After almost 16 years of behind the scenes magic making, the ubiquitous giant and triumphant dignitary of hip-hop, Dr Dre, has made an immensely anticipated return to centre stage. The rapper/producer/business man/billionaire is somewhat of a paradox, with a permeating and prolific presence within the genre, but whose solo, artistic creativity has been incredibly limited. The 16-year build up of hype and expectations surrounding his mythic album Detox seemed to have been too much for Dre, who benched the project as simply not good enough, and has instead delivered a brand new solo album entitled Compton, a companion piece to the upcoming N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton”. While Compton indulges in ambitious and expansive sonic ideas, never attaching itself solely to the visceral sound that defined his early career, there is an autobiographical and reflective examination that becomes immediately evident.
Compton opens with documentary-style theatrics, while a narrator describes the city as the American dream turned sour, whose potential as a black middle-class arcadia was never realised as crime, violence and welfare engulfed the area. Talk About It then begins on a contradictory rampage, as Dre and guests declare their attainment of the American dream (“one day I’ma have everything… I want it all / I just bought California”) over an ensemble of uncompromising horns and ferocious percussion, littered with melodramatic strings. Genocide then offers one of the most intelligently nuanced, and vivid soundscapes of the album. Chromatic motifs combined with a slower tempo and wailing glissandos make for a gripping ominousness. As well as featuring Kendrick Lamar’s captivating idiosyncratic delivery, the track gives way to an unexpected and refreshing funky a’cappella interlude.
The deeply unnerving Deep Water could be read as both a account about hip-hop’s dying, as well as a more explicit political statement about the palpable racial divide that continues to thrive in modern America; a sentiment corroborated by the mere existence of Compton itself. Dre and Lamar’s intergenerational collaboration is at its most sincere and affecting here. Eric Garner’s infamous statement “I can’t breathe” is conjured up through the indisputable sounds of a boy drowning as a trumpet weeps at first above water, and then seemingly submerged in defeat by the track’s end. The Game also makes a characteristically gruff appearance, rapping about police violence and racially motivated injustices, as well as baring clear pride in his hometown. On One Shoot One Kill any trace of funk-inspired production is abandoned instead for electric guitars. Its vivacious guitar-driven, rock sound provides the perfect backdrop for Snoop Dogg’s most energetic and venomous feature in recent times.
The shimmering, flashy, horn-steeped production that opens Loose Cannons gives way to piano-driven, retro aggression as Xzibit makes his entry. The track’s graphic storytelling, describing the ubiquity of guns, and a mental breakdown that results in the murder of a girlfriend, makes for a chilling addition to the album. The enthralling storytelling of the manic Loose Cannons however loses its effect on the hardnosed Medicine Man. The track is inspiring and overwhelming until Eminem’s structural virtuosity becomes increasingly shouted and eventually leads to his now expected addition of the overused rape trope. Whether violence against women is used as a pure metaphor for subjugating and conquering hip-hop adversaries, or not, Eminem’s persistent dependence on the theme is becoming less shocking and effectual, and more eye rolling.
Closer Talking To My Diary lays bare all of Dre’s reflections, nostalgia and enduring passion for the genre with finality. Its confident triumph is accompanied by the perceived maturity of string ostinatos, but retains Dre’s lasting audacity with throbbing percussion and propulsive horns.
Those fans resolutely hoping for a reincarnation of 1992’s The Chronic are decades behind Dre’s evolution and will no doubt be initially disappointed with the album. Expecting the same old-school sound is naïve as realistically; the artist is so far removed from the sound and circumstances that forged his early career. The 50-year-old titan continues to offer hip-hop that is intricate, intelligent, inspired and informed as he creates a tapestry of myriad 20th century African American musical influences. While it might not offer many bombastically new ideas, Compton is a brilliant combination of personal artistry and business-minded genius, demonstrating the balance of the two that contributed so heavily to Dr Dre’s unbelievable success.