Friday, August 7, 2015

album review: 'compton: a soundtrack' by dr. dre

If it was up to me / you motherfuckers would stop comin' up to me / with you hands out looking up to me / like you want somethin' free / when my last CD was out / you weren't bumpin' me / but now that I got my own company / everybody wanna come to me / like it was some disease / but you won't get a crumb from me / 'cause I'm from the streets of...

Compton. South of downtown L.A., it's a area that has become synonymous with hip-hop past and present. DJ Quik, The Game, YG, Kendrick Lamar, and - of course - N.W.A., the rap group widely hailed with the founding of gangsta rap. Hell, their first album is called Straight Outta Compton, a rap record seminal in gangsta rap but bizarrely has not been one to have aged particularly well - I know, heresy, and it's a great record, to be sure, but it's an example of how hip-hop was able to build on a rock solid foundation to new heights. And given that hip-hop is arguably better than ever right now, having a downright stellar year with several excellent records, it's almost fitting that a biopic is being released with the same title discussing the rise and fall of N.W.A.. And inspired by the creation of that film, we got something special that I don't think any of us saw coming: Compton: A Soundtrack, by none other than Dr. Dre himself, heralded as his final album.

And I don't think I need to stress how big of a deal this is. Dr. Dre has been touting his long-awaited Detox project that it's become one of those projects nobody really expects will happen, like that J.Cole/Kendrick collaboration album or Jay Electronica actually dropping a studio album. And from reports, this isn't Detox - according to Dre, that's been shelved permanently - but instead something new, complete with an arsenal of collaborating artists from across Dre's history in the industry. But after the wave of excitement cooled - holy shit, we're getting a new Dr. Dre album after sixteen years, the doctor who brought us G-funk and one of the most forceful voices inn hip-hop is back - I did have a little trepidation. Hate to say it, but having revisited The Chronic and 2001 in preparation for this release, they're both albums that as a whole hold up more on vibes and personality than they do on wordplay beyond a few iconic songs. Plus, it's been sixteen years, and the songs he's released over the past five years haven't exactly made a new album from Dre all that appealing. Plus, Dre has always been a more interesting producer than rapper, and even though his best bars have been ghostwritten by other MCs, a full Dr. Dre project might not be as high quality as we all wanted it to be. In other words, my expectations were tempered going into this album - I prayed for this to great, but I expected the worst. Sixteen years after 2001, can Dre still deliver?

Here's the thing - on the surface, this is exactly what you'd expect for a Dr. Dre album: propped up more on killer production and personality that hard bars and a real conceptual framework. And really, it fits in continuity with both The Chronic and 2001 and shares many of the greatest strengths: modern but tempered in the sampling and sounds of the past, with Dr. Dre leaping on flows that can feel awkward for his flow but are compensated by personality, and bringing some absolutely stellar guest appearances to the table, so much so that Dre can start to slip into the background. But when you started delving into the details of this record, there's a subtle narrative lurking the margins of this album that doesn't just provide some potent social commentary on Compton, but on Dre himself and his complicated legacy in hip-hop and the black community. In other words, while I'm not sure Compton will have the same lasting imprint on hip-hop as some of Dre's most iconic singles, I will make the argument it's his most complex and mature release - that also happens to be a ton of fun along the way, because this album is goddamn great.

And the place we need to start is Dre himself. I've always loved his voice in hip-hop for its baritone forcefulness, but if I were to have an opening criticism of this album, it'd come in some of Dre's flows. His deeper tone just feels a little awkward against staccato modern triplets like on 'Talk About It' or the double-time cadence or sing-rap style that you can tell is a much easier fit for Kendrick or Eminem. And this also ties into some of the vocal production, which feels micromanaged - not only was there a lot more autotune on the hooks, but the inclusion of vocal fuzz to make some rappers' shouts sound more intense feels a little tacked on to me. And this flows naturally into not so much an issue but a feature of Compton: there are so many guest verses contributing to Dre's final album that there are points where Dre himself can feel overshadowed. As much as Jon Connor and Snoop Dogg just snapped on 'One Shot One Kill' - really, it's the best Snoop Dogg has sounded in years - and The Game just goes off on 'Just Another Day' - although it's a little dispiriting that the way the rising Latino presence in Compton is addressed is through a slur on an otherwise great verse - the latter track can feel a bit peripheral, and it feels like Dre was giving away guest slots so long as they dropped quality.

Fortunately, they all did. The rapper that probably impressed me the least was King Mez, but I liked his counterpoint as the non-gangsta modern rapper that Dre can respect who can cut through the bullshit, and while Justus was mostly stuck on hooks with too much autotune, he still sounded solid. And while I've already mentioned Jon Connor and Snoop Dogg - the latter of whom only loses points for me on 'Satisfiction', where he criticizes commercial artists who haven't had authenticity, which is a bit rich coming from Snoop considering how his career longevity and success can often be linked to it - the big improvement came from Eminem. At first, he seems like a bit of an outsider on this album and that rape line was definitely pushing it in a bad way, but with better production and great intensity, it reminded me a lot of his earlier work and that was fantastic. And hookwise, Dre managed to get some serious soul out of Marsha Ambrosius, BJ The Chicago Kid, and especially Jill Scott... but we have to talk about the three guest rappers I never expected, the first being Xzibit. Yeah, his bars aren't anything all that special beyond his usual hardcore gangsta image, but my god, there is a visceral power I've missed that's later echoed by Ice Cube of all people going harder than he probably has in over a decade! But the big shock from me came for Cold 187um from Above The Law, an often overlooked name from the genesis of gangsta rap who delivers a viscerally unstable set of bars that balances the darkness and black humour shockingly well.

