Dr. Dre – Compton
“My life’s like a soundtrack I wrote to the beat,” Andre Young rapped way back on Still D.R.E., lead single off 1999’s sextuple-platinum 2001 – the Good Doctor’s last studio album until this summer’s Compton. Appropriate then that he’s subtitled Compton “A Soundtrack.” Inspired by the Straight Outta Compton movie Dre executive produced alongside his old mucker Ice Cube, he’s referring to this, his first studio album in 16 years, as a “grand finale,” and he’ll be donating all artist royalties to fund a performing arts centre in the district.
So Compton is part encomium to and chronicle of the troubled city that gave birth to N.W.A. and gangsta rap, to G-Funk, and most recently to Kendrick Lamar (present here, he'll inevitably square up to it in his own right with To Pimp A Butterfly for best rap record of 2015), but it’s also Dre’s life story, a hip-hop autobiography of the highest order – a combination which brings to mind the fire of Miles: The Autobiography, that rare quality of the self-made Übermensch’s well-earned arrogance.
2001’s opening – an unauthorized cover of the THX “Deep Note” – indicated Dre had an essentially blockbuster, cinematic vision of what LP entertainment could be. Compton opens in similarly celluloid style, channeling Universal's even more bombastic theme. A precursor to some of the most ambitious and tastefully layered production, composition, and arrangement to come out of hip-hop in some years. Take One Shot One Kill, roaring wavelike out of Deep Water’s gritty subterranea; For The Love Of Money pumps the sort of cinematic blow-up-the-earth mentality of recent synthwave music through a nightclub PA, with rattle-your-dental-fillings bass; then there's the larger-than-life scope of All In A Day’s Work, riddled with a sunset jazz-funk that only this guy can pull off in 2015.
Dre often feels everywhere and nowhere throughout Compton, managing to at once deploy and transcend the genre conventions he helped invent – as on Satisfiction, where he and Snoop play the admonishing semi-retired patriarchs; a nasty Chronic-style throwback that makes you wonder, can we call it braggadocio if it’s true? Across these 16 cuts, Dre and his collaborators weave an array of jazz samples with imbricate storylines and barbershop harmonies into an engrossing hip-hop heteroglossia. And in the end he says, over a G-Funk beat and Hennessy-to-the-head violins, “I’m just talking to my diary.”
Some say African American literature started with autobiography – with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave – and since then each literary generation has had to give birth to itself in prose: Richard Wright’s Black Boy, James Baldwin’s essays, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. One of the most recent – MK Asante’s 2013 memoir BUCK – shot rap verses through its narrative, letting readers in on what rappers already knew: that hip-hop was the 80s’ take on this tradition of bright minds writing themselves out of the ghetto and (quite literally) into the history books.
If this really is Dre’s final album (anticipating and bracketing some Harper Lee-style chicanery, perhaps a posthumous release of the Detox recordings in 3001) then he’ll have paralleled Douglass, who wrote three autobiographies: the coincidence is a little facile, but each man was (in Dre’s case: has been) able to talk about himself only in terms of something larger, an historical moment (The Chronic), a movement (N.W.A.), a cause (Compton). And while acknowledging the relentless priapic boasts of The Chronic and 2001, Dre possesses that heady mix of hubris and humility – so evident on Compton, on which the first raps we hear don’t come from the mastermind but from his latest talented amanuenses, Justus and King Mez; an album as sonically sophisticated as it is lyrically honest, reflective, almost sober – that produces monumental life works.
That crew is strong and carefully considered, though some minor lights from yesteryear, like Xzibit, flicker at key moments. Ice Cube makes his obligatory appearance on Issues, rapping that he hasn’t gone soft in Hollywood, but like Pacino in Godfather Part III, he seems like an actor who’s forgotten how to play an old role: he shuffles on and Dre hustles him off with a harder verse. Dre’s the architect, but the master masons are the aforementioned Justus and King Mez who – though occasionally straining and stumbling through awkward lines on this high-pressure performance – deserve high praise, with writing credits on most tracks, evident in Dre’s newly anapestic and syncopated flow: he handles the curves like the natural he is, though we can tell the lines don’t strictly fall within his comfort zone.
Dre’s self-sure and secure enough to hand the mic to two show-stealers: Kendrick Lamar spitting sinewy verses on three tracks, his dense delivery and smoky flow in such contrast with everyone else onboard; and Eminem on the red-eyed Roots-vibing Medicine Man, dropping his own autobiography like a cluster bomb in Dre’s metanarrative, his second verse an unbroken minute of trochaic vitriol with Uzi-like interruptions and one line so effortlessly horrible he might have saved it from his battling days. But to say Dre uses ghostwriters or leans on young lions no more depreciates the art than to say John Coltrane and Bill Evans made Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Dre is an occasionally great MC, but his genius was never lyrical: Dre is the Total Artist, and Compton is essentially his .500 Magnum opus.
Fortunately Dre found inspiration and struck before his passion cooled, his perfectionist’s doubts settled (as they have on the allegedly finished Detox’s corpse), and signed off on a life’s (master)work. “Would you look over Picasso’s shoulder and tell him about his brushstrokes?” Dre raps on Deep Water. It’s the perfect place for that kind of boast: the track, where Dre and Kendrick duet to devastating effect – Dre showing Kendrick how to slow down and flex, how to let a song drive itself, and Kendrick’s every breath like a blue puff of the chronic he doesn’t smoke, closing his verse with the most impressive metrics on the record – maybe the best track on an album so total it sneers at words like 'standout.'
If this is an epitaph, we’ll remember him as a titan straddling decades, a man in some ways bigger than hip-hop. But on his last track, Talking To My Diary, he tells us that “Sometimes when I got a lot of shit on my mind, I’m just staring at the sky, you probably thinkin’ I’m high, I’m just, I’m just, I’m just talking to my diary.” It’s a silent communion from the listener's perspective, but once in a while (every 16 years, maybe) he tears out a perfect page. So you wonder: can the 50 year-old stay silent for the rest of his life? A 50 year-old with Dre’s talent and vision? Compton bows out with what sounds like a low monitor hum, fading into silence. We'll expect that quiet to last for a while, but forever seems a stretch.