Bob Dylan‘s influence on popular music is said to be incalculable — in fact, much of what I just wrote comprises the first line of his AllMusic biography. I would argue the same is true of Dr. Dre and hip-hop, though, interestingly, his influence is entirely opposite of Dylan’s from a certain perspective. Whereas Dylan gave shape to what a song could be — and what it could mean or say — in a pop music context, Dre’s extraordinary influence overlaps with Dylan’s in almost no concrete sense whatsoever. In fact, it’s acknowledged that other rappers ghostwrite his lyrics! Imagine a world where a folk songwriter like Dylan — who on 2012‘s Tempest included a 14-minute track about the sinking of the Titanic that included 45 verses and no chorus — almost never wrote his own lyrics. No, the fact that Dre isn’t the greatest rapper — though his voice and delivery are distinctive, it should be noted — or doesn’t write a lot of his own lyrics doesn’t detract from his perceived greatness is pretty extraordinary.
It’s no secret that Dr. Dre’s true value has always been his production talent, which is nothing short of extraordinary. The sonic construction of rap music tends to illuminate the separation between production and performance more sharply than the construction of other genres, which goes a long way toward explaining how Dr. Dre has amassed more street cred than any rapper who has ever lived. Dre has always favored the copious usage of guest rappers — even his solo debut The Chronic (1992) was littered with them (a newly discovered young Snoop Dogg most prominently), although Dre was still unquestionably the star of the show. By his second record 2001 (1999), he was employing even more of them, most of whom weren’t very good, frankly. (While I’m not sure it could be said that 2001 was any more explicit than The Chronic in terms of lyrical content or thematic material, there was no freshness or creativity to how any of it was presented, so the lyrics fell completely flat and dragged the overall quality of the album down.)
In the wake of the criticisms against the lyrical quality of 2001, Dre vowed his third (and supposedly final) album Detox would showcase him leaving all of the gangsta clichés behind. Recording session after recording session was held, year after year, with guest rapper after guest rapper brought in. Early reports from those involved gave us the impression that Detox was going to be something radical and extraordinary, that the resulting album was going to have the power to move mountains and turn water into wine. The problem: none of the sessions or the hype ever translated to anything concrete and material. In the abstract, an album can be whatever you want it to be, and with all the collaborators blowing smoke up everyone’s asses that Dre was working on a groundbreaking album, it was easy to get carried away. Finally, after more than a decade, Dr. Dre announced he was releasing an inspired-by “soundtrack” to the 2015 N.W.A biopic film Straight Outta Compton.
As part of the announcement, Dre finally admitted — after more than a decade of working on it off and on — that Detox wasn’t going to happen because he didn’t think what he had recorded for it thus far was any good (or at least not up to what he considered his standard). Given the two non-album singles “Kush” and “I Need a Doctor” Dre released in 2010 and 2011, respectively, this admission doesn’t surprise me, since both singles were wholly unimpressive and seemed more like excuses to film ultra-high-budget music videos (especially by 2010s standards). The singles did, however, signal a major shift: Dr. Dre was no longer pushing his trademark g-funk sound. Instead, he employed rather conventional (and lazy) 2010s production techniques relying on synthesized, programmed beats instead of the live instrumentation he incorporated into his first two records.
He more or less continues that approach on Compton, his third solo album and first in 16 long years. Thankfully, though, the production is varied, and while it may still sound modern instead of in the style of the sound he pioneered (a sound I happen to really like), it’s still top-notch. What’s more, unlike 2001, which didn’t merit infinite plays due to its annoyingly awful lyrics, Compton is worthy of many listens — in fact, I have probably listened to it a couple dozen times already and still find it highly enjoyable. It’s quite a feat for someone who turned 50 years old earlier in 2015 and has a net worth of $700 million after selling Beats Electronics to Apple in a highly publicized $3 billion deal. In other words, someone like Dre usually has little motivation to produce compelling or pioneering art with that kind of status in his stage in life. But in the process of executive producing the Straight Outta Compton movie, he finally received the necessary inspiration to make good music again.
The album is an effective meditation on his hometown, with more guest rappers littering the tracks than ever before. In fact, tracks ten and eleven, “One Shot One Kill” and “Just Another Day,” are attributed to Jon Connor and The Game, respectively, with the latter track not featuring Dr. Dre as producer either. In this respect, the album is like a movie soundtrack, since soundtracks are compilations featuring songs by various artists. This reveals how Dr. Dre has matured: he knows when to step back and let the young guns take over (especially since he hasn’t actually lived in Compton for years). As for the quality of the songs, they’re quite strong, displaying Dr. Dre’s flair for pop hooks (particularly during choruses). There aren’t any bad songs here, though there are some questionable moments (such as the skit that closes out “Loose Cannons”). If you’re looking for just some songs to sample at first, my favorite tracks include “Genocide,” “One Shot One Kill,” “For the Love of Money,” and “Satisfiction.” Overall, Compton is a strong effort, and a welcome addition to Dre’s discography, especially since it was looking unlikely we would ever get another album out of him again — much less a very good one.