Dr. Dre – Compton: A Soundtrack (Album Review)

4.5 / 5

Andre Young is a legend.

It sounds too simple to say it, too empty.  The mere word “legend” doesn’t really do justice to the man. This is the guy who, along with a collection of fellow Compton rappers, kickstarted the gritty gangsta movement with N.W.A. This is the guy who introduced the world to Snoop Dogg, released one of the all-time hip hop classics (1992’s The Chronic), and was a key figure in the notorious lifespan of Suge Knight’s Death Row Records. His 1999 album 2001 was the hip hop stoner album of choice for every suburban kid at the dawn of the 21st Century. In between that time and now, he brought the world a plethora of game-changing rappers: Eminem, 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar (also, as an aside, The Game). He’s done production with nearly every big name under the sun. He’s also been hinting at an album on its way for sixteen years now, tentatively titled Detox.

Detox is dead; this much has been made clear in the week since the impending arrival of Compton: A Soundtrack was announced. The hype got too big, and too real; Dre was uncomfortable releasing what he had, since he didn’t think it was good enough. It’s not like he had to, either; the sale of his Beats By Dre to Apple made him hip hop’s first honest-to-god billionaire. For Dre, it’s no longer about the money or the fame.  It’s about love: love for the people he’s worked with, love for the up-and-comers who are in the same position he once was, love for the city where he started, the city where – if the trailers for the film Straight Outta Compton are to be believed – the man is still welcome with open arms.

That film – about the initial rise to fame of N.W.A. – is the inspiration for Dre’s new album.  Memories came flooding back during principal photography, and he decided to make an album dedicated to the city of Compton, a city that he helped cement in hip hop legend, a city that features as a principal character in the movie. This is obvious from the first moments of the album, when a news report outlines a brief history of the city as the destination of the black American Dream, a middle class escape from the inner city L.A. ghettos that turned into an extension of that ghetto when employment and opportunity evaporated.

A great deal of the album revisits the violence in the streets of Compton that Dre and company first chronicled at the end of the 1980s; “Talk About It”, “Genocide”, “Deep Water”, and “One Shot One Kill” are classic Tec-toting tracks, discussing gun play and dead men outlined in chalk in the streets. At the same time, it’s also an album about how far Dre has come from those gritty days in the streets. “It’s All On Me” details the pressure he felt to perform and succeed, to get up out of the cycle of violence; “All In A Day’s Work” talks about his work ethic, where he puts his nose to the grindstone rather than live the party lifestyle; “Talking To My Diary”, the last song, pays homage to those original days with his friends.

The ghost of Eazy-E shows up more than a few times in the lyrics, and his voice actually appears once, in a snippet in the middle of “Darkside/Gone”, a piece of history brought out of the vaults to guest alongside his old friend-turned-enemy on his grand finale. In addition to where he’s been and where he’s at, Dre and King Mez take the time, on “Satisfiction”, to call out the pseudo-rockstar life that so many rappers seem to brag about these days, warning that “You leased your car, leased your house, leased your spouse / Know she leavin’ if you run out of paper”.  It’s a potent warning: Dre’s seen and done it all, and the number of rappers that have risen and fallen in his wake are legion.

It’s the survivors, however, that are in full display on Compton: A Soundtrack. Snoop Dogg, who Dre first featured when the Long Beach native was just 18, sounds harder on “One Shot One Kill” and “Satisfiction” than he has in decades.  This is not the Snoop of Bush, or even of Rhythm & Gangsta. This is the Deep Cover Snoop, full of menace despite the years between then and now. Eminem, whose Marshall Mathers LP 2 I found personally flat and who hasn’t honestly released a decent album since The Eminem Show, goes all in on “Medicine Man”, spitting out a rapid-fire verse in one take that leaves nearly everyone in the dust. Ice Cube sounds like he hasn’t aged much or done family movies. The biggest surprise, however, is Xzibit, whose unhinged verse on “Loose Cannons” should by all rights spark a career renaissance for the man.

There’s a lot to say for the newcomers, too.  There’s Kendrick Lamar, of course. He’s hardly a newcomer, but Section.80 wasn’t that long ago, and he proves over the course of three features here why he’s on top of the rap game in 2015. Unknowns like King Mez, Justus, and Anderson .Paak pull their weight with authority; Jon Connor is the one who really makes his mark, showing off a deft yet aggressive flow that seems to cry out for its own hyped project.

It’s the production, of course, that’s the star of the show. Dre’s work sounds immediate, clean, and massive. I described it earlier today to a friend as the widescreen, million dollar, Spielberg take on modern hip hop. Every instrument sounds perfectly tuned, expertly EQ’d, and mixed with the steady hand of a master. It’s not as though one should expect anything different, of course; this is the work of a man who has spent more time in the studio than nearly anyone else in hip hop, and he could probably produce this sort of balanced mix in his sleep. The only real issue I have with the album is the lack of a real breakthrough track; they all have their own stellar moments, but there’s no standout like “Still D.R.E.” or “Nuthin’ But A G Thang”. “Genocide” and “One Shot One Kill” come close but that’s where the stainless steel production becomes problematic. Compton is so well-produced that it actually detracts at times from the grit of the lyrics.

At the end of it all, of course, Compton proves that Dre is the last man standing from the 20th Century. Snoop, Eminem, Nas, the Wu as a collective, Puff – they’ve all fallen off.  Dre emerges from the smoke and wreckage of the golden age of hip hop victorious, with Compton as his trophy; it’s dented and covered in blood, to be sure, but massive and impressive for all of that.

Compton: A Soundtrack is available exclusively on iTunes

Trevor James Zaple, Music Editor

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