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Love It the Way I Love It: Dr. Dre’s Compton

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Dr. Dre’s music means a lot to me.

That may sound strange considering the fact that I’m a white college student who doesn’t even smoke weed, much less do anything more mischievous, but 2001, The Chronic, and Straight Outta Compton are all records I hold dear. The latter two in particular are some of my favorite albums across any genre, hands-down. Those records are foundational to my love of rap music; without them, I don’t know if I’d be as big a fan of the genre as I am today. I still vividly remember listening to 2001 — my West Coast hip-hop gateway drug — in high school, not yet particularly well-versed in rap music.

Like a lot of misguided suburbanite youths, I clung tightly to the unbelievably stupid view that “classic rock” (whatever that fucking means) was the only form of popular music with any worth. Rap and electronic music were lazy. They were made on machines, relied heavily on loops, and most abhorrently, sampled the work of true musicians who actually put effort into learning and playing an instrument. And moreover, the performers didn’t hit any notes, they just said words to a beat. Truly base and vile.

Tupac was pretty much the only rapper I had any appreciation for before being enlightened — after all, you’d basically have to be a heartless monster to listen to Pac and not be moved in some way. In his own immortal words — and in what is one of my favorite lyrics in all of music — you “don’t have to bump this, but please respect it.”

It’s sort of amazing that I could listen to this line so many times and not truly understand what it meant. Of all forms of popular media, music provides perhaps the most direct pathway there is into other’s beliefs and experiences. Even if the songs that result don’t speak to you, they have value, and they are worthy of listening to if you have the time. The way you think the music was made, the level of skill or instrumental proficiency you presume went into making it — that’s all petty compared to the feelings it gives and the worlds it shows you.

And that’s what finally hit me when I sat back to listen to 2001 for the first time. I couldn’t care less which parts were sampled or interpolated, which parts were written by Dre or one of his collaborators. There was expert craftsmanship on display, pure and simple. Even though 2001 is probably my least favorite Dr. Dre project at this point, it’s also one of the most measured and purposeful albums I’ve ever heard; the tone of every last note, the delivery of every last bar, it’s all deliberately constructed to make the trunk-rattlingest, head-bobbingest album imaginable. Somewhere in me, the rock “purist” wanted to cry foul about the lack of live instrumentation or flowery lyrics or some such ridiculousness. But the rest of me wisely decided to respect and appreciate the musicianship that was there in abundance, even if it didn’t match the erroneous standards I had at the time.

In this way, I find Dr. Dre’s music to be legitimately mind-expanding in a way the works of seldom few other artists are. Going back in time from 2001 to The Chronic, and finally, Straight Outta Compton gave me a true appreciation for the genre I now listen to the most. And even beyond hip-hop, these records deepened my love of R&B and jazz as I hunted down the sources of the samples and interpolations used throughout.

And yet still, nothing quite sounds like the Doctor’s music. While it’s absurdly impressive that he was A) able to somehow commodify $200-300 headphones and B) able to somehow finesse that success into a reported multi-billion dollar deal with Apple, it’s also unfortunate that it’s been so long since his last release that people forget what a force of nature he is behind the boards. This guy is one of the best beatmakers and mixers to ever do it — just listen to Tupac’s All Eyez On Me for proof; while that record is loaded with great production, the two tracks that Dre contributed (“California Love,” and “Can’t C Me”) are so immaculately produced that they sound like they were sent back to Pac from twenty years in the future through a hole in the space-time continuum. And even those cuts are nothing compared to the immortal bangers laced through his solo work and on his collaborations with The D.O.C., Eminem, and the like.

Not since 2001 (which released in 1999) has Dre put out a full body of work, but between most people’s currently perceiving him as business man and hip-hop’s full-blown re-entry into the realm of quality and culturally important popular music, I’d say he’s picked the perfect time to strike back.

Of course, the record most people would have expected to be 2001’s successor was the long-awaited Detox, rap’s equivalent to Chinese Democracy. Detox has taken all kinds of shapes over the years, all of which are evident through various leaks that have shown up during its tumultuous recording process; initially it was a weird concept record, then it became a hyper-opulent version of 2001 before turning into a radio-friendly pop-rap album, and finally becoming a simple throwback to Dre’s late-90s sound. At times it seemed tangibly close to release, but never, in any of its iterations, was it truly meant to be.

What we get instead, after sixteen long years, is Compton, an album that was announced and released so quickly that I’m still in shock. I don’t blame Dre for wanting to shift away from Detox and all the hype — both shattered and persistent — and baggage that would come with actually releasing the damn thing. By abruptly changing focus, he’s wisely let his new music simply speak for itself.

And speak for itself it does, bluntly, brilliantly, powerfully.

