An alternate version of this review has been published by the blog Pretty Much Amazing, which you can read here.
Where to begin with Compton? How about, well, Compton. Despite its violent reputation, the City of Compton is actually one of the oldest cities in Los Angeles County and legend has it Griffith Dickenson Compton—the cities founder and namesake—stipulated that a portion of the city be zoned for agricultural use. For much of its history, the city was like any other place in Southern California: Relatively quiet, mostly white, family oriented, and suburban. A quick search yields results for residents, which includes everyone from actor Kevin Costner to the Bush family. Fast forward to August 1965, the summer of the infamous Watts riots, which despite being a few miles from Compton cemented the region’s demographics and harsh reputation for years to come. And with the rise of black street gangs like the Crips and the Bloods—coupled with the growing drug trade—the City of Compton would forever be synonymous with street violence and crime. Some twenty-three years later, a seemingly inconspicuous rap group with a brutal name (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) would put the city in the national consciousness once again, with the release of Straight Outta Compton, an album that chronicled street life and culture, and its many social injustices. And the region is once again in the national spotlight with the release of a biopic based on the group, and to coincide with it Dr. Dre—rapper, producer, entrepreneur, and founding member of N.W.A—is suddenly putting out his first album in sixteen years. And it’s not Detox.
For roughly sixteen years, fans eagerly awaited the release of Dr. Dre’s Detox, the long-gestating followup to his sophomore album, 2001; message boards were flooded with wish lists for the project, hair pulled directly from their roots, studio leaks and outtakes obsessively hounded over, nails bitten to the core. Many promises were made during that time and hints were given virtually ad infinitum—as though the project was now jokingly relegated to a mere scavenger hunt. But eventually, we got nothing in return. (Unless you count loose tracks like “Under Pressure” and “Kush” as consolation prizes.) And up until about about a week ago, we all just assumed Detox was sitting on the shelves somewhere in one of Dre’s many mansions, desperately waiting to be tinkered with and potentially inching closer to a release date. Well, guess what? Since then Detox has been reportedly “canceled” and replaced with an actual, finished product in Compton. Just like that. Glancing over Compton’s hefty track listing you’ll notice nothing unusual or even anything all that familiar—the project looks and feels like an entirely fresh start for Dre. In addition, the album is a noticeable departure from his past two solo works: The subject matter, lyrics and overall sound of the album recall the Reagan-era rebelliousness of N.W.A. In fact, it’s quite refreshing. If anything, Dre’s reemergence in 2015 is the Detox we’ve been needing this entire time—in that it has expelled the toxins accumulated over those drawn-out sixteen years. And Compton is the permanent afterglow.
Dr. Dre is certainly glowing these days, and with good reason. He’s pretty much been unstoppable since dropping 2001 at the tail-end of the ’90s. Not only did he start his own record label (Aftermath Entertainment), sign multi-platinum selling rappers (Eminem, 50 Cent, The Game, Kendrick Lamar) and help create esteemed discographies, but he also started his own business (Beats by Dre), which Apple acquired for $3 billion in a cash and stocks. (Dre walked away with a cool $550 million after taxes.) And Dre also looks significantly leaner, too. The pudgy Dre we saw in the iconic “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” video—slouchy and clearly intoxicated—has been transformed into a hulking beast. He’s practically unrecognizable today. He has gotten visibility muscular and is in impressive shape. This unstoppable streak coupled with his new look has websites dedicating entire articles on how you can achieve this, too. But Dre should be on top of the world, he’s earned it. And the music on Compton is very characteristic of Dre’s stature—both musically and physically speaking—with a sound that barrels you over like the ’83 Los Angeles Raiders defensive line. Even the album art has an indelible way of coming across as epic and grandiose. The sheer audacity to have the iconic Hollywood sign replaced with Compton is one thing but to have it framed where it’s overlooking (or overpowering) Los Angeles County is straight up badass.
