he asks the exact opposite, with only artists that fit the material being asked to contribute a bar or two.
Toward that end, even the casual Dre/N.W.A. fan will notice a lot of surprising omissions for a feature-heavy album meant to celebrate an established legacy: Ice Cube shows up, as does Snoop and Eminem, but there’s no sign of other N.W.A.-era associates such as Ren, Yella or D.O.C. Gossip enthusiasts will no doubt have a field day with theories on how the Game made the cut and 50 Cent didn’t, but the truth is it’s been many a year since Dre exhibited any flair for petty hip-hop beefs. And why should he? As he boasts early on, “I still got Eminem checks I ain’t opened yet."
Braggadocio certainly plays a part throughout the album, but is hardly the point of it, merely reflecting one of many intrinsic traits of life in the hood. By and large social issues are at the center of focus, with the dichotomy between “me first” survivalism and it’s opposite, growth through prosperity. That is best represented by “Darkside/Gone”, a mid-album track that begins with Mez bragging about underworld associations -- he’s a part of that life peripherally even if he doesn’t actively engage in it -- and ends a scant four minutes later with Dre justifying his success: “Don’t ever call me fortunate, you don’t know what it cost me / So anyone complaining about they circumstances lost me."
“Gone” also showcases the one absolute, must have Compton rapper in 2015: Kendrick Lamar. Lamar’s earlier 2015 release, To Pimp a Butterfly, is widely rumored to have inspired Dre to abandon Detox for something more ambitious in the first place. His bars are simpatico with the rest of the track, espousing the same sort of defensive braggadocio that Dre stresses: “I thought I was holding my city up / I thought I was good in the media / You think I'm too hood in my video? / But really no clue you idiot / I just can't help myself."
Lamar’s presence serves to tie the album together past and present, but ultimately it’s a group project, and as such not everything clicks equally well. “Satisfiction” is a fairly disposable R&B-laced pseudo-club hit that feels a bit insubstantial in this context, and “All in a Day’s Work” has its plaintive ethic somewhat undermined by a toothless Jimmy Iovine pep talk that reeks of bland corporate speak. But in total Compton is nonetheless a flawed masterpiece, an album of broad shoulders that manages to carry hip-hop into the latter half of the 2010s. What’s left to detox?