Dr Dre Compton (Review)

Jimmy Coultas immerses himself in the reappearance of hip hop royalty.

Jimmy Coultas

Last updated: 10th Sep 2015

A new Dr Dre album has been a running joke in hip hop for the best part of a decade. The ill-fated Detox, an album Dre himself admitted to recently consigning to the bin, first emerged as a concept in 2003 and has been dredged up as nearly ready ever since, a perpetual disappointment of a rumour.

Indeed if ‘I Need A Doctor‘ is anything to go by (above), a turgid collaboration with Eminem reflective of an era of commercial hip hop at its very apex of awfulness, it was no bad thing. Dre’s legacy was better off not disturbing, leaving intact.

But then, so the story goes, the Doctor was musically reinvigorated via his involvement in Compton, the biopic of the group that first brought him to global notoriety, NWA. Immersion in the music again suddenly brought about that fire and passion, and here is a brand new Dre album via the film, not a soundtrack, score or collection of songs from the era it showcases.

It’s certainly an album he didn’t need to make. The near billion from the sale of his Beats headphones empire has put him in a different stratosphere economically from any other mogul in hip hop history, whilst his status as an epoch shifting producer in the genre is untouchable.

It's very much a Dre release, but also somewhat of a concept piece. The city that spawned him is as big a character in the music as the man himself, taking a starring role the way Baltimore does in epic TV show The Wire, and instantly you sense Dre's flair for the dramatic remains undimmed. The intro is pitch perfect, a sample bemoaning the collapse of the black suburban dream of the city slipping into a world of crime and gangs set off against stirring strings.

The way it bleeds into 'Talks About It', which starts with King Mez screaming "I don't give a fuck", is brilliant. The track is a typically euphoric moment of Dre bombast that has more than a touch of Kanye West about it, and will have made millions of Dre fans, this writer included, feel the hairs on the back of their neck stand on end.

Dre's verse adds to the spectacle. Opening with the statement he's bought California, he then recounts how he was a millionaire before the headphones and is yet to open some of his cheques from Eminem with the same swagger he's had on the mic since he ditched the sequins and slick attire of the World Class Wreckin Cru. There's that instant sense that maybe, just maybe, he's pulled it off again.  

It's difficult to really gauge whether he has straight away. There's maybe a feeling this isn't quite a masterpiece, but then 2001 didn't feel as important as The Chronic when it first emerged, and history has shown it to be a brilliantly influential album that has aged remarkably well.

Dre's status means there's the instant 'is this a classic?' question circulating, something it's difficult to ever answer within a few months - even more so when reviews are written after a few listens over a weekend with the album sprung upon you. 2015 sees albums released early with little warning, reinventing the power of them compared to the way his other seismic other releases, 23 and 16 years previously, fell to the public.

One thing that can be said is that this feels extremely triumphant though from the get go. All three of Dre’s best twentieth century muses appear, the vitriolic mouthpiece of NWA Ice Cube, totem of the Death Row era Snoop Dogg (in his best form for a decade on 'Satisfaction' and, particularly, 'One Shot One Kill') and the catalyst for his third renaissance with Aftermath, the aforementioned Eminem.

Add to that mix Xzibit, The Game187um from Above the Law, the Compton group Dre led out in 1989, Jill Scott and, of course, Kendrick Lamar. As ever Dre brings the past, present and future to the fore and the over arching feel is this is a very good release well worthy of your attention.

There's bits that jar. The murdering of a woman on the end of 'Loose Cannons' and Eminem dropping rape references in his lyrics feels a bit shock value for the sake of it from two extremely wealthy middle aged men, although the reaction it's garnered kind of justifies it as a marketing trick alone.

You always have to leave your morals at the door when engaging in gangster rap but that doesn't avoid that the presence of it here a little needless. More to the point it's of this writer's view that Eminem is again overrapping on his verse for 'Medicine Man', the technical potency but overall flatness which characterised most of his supposedly brilliant The Marshall Mathers LP 2 present.

Equally, Dre bleating about the pressures of being a near billionaire with an untouchable legacy on 'All In A Day's Work' - citing "all the fans and all the fame, and though I gave everything to this game, they still complain" - is a bit tired. And done considerably better when he told us he was gonna fuck rap after he got his last platinum plaque on 'Forgot About Dre' back in 1999.