The first two tracks, “Intro” and “Talk About It” (which are strung together so seamlessly they might as well be the one and the same), are gargantuan. The intro fashions a soundbite of an old news recording about Compton — detailing its descent from a promising new neighborhood for middle-class blacks in Los Angeles to a place crippled by crime and inequity — into a centerpiece for a white-knuckled build-up. Dre wastes no time showing that his production chops are sharper than ever as he throws out one epic flourish after another, from jazzy drum and piano hits to stirring choral vocals, and dark brass and string swells.

Once the intensity reaches a fever pitch, we get the record’s first line (shouted by King Mez): “I don’t give one fuck!” Could there be a more perfect summation of the attitude Dr. Dre has presented in his music over the years? Sure, plenty of people have written off the D.R.E.’s music as merely crass, and with songs like “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” I can’t completely disagree. But it’s also the music of defiance, music that sees Dre and his cohorts unafraid to confront the institutions and people that threaten them — from the LAPD to music industry detractors — and succeed in doing so, against all odds.


He maintains that same spirit, even still. Despite the fact that it’d be incredibly easy for Dre to spend the running time of Compton on his Jay Z shit, rapping about his absurd luxuries so dispassionately as to make them seem mundane, he never does. He shows his victories to be counterbalanced by the struggles he’s endured to achieve them. Meanwhile, his frequent reminiscence about his rocky come-up in the mad city, his descriptions of the pressure he feels in finally putting out new music, and his unease about the future of rap supply him with a lot of conflict — past, present, and future, internal and external — to detail across the record. Dre’s always been a fan of the dramatic (he signed Eminem, after all), and the musical theatrics on display here make for a much more urgent album than you would ever expect from a fifty year-old billionaire.

Even his more straightforward boasts are delivered with forceful, in-your-face bravado. As “Talk About It” moves forward, the beat goes off like an atom bomb and Dre delivers some fantastic shit-talk like “I just bought California,” and “I want it all / Wait, goddamnit, I’m too old, I forgot I got it all.” Newfound Aftermath affiliate King Mez also comes through with swagger on a hundred-thousand trillion, taking full advantage of the fact that he’s gone from relative unknown to a potentially big deal in the blink of an eye.

From there, we move on to “Genocide,” a track that, if promoted in the right way, seems destined to enter the pantheon of enduring West Coast bangers. The beat here is driven by crisp drums and and a loop of warm bass notes that descend down to deep-sea trench levels. South African singer Candace Pillay and former Aftermath signee Marsha Ambrosius provide some lilting, classically West Coast melodies while Dre and Kendrick Lamar embark on a pair of hard-hitting verses detailing the harsh realities of violence in Compton. Dre delivers a cutting couplet completely nonchalantly (“You should be realistic, these n****s around here ballistic / We did the numbers and you lookin’ like another statistic”) but Kendrick one-ups him in depicting the sheer brutality of the environment they were both raised in: “Fuck your life, fuck your hope, fuck your momma / Fuck your daddy, fuck your dead homie / Fuck the world up when we came up, that’s Compton, homie!”


We get a couple more punchy, to-the-point tracks after that. The most notable is “All In A Day’s Work,” which introduces us to the record’s Snoop-equivalent sideman, Anderson Paak. In both Dre’s previous solo efforts he chose to call upon a no-name talent as a partner in crime. A commendably daring move, which paid off immensely with Snoop Doggy Dogg on The Chronic and not at all with Hittman on 2001. Paak, a bluesy, soul baring R&B singer, serves as a great foil to Dre’s no nonsense rapping. Their chemistry may not measure up to the lightning in a bottle that is classic pairing of Dre and Snoop, but that’s not really a fair comparison. From the moment the two start trading bars on “All In A Day’s Work,” it’s evident that they’re an impressive match-up. The instrumental here is excellent too, mixing some brooding guitars in the vein of old Eminem tracks with the sort of processed, grandiose choral melodies that Yeezy has long been a fan of.

The middle section of Compton is a strange piece of work, one that I think will be hit-or-miss for people, depending on their sensibilities and expectations. Put simply, if you wanted more of Dr. Dre’s signature sound delivered cleanly and straightforwardly, you’re out of luck until the record’s last few tracks. But if you want to see Dre push his established style into some surprisingly progressive territory, then you’re largely in for some head-spinning greatness.

Songs like “Darkside/Gone,” “Loose Cannons,” and “Issues” are busier than anything Dre has ever put together. There’s genre blending, tonal shifts, expansive mixes, and beat change-ups all over the place on these tracks; it’s doubtful that anyone less than the Doctor himself could control this much manic energy, but he generally keeps the chaos from becoming completely overwhelming. “Darkside/Gone” feels like an EP’s worth of material crammed into one song, featuring a constantly shifting beat, a pair of verses from Dre and some great guest spots from King Mez, King Kendrick, Marsha Ambrosius, and even a few bars off an unreleased verse from a certain notorious Compton G who passed far too soon.

