Dr. Dre’s new album is called Compton, but you can thank Hollywood for it. Well, Hollywood and the nostalgia that comes with middle age. Apparently being on the set of the new N.W.A. biopic stirred up some powerful feelings in the hip-hop icon. “During principal photography of Straight Outta Compton, I felt myself going to the studio and being so inspired by the movie that I started recording an album,” Dre said on his radio show.
This might come as a surprise to the rapper-producer’s fans, who know all too well that Dre has allegedly been working on an album for something like 15 years. Well, two albums, actually—an instrumental LP called The Planets, which might have positioned Dre as the Gustav Holst of hip-hop, and the record formerly known as Detox, which has become Andre Young’s very own Chinese Democracy.
Given his source of inspiration—namely watching his younger self, in the person of actor Corey Hawkins, play out scenes from his youth—you’d expect to find Dre in a reflective mood. And sure enough, “It’s All on Me” finds him looking back on the days when he had “no fridge, no mattress, no cable, no table”. The track itself is a throwback to the smooth G-funk style Dre crafted to perfection on his solo debut, The Chronic. That 1992 release served as a blueprint for much of what followed in that decade, not just for West Coast gangster rap, but for hip-hop as a whole. And while it serves as an effective time capsule of its era, it still sounds shockingly fresh today.
The same can arguably be said of its 1999 followup, 2001. As for Compton, well, who knows. Will its trap-inspired beats (like the ones on “Talk About It” and “Deep Water”) sound dated in a few years? This is a germane question, because given the pace of Dre’s output, this is likely to be the last we’ll hear from him for a while. Or ever, maybe. He has declared Compton his “grand finale”, but then again, anything this man says about his career plans can be taken with a grain of salt.
Whatever the case, Compton contains its share of (likely) future classics. “Animals”, which features up-and-comer Anderson .Paak, is a timely (and, sadly, timeless) meditation on media coverage of black outrage in the face of police brutality. (“The only time they want to turn the cameras on/Is when we’re fuckin’ shit up, come on.”) And then there’s “Medicine Man”, which is mostly a showcase for noted non-Compton resident Eminem, who absolutely spits fire on his verse, during which he delivers an increasingly intense overview of his career to date, starting, appropriately enough, with “In the beginning...” And yes, Em has drawn fire over one line in particular, which I won’t repeat—hell, its most offending word is even censored on the explicit version of the album—but that’s par for the course. If nothing else, Marshall Mathers has proven himself a master provocateur, and he follows up said line with one that shows he knows we’ll take the bait: “I’m waiting on someone to say something.” How very meta.
Eminem is just one player on an impressive guest list that includes some of Dre’s old sidekicks, such as Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and even a briefly sampled Eazy-E, alongside relative youngsters like Kendrick Lamar, King Mez, and U.K. singer-songwriter Marsha Ambrosius. Dre’s latest protégé, Justus, provides the hook on “Talk About It”, sounding ironically Drake-esque on a track that includes Mez’s unmistakably Drake-baiting disses of “emotional” rappers.
If all of the above gives you the impression that there's a lot going on here, that is correct. Compton offers much to process, both musically and lyrically. The record has arrived with little advance fanfare and has been greeted by a wave of hype and goodwill. Because it's Dr. Dre's first album in 16 years, everyone wants—nay, needs—it to be great. And because he's donating all of the proceeds toward the building of a new performing-centre for the children of Compton, it's impossible to harbour any ill will toward the project. Does the music live up to all of that? Mostly, yes. And actually having a mostly-great Dr. Dre record is a hell of a lot more fun than waiting for Detox (or whatever it's called) to come out.