We never really wanted Detox anyways. Dr. Dre revealed that he had between 20 to 40 songs for that project. The two we heard inspired little confidence. “Kush” was a percussive club effort that was ephemeral at best. The Eminem-featuring “I Need A Doctor” was more moribund than anthemic. The songs weren’t just underwhelming: They painted a weird portrait. Dr. Dre’s legacy has been secured long before Eminem rolled through in a Benz looking hotter than a set of twin babies. Yet, for some reason, we were getting awkward attempts at bangers, as if Dr. Dre was clinging to relevance.
But N.W.A had to break before transmuting P-Funk into lowrider-friendly G-funk on The Chronic. The Aftermath had to fail before the next episode finally came and Eminem was unleashed. Dre’s failings post-2001 weren’t as ignominious. Would Detox truly have sucked? No one knows except Dr. Dre, who’s likely to resume life as a recluse after the ongoing press run. However, here we are: Compton. If “I Need A Doctor” and “Kush” were too indulgent, Dre’s final album starts off with what looks like the same trappings. The man kicks it off with a rough approximation of the Tri-Star logo theme. But as the news synopsis kicks in and the first vocals you hear are not Dr. Dre’s, but newcomer King Mez, it’s clear Compton is bigger than one prodigious producer — just like his other two studio albums. What makes this one momentous is the way it balances three objectives with impressive aplomb: constructing a love letter to his hometown, making an album that’s more of an endnote than a suffix, and continuing a lineage that has supplanted itself within hip-hop’s DNA.
(Film Review: Straight Outta Compton)
Compton’s cinematic scope puts it in the same league as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. You can even argue that the student informed the teacher; while the first two Dre albums play out like an assorted mix, Compton’s 16 tracks ebb into each other cohesively. But this is a Dre album. Lamar’s messianic messaging, convoluted at some points, is replaced with a soundscape that’s imbued with extra vitality and urgency. If the sound stands in for the city, Dre’s version is a place where its celebratory chest-beating is a hairpin turn away from its fangs. Bass-driven fiestas and concrete maimings are vivid within this eco-system. Oxygen-pilfering percussive sprints (“Loose Cannon”) flow into Turkish bacchanalia (“Issues”), and final hour bangers (“Deep Water”) sync with sess-blowing, money-counting blues (“For The Love Of Money”).
The soundscape is distinctive, but the album wouldn’t quite work if Dre ran through it solo. The guests find something to tap into here, bringing out top-notch performances around the board. Game finally snaps out of his late-career creative purgatory in “Just Another Day”, in which survival is a fortune not a privilege (“Slugs drippin’ with Hennessy, got murderous tendencies”). Dre gets Snoop on a rock rap track (“One Shot One Kill”) and gets him to sound more menacing than he has in a while. On “Medicine Man”, Eminem’s technical prowess actually dazzles for the first time in a while, his verse only dented by backhanded misogyny.
With Dre’s help, Snoop Doggy Dogg floated permanently into hip-hop consciousness 23 years ago. Given the same stage, Kendrick Lamar manages to shine even brighter, scoring verses on three tracks. “Genocide,” the clearest highlight, places him within a bleak, descending riff and a bass line that mimics the final gasps of life before the flatline. Lamar makes the most out of those last heartbeats in rhymes that read like a news ticker describing an urban dystopia, where boasts are quick detours from the fatalism (“I lie on the side of a one-way street/ Nowhere to go, death all I can see”). He’s far more calamitous on “Deep Water,” where he thrillingly flips through flows at breakneck speed. He’s a predator one second and a callous raconteur the next (“Once upon a time, I shot a nigga on accident/ I tried to kill him but I guess I needed more practicing”).
Lamar is the chaos and Anderson .Paak is the soul. He doesn’t dazzle with his voice as much as the way in which he imbues Compton’s machismo with a sense of humanity. His spot on “Animals” is career-making, poignantly illustrating the fragility of black life: “Got a son of my own, look him right in his eyes/ I ain’t living in fear, but I’m holding him tight.”
Dre is lowkey a chameleonic rhymer. The pen isn’t his most noted tool, but he’s convincing when riding on Lamar’s style or asserting his 50-year-old dominance. Dre ultimately needs to have the final say, though, and he does on “Talking To My Diary”. It’s a widespread look at how a lineage is built: By Ice Cube writing rhymes, Eazy E dapping it up, and once being a young adult with hopes. The monolith is built brick-by-brick — and with souls. This is how you do the final episode.
Essential Tracks: “Talk About It”, “Animals”, and “Genocide”