The Nuanced Evolution of Dr. Dre’s Compton

For the past couple weeks, my Silver Screen & Roll Editor-in-Chief Drew Garrison and I have been unpacking Dr. Dre’s newest album Compton. These 16 meticulously crafted tracks have made waves in the music industry and popular culture, not just for its connection to Dr. Dre, but also for its presence alongside the N.W.A smash hit biopic, Straight Outta Compton. After a dozen e-mails and countless chat conversations, Drew and I got down to discussing this landmark record.

KOBEsh: 16 years and all we got is a soundtrack?

That statement couldn’t be more literal, but the sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth.

For the past 16 years, it’s a disservice to say that the hip-hop world has been waiting for Dr. Dre’s follow-up to 2001 because it’s actually been the entire music world was left wanting more. Rumors floated in and out of circulation, with co-producers, co-writers, guest rappers, recording studio engineers and personal friends alike slyly admitting that they in fact, had been working on the long-awaited Detox. The album grew in legend as the rumors, years and mystery grew in concert, with Dre’s new project becoming the hip-hop cousin to Axel Rose’s Chinese Democracy. And even as that fabled record finally came to life in 2008, Detox was nowhere to be found. Popular culture wondered if the years of speculation would indeed lead to anything of substance.

The good doctor, it seems, is not without a sense of humor.

Just as we came upon a second decade of anticipation for Detox, Dr. Dre’s new record, Compton, ironically appeared out of nowhere.

With 16 brand new tracks, the Dre-helmed album is, in a word, dense. So dense, in fact, that it’s taken myself and my co-writer Drew Garrison over a week to digest the entire work and come up with some thoughts. There is so much to Compton musically, thematically and lyrically that unpacking it in a single sitting is impossible. “Density” is the most anyone could really get out of one listen, in all sincerity.

I’ve got a ton of thoughts about the record, but Drew, let’s start the discussion here: what’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Compton?

Drew Garrison: Evolved.

Dr. Dre’s probably most known for picking apart smooth samples and laying out perfect drums over the top of it, but Compton is a lifetime’s journey away from The Chronic. Considering it’s been over 20 years between those albums, and Andre Young isn’t busy taking us on a ride through his sweet chariot anymore, it’s only fitting the album is in a different world thematically. He’s a successful businessman, one of the most respected figures in music history, and is finally ready to share the latest chapter in his life.

That’s obvious from both the production and lyrical content of the album. Compton never sounds dated and never pretends to be something it isn’t. As much as people anticipated songs in the ilk of “Nothin’ but a G Thang” or “The Next Episode”, that’s simply not where his head space is. The man has Eminem checks he hasn’t opened yet, sold Beats by Dre for more money than most of us will accumulate in a lifetime, and still has the Midas Touch for those who forgot. When he focuses on that last detail the album soars.

Even after decades of success there’s still a brooding aggression he taps into as a driving force. Sometimes it comes out when he’s reciting one-liners that serve as giant middle fingers to the rest of the rap industry, and other times it reveals itself when the pain roars to a boil so loud you can hear the stress in every word he recites. The best example of this comes in Gone, which might serve as the best window into who Dr. Dre is in 2015.

So if you want another word to describe Compton, how about pointed?

K: You made a ton of great points and they all funnel down to what I thought the entire seven times I have listened to Compton–this album is, like Dr. Dre, uniquely Dr. Dre. He is a successful businessman and one of the most respected figures in the music industry. He does have a midas touch when it comes to production. He is the creator of Beats By Dre that sold for more money than I could possibly ever understand. He’s all that and more, somehow.

Quite frankly, there’s no figure in music that has the same stature as Andre Young. He’s a world-renowned and respected artist whose resume as a producer and man behind the scenes parallels his work in front of the microphone. More than that, like I touched on in my previous rambling, he’s become this mythic figure in music–a legacy artist that has somehow maintained his credibility despite a few singles, cameo appearances and not one record to his own name for the past 16 years. He has faded away without burning out or being forgotten, and in the meantime hasn’t become any less relevant in popular culture or in the music industry. People cared about Chinese Democracy because of the mythology of that fabled record. They wanted to hear it not because Axel Rose was still a prominent artist–they wanted to hear it because of the drama having to do with one of music’s most dramatic stars. People want Dr. Dre’s new album because his music is what’s worth listening to, still–not the car crash of production that may have revolved around it.

Does every single person care about Compton as much as I do? No. I don’t think teenagers necessarily care about this record. But the news that it’s making can’t be denied.

