Hip-hop’s short attention span has been well-documented. A popular rapper typically can’t afford to take a couple of years away from the spotlight at the risk of returning to a completely shifted cultural and musical landscape. So the idea that a hip-hop artist — even an immensely popular and influential one — could not release an album for more than 15 years and still generate a tremendous amount of interest and buzz is quite confounding. But that’s exactly the case with West Coast kingpin Dr. Dre, who’s just released his long-awaited (understatement of the year) third solo album. It’s not the mythic Detox project that had been teased for more than a decade, though. Dre’s new project is Compton: A Soundtrack, a new album that serves as his third proper solo release, an unofficial soundtrack to the upcoming biopic about his legendary former group N.W.A. and a celebration of both Dre’s legacy and the hip-hop lineage that runs throughout Southern California in general and Los Angeles’ most notorious suburb, in particular.
Compton finds Dr. Dre relishing his elder statesman status, his notorious reputation, his business acumen and the streets of the CPT. Opening with archival news audio describing the urban blight that saw Compton shift from a bustling hub of middle-class Black upward mobility to a ‘burb overrun with crime and poverty, the album immediately showcases two of Dre’s newer proteges, King Mez and Justus on the opening “Intro,” before Dre swoops in with “guess who’s back” bravado, bragging that he still has “Eminem checks I ain’t cashed yet.”
Dre has earned the right to brag. But he doesn’t coast on Compton. This is not the sound of a guy who’s resting on his reputation or who just showed back up for the hell of it — Dre sounds focused and inspired. Though we know he doesn’t write a word of his raps, the lyrics reveal themes of sacrifice and satisfaction; the sound of a man who fought long and hard to get to where he is and now refuses to make any apologies. He doesn’t care if you think he should’ve made more music. He doesn’t care if you think he’s only a businessman now. He does what he wants for himself. And when he’s not using the new project to tout his own legacy and wave a middle finger at his critics, Dre is doing what he’s always done: providing an enthralling sonic backdrop to a wide array of West Coast talent.
Like its legendary predecessors, (1992’s The Chronic and 1999’s 2001) Compton features Dre both celebrating himself and serving as a ringmaster for an endless stream of high-profile guests–most of whom have long ties to the Doctor himself. In as such, its a celebration of the man’s entire musical history — with everyone from Eminem to Ice Cube to Snoop Dogg to Xzibit to Cold 187Um of Above the Law to Kendrick Lamar dropping by in a sort of gangsta-fied version of “This Is Your Life.” The most visible guest on this set is Kendrick Lamar, which serves as a neat bit of a tie-in to both 2001, when Eminem was the young gun prominently showcased, and The Chronic, when Snoop (then Doggy) Dogg was the breakout star.
“I’m very aware hip-hop needed something to carry it/ So I married that b—h and swung down in that chariot,” Dre raps on “Genocide,” an album highlight that also features the first of three top-notch Lamar appearances. “Loose Cannons” features the kind of casual darkness that made Eminem a household name in the late ’90s, with Xzibit and Cold 187Um as two twisted killers spinning a darkly comedic tale of murder. The track “Darkside/Gone” features King Mez once again, with a ghostly Marsha Ambrosius vocal over a sample of Paul McCartney’s “Spirits of Ancient Egypt,” and K.Dot again revealing why he’s the greatest scene stealer on this album by far. Dre brings in Jill Scott, Jon Connor and Anderson Paak on “For the Love of Money” sampling the classic hit from Bone Thugs N Harmony, the group his former bandmate-turned-rival, the late Eazy-E, mentored before his death in 1995. Dre pays tribute to Eazy a few times on the album, giving shouts-out to the man who gave his career its biggest boost, despite the fact that things famously turned sour later on. His other famous former bandmate, Ice Cube, shows up on the pulsing “Issues,” but one wishes the collaboration had more energy, given the two men’s history together and the current buzz surrounding N.W.A. It’s a serviceable track, but one that isn’t the most inspired on the album.
Dr. Dre may not ever release another album, and whether or not Compton falls into the undeniable classic territory of Dre’s two ’90s tentpoles remains to be seen; but one thing is for certain: Dr. Dre’s still quite capable of turning out inspired music. And his return at this particular time with an album as unapologetically L.A. as this serves as more affirmation that West Coast hip-hop is once again a very dominant force in popular music. Since Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m..A.A.d city in 2012 and the success of crews like his own T.D.E. and the now-defunct Odd Future collective, the Left Coast has been mashing on fools. And that’s a great thing for fans of SoCal hip-hop.
And for fans of good music, period.