Album Review: Dr. Dre – Compton, A Soundtrack

16 Years?! 16 Years Dre?! What have you been doing?!

Oh yeah: becoming the richest black musician in the world, mentoring the world’s most famous rapper Eminem, the world’s best Kendrick Lamar, and the world’s most broke; 50 Cent – jumping on the Apple Music rocket ship before it took off, and masterminding the most anticlimactic PR campaign in music history… 16 years of waiting for Detox and it’s now on the scrapheap, damn Andre. And with a failed take-off like that… What could this record be other than a disappointment? Well cinema has Fast and Furious, The Avengers, Mission Impossible, Jurassic World, Mad Max… now at last music has itself a summer blockbuster.

It seems Dr. Dre has had himself a serious case of writer’s block which, for a rapper who famously deploys ghost writers, must have been especially chronic. But for a project so long in the making, Compton: The Soundtrack had an incredibly fast turnaround: conceived on the set of upcoming NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton earlier this year. The 1988 album from which the film took its name is one of hip-hop’s best. On it Dre himself founded the G-Funk sound of gangster rap and took centre stage on its best song; the Charles Wright-sampling ‘Express Yourself.’ After shaping hip-hop’s sound for the next decade, Dre dropped two more classics; The Chronic and 2001. On each he sounded fresh – and the same is the case on Compton; the kick drums are toned back in place of dense instrumentation, revving synths and high hats – but on it Dre is hungry again, not imitating the sound of his new peers but adapting to it, and setting records straight.

The opening gambit of the record is incredible. Starting with 20th Century Fox-aping drum thrashes and a vivid news report on the state of Compton: the LP slides swiftly into two of the best songs of the year so far. On ‘Talk About It’ Dre is hungry as hell – spitting over a trap flavoured instrumental, he’s witty (“got Eminem cheques I ain’t opened yet”) and braggadocios: “I just. brought. California!” This isn’t a comeback track but a victory lap for 16 fruitful years out of the booth, one that cemented him as a music legend and a business mogul. It’s ‘Genocide’ which sets us off on the next part of Andre’s journey: with a beat which revs like a Chevy in the rear of the track, breaking down to a barber-shop-quartet after Kendrick spits a mean verse. It’s discombobulating, and brilliant.

Dre is hungry again, not imitating the sound of his peers but adapting to it, and setting records straight

Kendrick’s other verse on the record comes on the excellent ‘Deep Water’, where his “motherfucker I started from the bottom” certainly seems like a shot at fakery in the game… Dre’s new prodigy Anderson Paak doesn’t exactly stand out on the record but the other features shine. The hate-Eminem bandwagon is in full swing but the fact he’s one of the best who ever rapped is undeniable and his verse is cataclysmic. ‘Medicine Man’ itself is an iconic track featuring two of the biggest names in rap music and Dre uses the song to make clear his views on the current state of hip-hop: “listen, this is my evaluation/This shit over saturated, y’all can get evacuated/Kids sipping Actavis and they ain’t even activated” – deriding Lean-obsessed bantamweights like Future in one swoop. Compton is great at utilising its own history while making new moments in this way – the same can be same for Snoop Dogg on this record – the Dr must be on hand with the defibrillator because on ‘One Shot’ he sounds more awake than he has in years. Ice Cube too provides another iconic reunion – here spitting “This is my passion/Survive through the time, you know my name, you know my reputation/I don’t need to give no explanation.” And he’s right, like Dre, his presence speaks for itself.

That’s not to say every song goes over perfectly. ‘Loose Canons’ contains the gusto implied by the title but none of the precision, instead spraying like a gat in every direction and it never really sticks. The song also finishes with a skit and although that’s nicely old school; it would be hard to get nostalgic over a scene where a woman’s trapped in the boot of a car and shot – especially distasteful considering accusations made against Andre’s name in the past. ‘Just Another Day’ and ‘For The Love Of The Money’ meanwhile suffer the opposite problems of being just a little undercooked.

Dr. Dre must have been on hand with the defibrillator because on ‘One Shot’ Snoop Dogg sounds more awake than he has in years

Dre isn’t on every song here but his shadow looms even in his absence and in the booth he makes every second count. On closing track ‘Talking To My Diary’ Dre encapsulates his approach to this record nicely: in the first verse he gives us a check up on his current state of being “I’m strong; financially, physically, mentally I’m on a whole ‘nother level/And don’t forget that I came from the ghetto” and then in what might be the final verse of his solo career he gets unabashedly sentimental: “I know Eazy can see me now, looking down through the clouds/And regardless, I know my nigga still proud…/You in the booth and Cube in the corner writing/Where Ren at?/Damn, I miss that…” The legacy affirming biopic plants NWA firmly in the annals of music history so it’s hardly surprising Dre isn’t afraid to capitalise on his history. The LP’s best moment comes on the song ‘Darkside/Gone’ where Dre out the blue spits “word to my nigga Eazy!” and the instrumental switches for a moment into the boom bap drums that comprised the NWA beats Eazy and the Dr. shared back in the day… Damn… It’s just hayfever I swear…

Compton: A Soundtrack is like a compilation of singles – but cohesion is wrought by Andre’s touch on every inch of this record: it’s a love letter to his troubled hometown, and to himself. It’s an in your face record: with cinematic production that’s both bombastic and fantastic, lyrics that are simple but direct: it’s Spielberg and it doesn’t want to be Fellini… just like Straight Outta Compton back in ’88, and it does it without falling back on the sounds of the past. For an album as hotly anticipated as this one, to have it not disappoint an inch is like watching a master jewel heist unravel before our eyes. It’s a statement on the old school and a message for the new; a timely reminder for certain sections of the game, too. It’s a huge release and it works by giving us so much to feast on and talk about. Whether this will hurt the record later down the line, only time will tell – but if it’s holds up; then three classics out of three ain’t bad… And if he’s still got this much fire in his belly… see you on your 66th birthday Dre. I can’t wait.

Liam Inscoe – Jones

Liam is currently listening to ‘Graceland’ by Paul Simon

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Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham's IMPACT Magazine.

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