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On August 1, Dr. Dre announced that his third (and final?) album, entitled Compton: A Soundtrack, was being made available for streaming over Apple’s music streaming service in less than a week. We’ve all become familiar with the ‘no advance marketing campaign’ marketing campaign since Beyoncé dropped her self titled album without warning in 2013, but Dre’s announcement came as a bit of a surprise, especially for old hip-hop fans like me, who’ve been waiting for Dre’s third album when it was called Detox and was supposed to come out in 2003. During the ensuing period, I attended and graduated law school, passed the bar exam, got married and had a kid, and moved three times. If you were introduced to hip-hop around the same time that Taylor Swift and her brother started listening, you’ve never heard a new Dr. Dre album.

The one thing that I don’t love about my fifteen minute commute is that I don’t have
time to binge albums that aren’t toddler-safe. (I am aware that this is not actually a problem, and kind of sounds like a humblebrag.) I used to inhale albums the moment they were released. When I first bought Big Punisher’s Capital Punishment (from a spot in the Bronx that had the album on sale the Thursday before it was released in stores), I think I listened to the album six times during a two day stretch. When I added Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly to my Google Music Library (and marked it for offline listening), it took me about two weeks to finish the album. Dre is different. Compton came out on Thursday evening and by Saturday morning I listened to the whole thing twice.

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On Saturday morning, I wrote some thoughts on Twitter.

Some annotations of the above:

(1) Compton reminds me of how much times have changed in the fifteen years since Dr. Dre dropped Chronic 2001. It’s impeccably produced, but there’s something missing. It just doesn’t feel as vital as Dre’s first two albums. The Chronic changed hip-hop by popularizing gangsta rap and g-funk. It was the first album by a label that would dominate the ’90’s and inspire countless imitators. It introduced the world to Snoop Dogg. After listeners of my generation listened to the Chronic, everything felt different. Even if you hated the violent, misogynist and homophobic lyrics or the awful, awful skits, Dre’s smooth, simple (yet fussy) style was undeniable. The Chronic 2001 was a reminder that Dre still had it. After he left Death Row, there was some question as to whether Dre was capable of recapturing the success that he found with N.W.A. and Death Row. He tried to move past gangsta rap with his Dr. Dre Presents: The Aftermath compilation album in 1996, but couldn’t gain traction in a year filled with classic albums. Dre produced some nice tracks, but nothing that blew anyone’s mind. Even Eminem’s success in early ’99 failed to dispel the notion that Dre was done as an artist. In November of that year, he released Chronic 2001. Dre collaborated with Scott Storch, Chris Taylor and Mel Man to expand on the classic g funk formula by shifting his reliance on sound synthesizers and deep baselines to live instruments. Dre had incorporated live instrumentation into his music for over a decade, but they never felt as prominent as they did on 2001. The resulting tracks were the perfect backing for songs that combined the misogyny and violence of earlier releases with introspection, sorrow and regret. In some ways, it’s the apotheosis of an era of gangsta rap, made more powerful by the fact that Dre embraces the artificial nature of the genre. From the very first note – a sample of James Moorer’s famous Deep Note audio clip, followed by the amplified sound of hydraulics on a lowrider – Dre reminds us that we are listening to a piece of entertainment.

Unlike Dr. Dre’s first two albums, Compton just doesn’t cohere into a single artistic statement. It’s just a collection of good songs. It’s not pushing the genre forward in the way that albums like To Pimp A Butterfly, Summertime ’06 and Surf have in 2015. I think that may be one of my favorite things about the album. Compton sounds like a high end mixtape inspired by the “Straight Out Of Compton” biopic from a genius producer who has nothing to prove. I know that Dre announced that this was his last album, but there’s part of me that hopes that he feels inspired to come out with more music whenever he feels like it in the future. No pressure.

(2) I really, really wish that Apple, Google and Spotify included song credits and liner notes on all of the albums in their respective libraries. The booklet is available here and Lucas Garrison of DJ Booth wrote a great listing (along with some biographical information) of all the writers, artists and producers who worked on Compton, but it’s not like reading the booklet on your own as you listen to the album. Sometimes I miss listening to music on physical media.

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(3) The more I listen to Eminem’s verse on Medicine Man, the more annoyed I get by his “I even make bitches I rape cum” line. I get it, he’s trying to provoke uptight, politically correct listeners by…

………..

Sorry, drifted off for a sec there. Eminem’s approach to provocation and satire had always reminded me of a kid I knew in camp who had an encylopedic memory of dirty limericks. It was incredibly entertaining when I was nine years old, but would bore the hell out of me now. He’s trying very hard to evoke the indefensibly offensive quality of early gangsta rap and horrorcore, but he doesn’t account for the passage of time. It’s been well over two decades since the heyday of N.W.A. and the Geto Boys, and the references to sexual violence aren’t just wildly offensive (and insensitive to people who’ve had those experiences), but boring and unimaginative. Eminem thinks that we’re all clutching our pearls and calling our pastor, but we’re just rolling our eyes. He’s not inspired by the past, he’s just mimicking it (despite his technical gifts). It’s one of the reasons that it’s hard to take rappers like the Game seriously. The shame is that Eminem should be one of the greats.

Reading List

(1) The Compton Sessions: How Dr. Dre Created His Comeback, by Jayson Greene

(2) Musician Colin Wolfe built beats with Dr. Dre for The Chronic, NWA’s Niggaz4Life and Jimmy Z’s Musical Madness, by Tony Best

Unrelated Reading List 

(1) What Went Wrong With Title IX? by Tony Bagenstos

(2) One Hundred Years of Arm Bars, by David Samuels

(3) Remembering Wes Craven, by Edgar Wright

(4) How ‘Rock Star’ Became A Business Buzzword, by Carina Chocano

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