In a fit of confusion, my head swung around like a sacrilegious chant had just been uttered. Had my friend really just said the words, “Dr. Dre’s new album” in succession? At first, I passed it off as a jape, a trick; “Good one”, I thought. But then I got angry, “That’s really not something to joke about”.
It’s been years since the music listening community had to come to terms with Detox’s scrapping and even longer since rumors of its inception surfaced. What instantly became one of the most anticipated works in the music industry slowly dwindled to a fable poking you in the back of your mind, reminding you of what could have been. In it’s place were released two mediocre singles, I need a Doctor and Kush, that, like most mediocre singles do, garnered much commercial success and a few 100 millions view on YouTube, then quickly lost all notoriety, unable to keep up with the attention span of pop-radio audiences. Though maybe the death of Detox was for the best. Dr. Dre himself admitted the album wasn’t up to his standards stating, “It just wasn’t good.”
“Yeah,” my friend continued, “It’s called Compton: A Soundtrack.” And so that night upon my return home, I immediately rushed to my computer and on to a certain internet community of swashbuckling music marauders.. And there it was. The first link titled Compton by Dr. Dre, with date confirmation just a few pixels to the right, . Earlier in the evening, my friend further explained that it was announced only a week prior to its release on Dr. Dre’s Apple Music radio show, The Pharmacy. However, by the time the album was in my iTunes library and on my iPod, it was late, and having been living in the halfhearted shadow of I Need a Doctor and Kush for six and a half years, I had little motivation to give the album an immediate listen. I shut my computer and went to sleep.
The next day, on the subway on my way to work, I began my first listen to Compton. What I first heard was a resounding trumpet call, kept intriguing by three precision beats of orchestral drums, and then brought to crescendo by the introduction of a slew of symphonic sounds, greatly resembling the 20th Century Fox theme. This brief moment, unfamiliar to the hydraulics-powered, funk-drunk tones made famous by Dre, and that would become a staple of the 90s/early 2000s hip-hop era, gunned me into a deeply penetrating and hurtfully real description of life in the ghetto and the emotional turmoil and burden faced by Dre during his assent to hip-hop stardom.
The album is introduced by a brief oral history of Compton, an attempt to bring the American dream into fruition by the black community only for it to dissolve into an extension of the L.A. ghetto. Then, the explosive momentum of sounds uniquely unfamiliar to the Dre I was expecting send me billowing down the I-710 highway south from downtown Los Angeles. The sun is high, the smog is thick, and palm trees pass through the rearview. Dre takes exit 10 onto Rosecrans Avenue, bringing me into the heart of Compton and to the front of the mind of a ghetto kid with great ambitions and nowhere to go but dead ends. Dre, along with rappers of lyrical pungency including the likes of Kendrick Lamar, meticulously paints the socio-economic warzone that surrounded the young Dre; a community raised to depend on gang violence and crime for survival.
While life in the ghetto is no new topic for hip-hop artists, (Nas’ Illmatic, Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City), there is a raw, inexplicable culture shock felt from Compton that kept me listening to it on loop every day as I went to and from work. Every beat keeps the engine growling, winding me through the turns and alleys of the L.A. ghetto. Where Dre would take his newfound mastery of carefully nuanced and highly progressive production techniques was, with every track, as unpredictable as a life ravaged by police brutality and gang violence.
Each beat is layered with rhythmic and melodic castings of the textures of Compton. Steady percussive grooves under the steal ringing of guitar is the chain line efforts of survival in Compton, the beads of sweat forming on your temple under the beating of an L.A. sun. Battle marches are ominously brushed by punk hummings and elusive drum fills readying you for the distant likelihood of being added to the body count. Trembling trap quavers are supported by deep, rolling piano riffs, raising and letting fall the crowd at a midnight block party like the ebbing of the sea. The impellent funk of a baseline pulsates like your heart with the pistons as you shift into high gear, flying through a city as callused as it made you.
With his lyrics, Dre chronicles the constant, unrelenting grind he lived though to achieve fame–the pressure he faced from his surroundings and affiliates, and the hopeless, drowning sensation felt by so many impoverished youth living in ghettoized areas (climaxing with the chilling account of a man literally drowning). Every song turns a page in the confessions of man unresolved with his career, growing more disconnected with the struggle of living in Compton (“Don’t ever call me fortunate, you don’t know what it cost me/ So anybody complaining about they circumstances lost me, homie”), and grappling with a society that now funds his luxurious lifestyle but still doesn’t respect him as a black man.
But with the sounds of a man washing up on shore, alive and inhaling the breaths of air he thought he never would comes revelation. Out from the troubled psyche of one of hip-hops most prolific characters is a hope of ending the systematic racism that perpetuates the condition of African Americans. Dre calls upon the rap industry to change its obsession with the superficial and focus on bringing passion back to the black community. We even see Dre reconnect with Compton, reconciling with the astronomical odds of his success as a black man living in America. (“Some of us was unbalanced but some us used our talents, shit”)
The album closes with the familiar sound of a trumpet cry; however, this time around channelling the spirit of the Dr. Dre’s African American musical predecessors of the jazz era with a delicate and pneumatic solo that slowly fades into the music of Dre’s now. Thus ends what Dre has announced to be his final album, and undoubtedly the magnum opus of his career. Like 30 years ago, Dre is on the cusp of musical innovation. The production feat of Compton sets a new standard for the rap industry and its complex and thematic lyricism follows closely behind Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly released earlier this year. Basically, follow Eminem’s advice…don’t forget about Dre. Ever.
– Noam Fleischmann