Combined with everything else you’ve stated, that’s what’s so incredible about Compton–is that it was able to accurately represent, like you said, where Dr. Dre’s headspace is at in 2015. And that space for his head and everything that surrounds his massive presence is without peer. To me, it’s all perfectly echoed through his words and music on this record. Are you hearing the same things here? If so, where specifically?

DG: Who could you possible put on Dr. Dre’s level? He’s a living legend — it’s more sensible to compare him to leviathans in other fields than try to find someone in “rap” that can go toe-to-toe with him. Just eye-over the features he has on Compton — Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar, Marsha Ambrosius — and you’ll get an idea of the kind of gravity that surrounds him.

Dre’s first verse on the album — a public service announcement of his greatness on “Talk About It” that immediately tells the listener that Andre’s still young enough to want to get involved — is a great example of him showing his prowess. The funny thing about that window is it honestly feels like he barely opened it a crack and that’s what came out. What makes Dre such an understandable and relatable person, even if we’ll never see the kind of success he has, is how much pride he takes in not only what he accomplished but how he accomplished it.

“All in a Day’s Work” is the total package of this dynamic. The production, the lyrical content, the songwriting — it’s all perfectly in place. His work ethic is legendary, and he wants to make it clear that he didn’t make it where he has be cause of reputation. He’s there because he locked himself away in a world where all he wanted to do was operate on a record to give it a new life. He gives a nod to that at the end of the song, laying out his priority to always get “back to work,” and if you ever want to “do it like this” you better do the same. You’d more easily compare him to Kobe Bryant than another musician.

You can find hints and morsels of this in nearly every appearance he makes on a track, too. You hear it as every sound is exactly where it needs to be, when it needs to be. You hear it when he lets The Game take a track of his own, comfortable enough to let the Doctor’s Advocate take the wheel while he stands back and watches. You hear it when he wonders about the “satis-fiction” of those in the industry today, and reminds everyone he’s been there and done that. This record is fueled on Dr. Dre being everything we’ve built him up to be in our heads, but that’s something he demands and deserves credit for building up brick by brick.

K: Couldn’t have said it better myself. If I may distill your observations, Drew, it’s that this album is so incredibly nuanced. Every nook and cranny of the record is carefully manufactured, handcrafted to be exactly how Dre wanted it, as you said. Nothing is turn-key. Nothing is by the books. The production, the song writing, the lyrics, the phrasing–every single little bit of Compton is made with the utmost care.

“All In a Day’s Work” is a perfect example. Lyrically, you captured the essence, but what stands out to me is the way that Dre builds a song. In hip-hop, the standard formula has always been intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge (sometimes)-chorus. It is a damn near certainty. Take my favorite hip-hop records of all-time: “Rosa Parks” by OutKast, “Runnin'” by The Pharcyde, “Ready or Not” by the Fugees, “Juicy” by Biggie, “Get By” by Talib Kweli. Genius in all their own ways, but in terms of song structure, they’re paint by numbers. I know what is going to happen. What’s amazing about “All In a Day’s Work”, like so many songs on Compton, is that it plays by it’s own rules. The songs seamlessly weaves between rap verse by Dre and collaborator Anderson .Paak and singer Marsha Ambrosius, while they all play off the sample taken from the Aerosmith classic “Dream On” (like a twisted cousin of “Sing for the Moment” by Eminem….helmed by, who else, Dr. Dre). It’s a masterwork of songwriting–so many diverse, disparate parts coming together in a way that builds forward rather than expanding and bursting at the seams. Listen to the track–while composed of such diverse pieces, it all seems to come together into a beautiful mixed bag, rather than serving as a catalyst for a musical meltdown.

This all serves one simple purpose–to convey the message Dr. Dre wants to convey. While delivering so many different musical expressions on one record, the Doctor does it in a way that his message is never convoluted. You’re never distracted. Take the verses for example. In every song on this album–every, single, song–every word from any rapper’s mouth compliments the musical sample on beat. Like Floyd Mayweather avoiding contact or Russell Westbrook charging down the lane, the rhymes pivot with the beats, heightening the lyrics with supercharged effect. “Deep Water”, “Medicine Man”, “It’s All On Me”….all those songs are strengthened by the relationship between rapper and the music that sets the stage for his performance. It’s a symbiotic relationship that doesn’t necessarily find it’s way into every record these days…and the messaging, it feels, suffers because of it. It seems to simple, but listening to rap these days, it would appear that it’s not.

Compton is so textured, switching moods and transcending genres from song to song. It’s at times a battering ram (“Talk About It”, “One Shot One Kill”), a gentle, warm breeze (“It’s All On Me”), a rusty grinder (“Deep Water”) and a time capsule from the past (“Animals”). While The Chronic was unmistakably a product of G-Funk and 2001 was it’s grown up self, Compton is something else entirely. Listening to it had me feeling like I had discovered a new record by The Roots. That’s how different this is from Dre’s previous offerings.