Oh, right, the music. It’s good! Done. No, but really, Compton is an exceptional big budget rap album front to back. Dr. Dre’s production is as addictive as its ever been and the composition of the album is top notch. So much so, it’s to my surprise it isn’t actually being used as a soundtrack to the film Straight Outta Compton—it’s practically criminal. If there’s one rap producer who deserves the title “composer,” it’s got to be Dre. I can’t fathom watching the film in theaters and not expect “It’s All on Me” to play during the opening title sequence. Or hear “All in a Day’s Work” blaring during the group’s inevitable come-up sequence. With a painstakingly simple yet infectious guitar line driving “All in a Day’s Work,” Dre goes for a fast flow we haven’t heard since the days of “Forgot About Dre,” as each word he raps smoothly springboards off the beat (“My whole life all I ever thought about is grindin’/ Even though my surroundings only showed me crime and violence/ That was back when a rapper needed guns way more than a stylist”). It’s actually one of the brightest vocal and lyric moments for Dre on Compton and the only assistance he receives is from the multi-talented Anderson .Paak on the hook. Other moments where Dre shines is on “Genocide,” another early highlight on the album, and it’s telling because he’s up against Kendrick Lamar. But Dre’s defining moment arrives late on Compton and in the form of “Animals,” a track that finds a wealthy black man struggling to grapple with police brutality and racism in the modern era. (“Damn, why the fuck are they after me?” he exhales in anguish, “Maybe ’cause I’m a bastard/ Or maybe ’cause of the way my hair grow naturally.”)
As far as guests go—because boy there’s an awful lot of them on Compton—it’s a mixed bag overall. And it shouldn’t be all too hard to figure out which standout, and which are total dreck. All three Kendrick appearances on the album (“Genocide,” “Darkside / Gone,” and “Deep Water”) are terrific with “Deep Water” sounding suspiciously like a To Pimp a Butterfly outtake. Then there’s “Just Another Day,” which gives The Game free reign to do as he pleases with an equally spacious yet driving beat. However, despite clocking in at a mere two minutes, The Game is still able to pack in enough to leave you satisfied. In fact, “Just Another Day” is easily the best showcase of his talents as a rapper in a very long time and it’s not on his own project. (And if this is any indication of what The Documentary 2 will sound like then sign me up.) If it weren’t for a select few tracks the portly bottom half of Compton would numb the punches floated in the opening half hour or so. The tracks that position Michigan rapper (and Aftermath signee) Jon Connor in the driver’s seat (“One Shot One Kill,” and “For the Love of Money”) end up only slowing the album down towards the latter half. The other guests, while logical on paper (Xzibit, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg), ultimately fail to contribute anything worthwhile to the story of Compton. Certainly rap fans and critics were divided when they saw Eminem’s name in the track listing, and some probably dreaded putting on “Medicine Man,” the Em featured track. By now Em’s plummeting stock in rap music has been well documented, and it appears to only be losing shares by the minute. And yet Eminem magically comes through on Compton to assist Dre with a much needed hint of restraint—something he hasn’t practiced in well over a decade.
We’ve grown so accustom to Dr. Dre’s albums and back catalog being peppered with raunchy lyrics often incorporating, ahem, misogynist sexual politics (“Throw off, go off, show off, I take that hoe/ If she proper, I’ma pop her the hole hopper,” he infamously rapped on the colorful “Deeez Nuuuts”) and in turn that makes Compton for a refreshing listen overall. That isn’t to say N.W.A didn’t rap their own share of crude lyrics (see: “A Bitch Iz a Bitch”), but Compton smartly swerves the incoming controversy—opting to tell an ambitious story of the present day and what being a black man in the one percent of society really means. We’re given exciting stuff throughout the hour long run time of Compton—blockbuster material—there’s plenty of action and drama to go around. And although fat definitely needed to be trimmed from this animal, it’s humbling to know Dre hasn’t let his ego get the best of him musically. “Living the life I lived in C-P-T/ A motherfucking dream to reality is what you call that, homie,” he confidently raps in the middle of the ascending “It’s All on Me.” But all Dre’s got to do these days is look outside—he’s got the whole world behind him. Not just the City of Compton.