Here’s an interesting mental experiment – take the lyrics of Dr. Dre from his new album Compton and imagine a 50 year old rocker feeling the need to make the same assertions. Not necessarily the bravado or casual misogyny, both of which are prevalent and problematic themes in Dre’s work, but the constant reassertion of how hard he’s worked to obtain the luxuries he’s enjoyed. It’s a fair thing to draw attention to, very few of Dre’s contemporaries can boast the kind of entrepreneurial and critical success he has, fewer still with a work-rate that has seen just three solo albums in over 20 years. However, Dre’s lyrics on Compton feel like the bragging of a much younger, less secure rapper. This may be as consequence of his ghost-writers, the most notable being King Mez and Justus (25 and 23 respectively), but it begs the question: when Dre is talking about his astronomical wealth, who exactly is he trying to convince? Closing track Talking to My Diary is probably the clearest indicator, when one has reached the pinnacle of commercial and critical success there’s only yourself to compete with.
In this regard, Compton can feel unmoored from any pressing concern other than to prove the producer’s relevance to himself. Recorded during the filming of the N.W.A. biopic of the same name, and allegedly Dre’s last album, it is shot through with a sense of retrospective, but also a sense of wanting to demonstrate his relevancy as a producer. The opening tracks, Genocide and It’s All On Me, buzz abrasively with menace. The weird pitching and clipped drums on Genocide are striking for the departure from the high gloss, almost orchestral, production from 2001. Even more unusual is the scat-singing coda, a striking left-field turn worthy of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
When Dre is talking about his astronomical wealth, who exactly is he trying to convince?
After this initial eager fiddle with his template, Dre falls back on some familiar production tricks pretty quickly. It’s All On Me loops washed out Cali-funk guitar with a meticulously arranged pop hook. It’s not a bad track, per se, but all a little too comfortable. No-one doubts Dre’s ability as an arranger, it is just a shame that he seems a little unsteady about committing to anything too radical or contemporary. There are notable exceptions, Loose Cannons, for instance, shifts through gradually intensifying variations until it breaks out into a clattering drum loop and horror-show piano. It is one of the best moments on Compton by far.
The album feels marked by an inconsistency. For every great production choice, every great verse (Kendrick Lamar’s presence is, as always, exceptional), there are several lapses. Most significant is the questionable Eminem verse on Medicine Man, a frankly lamentable and misogynistic aberration that makes it hard to defend, let alone endorse, Dre’s choices as a producer. For someone who is renowned for being meticulous, it seems that he is rarely capable of demonstrating growth in terms of meaningful and mature content. This can be perhaps attributed to his far greater confidence as a producer and musician, but it feels like an opportunity missed.
All of which brings this review back to its original point. It is easy to forget that Dre’s contemporaries are not Kanye West or Jay-Z, but Afrika Bambaataa and Chuck D. There has been no musician quite like Dre in hip-hop, both in terms of cultural reach and relevancy. At 50, it’s no wonder that he sounds unclear about whom to address. In essence, he’s the only one left standing.
Words: Andrew Spragg