To switch gears a bit…

Drew, we’ve discussed this offline at length: Kendrick Lamar’s unmistakable presence on this album. Hot on the heels of his To Pimp a Butterfly–one of our most discussed records of the year–K.Dot has verses on three songs, “Deep Water”, “Genocide” and “Darkside/Gone”. What do you make of Kendrick’s performance here?

DG: Good evening, and welcome to K.Dot’s playhouse.

Kendrick’s presence on the album is heavy. Considering the layered-cake that was To Pimp a Butterfly, the fact the next project we’re hearing from him (it’s not his album by any means, but he’s prominently featured for the first time since) is Compton makes for a perfect transition. K.Dot’s words feel like a direct carryover from TPaB, making for an interesting dynamic. It almost feels like his album was the perfect primer for what Dre cooked up.

Compton is very reminiscent of the album for all of the reasons you just mentioned. It’s an artisan effort that feels meticulously crafted, and there’s nothing cookie cutter about it. Dre created a backdrop that, out of all of the talent he’s brought and is still bringing into the fold for his sendoff, seems tailor-made to showcase Kendrick. On a track like “Deep Water” you can hear (maybe literally) Lamar’s influence swaying Dre when he uses metaphors and similes that extend a bit outside of his pocket. On the other hand, every track Kendrick is on sounds like it could have been a cut from TPaB. He’s not trying to piece together his own message through an album this time, instead focused on doing his role in the construction of Compton.

Leaving Kendrick to his own devices as a rapper and writer allowed him to spread his wings each time he’s tagged in by Dre and company. There’s an all-star cast on this album, but it’s unmistakable who the best rapper standing beside the Doctor is right now. His three verses — especially his scathing work on “Deep Water” — are all highlights of the album. Even with Eminem putting down one of the best verses we’ve heard from him dating back to the Slim Shady LP days, it’s indisputable that Kendrick is the superstar right now.

And it’d be silly to imagine Dre doesn’t acknowledge this very simple fact. What he’s always done in his finest moments is bring the best out of the best talent around him. When he’s talking about people looking over his shoulder to criticize “Picasso’s brush strokes,” he’s not talking about his ability to write a verse, but his ability to craft an album, to capture a feeling, to tell a story, and to gives us another “Straight Outta Compton”, “Marshall Mathers LP”, “Eazy-Duz-It”, “The Chronic”, or any of the other classics his hands have been all

K: What struck me about what you said there is the prevalence of the word “next”. Is Compton another evolutionary step in Kendrick’s growth? Are his three tracks on the record just extensions of TPaB? Or is this, in many ways, the album that we wanted Lamar’s second album to be? Is this record what we thought he’d come to musically? Threads of G-Funk expanded into a modern setting, rather than the sometimes avant garde nature of TPaB?

It’s hard to say what’s true, as K.Dot raps alongside the very men whose lineage he’s deriving from: Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and The Game. Both literally and physically, Kendrick has never been closer to the West Coast tradition that he’s very much a part of. Dre’s fingerprints have been all over Lamar’s career, as he served as the executive producer on both TPaB and GKMC. Separating his art from those that came before him has never been more difficult.

Overall, I’m very pleased with Kendrick’s work on Compton. To me, it’s some of his finest music to date, a bizarre statement considering he’s only guesting on three tracks. As you said Drew, it’s Dre that’s creating a platform and rather than his verses, it’s the guests and the production that becomes the real star. It’s all the more impressive that in this lush world that the Doctor has created that Kendrick can stand out, performing his verses with such pinpoint accuracy and power. Whereas many of Lamar’s records are sprawling pieces (“Hood Politics”, “Blacker the Berry”, “MAAD City”, “The Art of Peer Pressure”) that lure you into the song and immerse you in the lyrics, Compton brings the heat with a much strong pop sensibility. If anything, it proves Kendrick’s versatility as a rapper, an important step in his evolution.

DG: With Kendrick being able to take a back seat from creating an album and instead focusing on being a rapper, it certainly feels like he proved the acid he spits is the most corrosive in the game right now. It’s unsurprising that the three tracks he’s featured on are in the mix for songs I keep going back to.

And the album has reasons to stop by any of the soundscapes Dr. Dre leaves us with. The moments of musical bliss he provides his patients with may not look like the prescription he’s best known for, but one dose and the familiar feeling of listening to one of the greatest to ever do it sets in and takes you for a ride we didn’t know we needed to take.

 

 

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