When it's good though it really is something. There's so many moments of sheer hip hop joy on there, not least when Dre is being himself on the mic (albeit aided as ever by a bevvy of co-writers). Case in point hearing Dre get misty eyed about his past on 'It's All On Me', heartwarming for any fan.

'Talking To My Diary', the album's closer, is definitely one of the highlights, mirroring The Chronic's 'Let Me Ride' and 2001's 'The Watcher' as emblematic of Dre as a genuinely worthy force when solo. That's also the case on 'Animals', a record that sees Dre teaming up with DJ Premier for one of the most sumptuous beats to emerge this decade.

It's a producer moment akin to the infamous scene from Heat where Robert de Niro and Al Pacino meet on screen for the first time (below), emboldening Dre chillingly treading old ground about police brutality and black lives being dismissed, sadly far from just a throwback to earlier times.

The political undercurrent of the LP shows Dre isn't insulated by his surroundings, elsewhere he drops reference to the killings of both Michael Brown and Eric Garner with "Blood on the cement, black folks grieving" and "I can't breathe, I can't breathe" respectively. The all too bleak reality is that not only has he not changed much since he and NWA burst out the underground in 1988, neither has the climate.

But aside from himself what really stands out is his ability to cohesively merge the finesse of others. As well as the powerhouse collaboration with Premier every rapper delivers. We've mentioned the re-energising of Snoop but equally Ice Cube sounds stately as opposed to dated on 'Issues', a nice touch considering the irony of him seeing the oposite of Dre in terms of film based motivation for his musical career.

So too do the cluster of new artists benefiting from the exposure. Only time will tell if the likes of Anderson .Paak and King Mez will have careers befitting Nate Dogg and Kurrupt or Sam Sneed and Hitmann, but they all, particularly .Paak, feel purposeful and deserving of the pedestal.

The Game is also arguably at the pinnacle of his powers on 'Just Another Day', a deliciously short and brilliantly produced feat of breathless energy that sees Dre's protege rapping his ass off, the first true child of the NWA era bringing it for Compton.

And, speaking of Compton lineage, there's Lamar. Dre's legacy over the year has been piloting the best rappers in the business, bringing Cube's anger and Eazy-E's charisma to the fore with NWA, turning Snoop into the best rapper on the planet and then repeating the trick with Eminem. He was also briefly behind 2Pac's world domination in his final days at Death Row and didn't do too badly with a cat named 50 Cent in the last decade.

Add to that portfolio the current king of hip hop. As an emcee K-Dot is peerless at present, his album To Pimp a Butterfly earning widespread plaudits at the same time he's joyrided with saviour of the music industry/pop siren Taylor Swift. That trajectory of world domination continues here.

He is the best thing about maybe the best track on the album 'Genocide' (spraying "live in a project building, dodgin' the module ceilings" is multi-syllabic nectar), and manages to throw down the gauntlet to persistent nemesis in waiting Drake on both 'Darkside / Gone' and 'Deep Water' with a flurry of thinly veiled subliminals for the Toronto rapper.

Lamar's tangible presence is on three verses but it stretches much further than that. To Pimp...  has certainly wreaked ans influence, the rich sonic tapestries and collage of musical genres seeping throughout. You feel it must have equally stirred the musician in Dre just as much as the filming of Compton reminded him of his own musical powers. So it's not just the best album of the year we have to thank Lamar for, but maybe too the second.

It's impossible to listen to anything from Dre and not hark back to his discography, which aside from brief aberrations post Death Row in 1996 and 1997 and the years around the turn of the decade has been near flawless.  

Whether this release will feel as important as them only time will tell, but for Dre to pull this record seemingly out of nowhere and consign the Detox fiasco to the bin is an achievement in itself. That he has done so with an offering brimming with ideas, energy and invention is all the more remarkable, equally so that it stands up in the company of his previous efforts - an undeniable reality.

Compton may not be an all time classic, but it maintains the status quo that Dre is the finest producer of all time in hip hop. It also underlines the fact he's shaped some of the all time greats in ways no other musical figurehead in the genre can attest too - nobody combines mogul with musician with anywhere near as much panache.

But the best thing about it is how good it feels to have him back. This may be the swansong of arguably the greatest musical force hip hop has ever seen, a fleeting glance of genius 27 years on from the release of Straight Outta Compton managing to prove he's still got it. Andre is, thankfully, still D.R.E.

Into this? Try Five for the Funk: Funk Butcher (top hip hop diss records).

See also Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly (review).