Music review: Dr. Dre’s ‘Compton’: Long time coming, and worth the wait
How much time has passed since Dr. Dre put out an album under his own name?
Pop-culturally speaking, eons. In 1999, when the definitive G-funk producer and founding N.W.A. member released “2001” — the album title was postdated into the new millennium to convey that it was ahead of its time — a brand-new Internet service called Napster had begun to reshape the music business.
Neither iPods, iTunes, nor iPhones existed. And in a pre-Sept. 11 environment, the media were free to obsess over frightening phenomena like a foulmouthed young white rapper from Detroit whose wildly popular debut, “The Slim Shady LP,” was produced by Dre.
Even in 1999, Dre was in a defensive stance, arguing that he was still relevant, although he hadn’t been heard from since his classic “The Chronic” in 1992. Nonetheless, he was “Still D.R.E.,” as the fastidious sonic architect reminded fans (in verses ghostwritten by Jay Z). He not only was “still not loving police” and known to “still rock my khakis with a cuff and a crease.” He also was not in a hurry: “Still taking my time to perfect the beat.”
Now, at long last, Dre does have a new album. “Compton” is a companion to “Straight Outta Compton,” the musical biopic about incendiary gangsta rap group N.W.A. that opened in theaters last weekend. Dre is credited as a producer in F. Gary Gray’s lively, overly long film, in which Corey Hawkins portrays Dre as a thoughtful visionary (and which whitewashes out the infamous 1991 incident in which he brutally beat TV host Dee Barnes, later pleading no contest).
Between now and 1999, Dre took a lot of time. Not that he has been unproductive in the interim. He’s given his invaluable imprimatur to the biggest-selling rapper of all time: “Still got Eminem checks I ain’t opened yet,” he raps on Compton’s “Talk About It.” He made hits throughout the ’00s with Eve and Gwen Stefani, 50 Cent, and the Game, among others. And Dre — born Andre Young — added to his Midas-touch reputation by signing bountifully talented (and Compton-born) Kendrick Lamar, whose three guest spots are clear highlights.
And, of course, Dre has also made himself unimaginably rich. Beats Electronics, the headphone and speaker company he founded with music exec Jimmy Iovine, was sold to Apple in 2014 for $3.2 billion. Forbes estimated Dre earned $620 million that year, the largest one-year haul by a musician in history. That has been more than enough to keep Dre’s impassive face chiseled on a Mount Rushmore of rap with an unassailable reputation. But amid success, Dre publicly struggled to finish an album called “Detox,” the meant-to-be magnum opus he started working on as early as 2002.
All that time spent perfecting the beat turned out to be for naught. In his weekly show “The Pharmacy” on Apple’s Beats 1 radio last month, the perfectionist producer said he junked “Detox” because “it wasn’t good. I didn’t like it.” He announced good news to go with it, though: Instead of culling a new album from what are said to be hundreds of hours of recordings he most assuredly was sick of, he started afresh with an impromptu project inspired by hanging out on the “Straight Outta Compton” set.
The result is “Compton,” which argues persuasively for impulsiveness, and a tight deadline. Who knows how much of it was originally conceived for “Detox,” but “Compton” is bursting with musical ideas.
If anything, the album that’s certainly the hip-hop event of the summer — sorry, Drake vs. Meek Mill feud — is overbusy. There are appearances from longtime Dre associates Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube (also a “Straight Outta Compton” producer, played in the movie by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Lamar, and Eminem, all of whom bring their A game.
Philadelphia soul woman Jill Scott sings backup vocals, as does Marsha Ambrosius, the Philly-connected native of Liverpool, England, and also a longtime Dre associate. As usual, Dre doesn’t restrict himself to known quantities, but also shines a spotlight on young talent, including North Carolina rapper King Mez, Los Angeles rapper-singer-drummer Anderson .Paak, and South African singer-songwriter Candice Pillay.
On “Genocide,” a standout track that links the violently confrontational musical attack of “F- tha Police”-era N.W.A. with the rising consciousness of today’s Black Lives Matter movement, Pillay throws down a Jamaican dance-hall rap that cuts to an Ambrosius-sung hook before the track shifts musical gears for jittery verses by Dre (sounding more nimble and less stentorian than usual) and Lamar that are of a high-strung piece with one another. It’s a tour de force production.
“Compton” kicks off with a spoken intro from a vintage news documentary about the city “that became the black American dream” that “turned sour.” The album cover looks out from behind a hilltop sign spelling out Compton’s name, much like the Hollywood sign to the north.
Appropriately so, because Dre, as creator of the low-riding signature Southern California gangsta rap sound, operates more like a film score composer than a hit-happy hip-hop producer. He creates sleek, uncluttered sonic environments with earth-quaking bottom and haunting, P-Funk-influenced high end, in which he is mostly content to direct his guest rapper-actors, stepping into the cinematic rap spotlight only when he sees fit.
Compton is a landmark release, and a volley in the sure-to-heat-up music-streaming wars. The album is available as a download on iTunes and is streaming on Apple Music. But, sorry, it’s not available on Spotify.
Dre stands above current trends. Who needs pop hits when you’re the self-proclaimed “first billionaire in hip-hop”? Compton gets by on rhythmic complexity, musical ingenuity, and a refreshing burst of still-relevant energy, along with a more than ample share of star power.
Many of the lyrics ruminate on the past in satisfying ways, without being overcome by nostalgia. Clearly spurred by Gray’s movie, the lyrics of “It’s All on Me” — “Face down on the pavement with the billy clubs” — recall the scene in which N.W.A. members were hassled by police for the crime of standing outside a recording studio in the majority-white community of Torrance, California.
But like “Straight Outta Compton,” in which, in a scene played for laughs, an all-but-naked groupie is kicked out into a hotel hallway, “Compton” is marred by misogyny. Eminem’s verse on “Medicine Man” is a marvel of high-speed agility that he crudely punctuates by bragging about his skills as a rapist.
And “Loose Cannons,” which features Xzibit, Cold 187, um, and Sly Pyper, closes with a heinous skit in which a woman is made to beg for mercy before being shot to death. Really? Who thought that was a good idea? It’s an ugly blot on an otherwise almost wholly impressive return by a hip-hop titan with nothing to prove to anyone but himself.