Of course, it helps that Dre has brought some of his most diverse, layered, and potent production yet, trunk-rattling explosive tracks that have so much density and fantastic balance in their composition that you could argue Dre's production is closer to that of a film score, especially considering the musical stinger that opens the intro and the inclusion of symphonic strings and horns all over this album to supplement the g-funk basslines and howling electric guitars. That's the other thing: for as great as the grooves are with the bouncing pianos on 'It's All On Me', the swampy swell that transitions into the soul of 'Darkside/Gone' to the desaturated keys and hi-hats on 'For The Love Of Money', to the stellar DJ Premier/Dre production collaboration 'Animals' that perfectly balances the bleak grit of a Primo beat with Dre's g-funk, to the album closer that features the horns and strings accents on the instantly memorable melodic groove on the closer 'Talking To My Diary', what shocked me the most were the times where Dre actually took some production risks. Take the trap-flavoured explosive 'Talk About It' with one of the hardest snare drums I've heard this year that blows all of Migos' and Future's bangers combined out of the water - yeah, the flow's weird for Dre, but that production went hard as hell. Or take the squealing electric guitars and bass-heavy punch of tracks like 'Loose Cannons' and 'Issues' and especially 'One Shot One Kill' with that revving rhythm guitar chug and great bass texture - I've heard rock songs this year that aren't this heavy or hard-hitting! Or take the periodic usage of trumpets - how the hell does Dre manage to incorporate interesting, jazz-inspired horn sections better than everything Donny Trumpet & The Social Experiment did on Surf earlier this year! Of course, not all the experiments work for me - I get the idea behind the soaking wet oscillations that play out across 'Deep Water', but the tone didn't quite click as well, and I found the backing vocals on 'Satisfiction' made the song feel a little overstuffed, but really, that's minor.

Now some of you have probably realized that I missed two important collaborators earlier - and to talk about them, I need to talk about the themes and content of this album, much of it surrounding the decay of Compton and the environment that would prompt Dre to work his way to the top. And it's here the source of the drama comes on this album, because let's face it, it would typically be pretty hard to connect to a man described as hip-hop's first billionaire, especially when you could argue the content he cultivated focused on violent misogyny and a gangsta image that could leave more harm than good. This is where Kendrick Lamar comes in, who many could argue is Dre's artistic heir, the one who has enough wisdom to take what he needs from the rap game and carve out his own lane, using the subject matter to shape his content but also transcend it. Because for as much as Dre can claim his content sprung from the horrible conditions of his environment, people like Kendrick had to grow up in a time where The Chronic helped shape the culture, for better and for worse. And yet it's not Kendrick or even Dre who are the real emotional core of this album, at least not at first: nope, that comes from a thin-voiced and initially kind of grating hanger-on called Anderson .Paak, who grew up on Dre's music and who has idolized the content, but not the work ethic Dre advocates that actually got him to the top. It's why when we actually get gangsta violence, it's played as black comedy, half with the eerie gravedigging sketch and half with Cold 187um's shaky instability as he pulls the trigger. And thus, unable to really survive or make it, Anderson .Paak struggles to remain afloat in 'Deep Waters' and drowns in toxic material before Snoop's verse heralds his rescue. It's the moment where the focus snaps to Dre again a few songs later, where Anderson .Paak becomes the quiet agent who attacks Dre's intentions: why did he really make gangsta rap, which many - including Dre and Snoop Dogg - could argue did more harm than good and was later co-opted by artists who used it to make a buck rather than speak about the truth of the black experience. 'For The Love Of Money' confronts Dre directly and the next few songs get to the root of Dre's passion: the art of hip-hop itself, which transcends the cash, and it makes sense that he calls up Eminem on 'Medicine Man' as the true dark foil, the guy who spat far more hateful vitriol than so many black hip-hop artists and yet was rewarded rather than castigated, and yet to his point of view it was always about the art... except when it wasn't. And if we're looking for the core of Dre's work on Compton, it's here, in the last three tracks. Dre gets the most conscious he's ever been in his career on 'Animals', calling out a system that only cares to look when black people are rioting or fighting or spitting venom - the parallel to hip-hop is unmistakable - and how despite the focus on his art, he was still targeted... which in a twisted way fed back into the system. And yet it's the final track that hits home when Dre says, 'I used to be a starving artist so I would never starve an artist', where for him all that mattered was the work and the art. And as he looks back on NWA and Tupac and the culture he helped shape - talking to his diary, alone - the open question is left whether it was all worth it. And just like Kendrick's final question to Tupac on To Pimp A Butterfly, it's left unanswered, and knowing that Dr. Dre will never make another album after this lends this album's open ending a question to the audience, his future and that of Compton remaining unclear.

To put it another way, when Dr. Dre said he was inspired by Kendrick's To Pimp A Butterfly and later by the film adaptation of the gangsta rap debut he produced, I didn't expect we'd get something like this, which is nothing less than the Doctor looking at his own decades of legacy that shaped the entire genre of hip-hop and not finding a clear answer. It is a startlingly fully-formed record that easily rises to one of the best hip-hop releases of this year, getting a light 9/10 from me and the highest of recommendations. It almost makes me wish Dr. Dre would stick around and write more in this vein, but man, what a way to go... what a way to go.

No comments:

Post a Comment