“Issues,” meanwhile, mixes hardcore raps (including a nice verse from Ice Cube) with a surprisingly delicate, poppy chorus, and somehow makes it work. “Loose Cannons” is the only spot on the album that doesn’t go over very well, as it crams three verses accompanied by three instrumental shifts into the span of about two-and-a-half minutes, leaving guest MCs Cold 187um and Xzibit no room to breathe. The track then morphs into a horribly off-putting skit about 187um shooting his girlfriend and trying to figure out (with Xzibit and Dre’s help) what to do with the body. Again, Dr. Dre is clearly a fan of the dramatic, but a moment this dark and transgressive seems meant for a much more twisted album than Compton.

It’s especially strange to see this track placed so close to the excellent “Deep Water,” which uses skits to great effect. Amidst Dre and Kendrick rapping about the bad and the ugly of Compton, Anderson Paak plays the role of a drowning man, scrambling for breath as he’s being dragged down into the depths of the violence and institutionalization the MCs delve into. Paak’s performance is disquieting, but very purposefully so. Not since K.Dot affected a cracking, upper register rasp on “m.A.A.d city” has a hip-hop song captured the feeling of shit hitting the fan in such a visceral, discomforting way.

The last stretch of Compton is decidedly more straightforward than its jam-packed second act. This may be where some see the record as getting back on track, but again, I’m hugely impressed by the experimental attitude Dr. Dre exhibits. His sound is so well established that he could have easily gotten away with delivering a batch of his trademark clean, calculated beats. But once more, he subverts the assumption that he’s now just a corporate hack and shown that he’s a true artist, unafraid to be at the bleeding edge of his craft. Hip-hop artists have only just begun playing around with truly progressive songwriting marked by more complex song structures, and distinct movements and shifts in tone. It’s been incredibly interesting and rewarding to hear the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Travi$ Scott, and A$AP Rocky toy with this style in the past year or so. To hear Dr. Dre embrace this growing trend is like a dream come true.

Just because the last third or so of the album keeps things a bit simpler, however, doesn’t mean it’s any less compelling, especially thanks to some surprising guest verses. Snoop Dogg has spent the last decade or so in a kush coma, and hasn’t delivered a good verse since Tha Blue Carpet Treatment. The Game, meanwhile, has become less and less confident in the years since his excellent debut, The Documentary, to the point of blatantly mimicking the styles of the artists he works with. But during their respective features on Compton (the D-O-double-G on “One Shot One Kill” and Game on “Just Another Day”), the two seem to come alive. Snoop in particular goes absolutely nuts; his cadence is so deep and gravelly and his bars so aggressive that I didn’t even recognize him until halfway through his verse.

Eminem gets the last feature on Compton, and while I’ve never been particularly fond of his music as a whole (especially since his comeback), he and Dre owe each other a great deal of their success; it’s only fitting that he’d serve as the album’s coup de grace guest appearance on “Medicine Man.” Anderson Paak and Dre do their thing on the song’s first section before the beat switches up to a massive, EDM-trap drum pattern marking Shady’s arrival. And though his lengthy, forty bar verse eventually devolves into a bunch of shouting and overly technical rhyme schemes, the sheer volume and intensity of his bars supply the album with an earth-splitting crescendo. I’ll admit, too, that he brings some good lines to the table, especially when he reflects on his hellraising collaborations with the Doctor: “And whatever the consequence, with every verse it’s worth it / So Doc turn on the beat, whose turn is it to get murdered on it?”


These impressive features also further speak to Dre’s skill as a producer. In hip-hop, the word “producer” is synonymous with beatmaker — someone who puts together an instrumental on Pro Tools then emails it to an artist and moves on. In basically every other genre, however, a producer collaborates closely with their artists to push them and generally ensure that the music becomes more than the sum of its parts. Dr. Dre has long been known to fill the role in its traditional sense, and is reported to be quite demanding at that. As such, it seems not at all coincidental that three wayward veteran rappers would suddenly come up with such shockingly good material upon collaborating with him once again.

The soulful “Animals” is another standout that seems destined for Dr. Dre’s hall of fame. Anderson Paak takes over the majority of the track — propelled by a mindblowing beat Dre co-produced with the legendary DJ Premier — and comments on police brutality and the uproars that result with earnesty and eloquence. “The old folks tell me it’s been goin’ on since back in the day, but that don’t make it okay / And the white folks tell me all the lootin’ and the shooting’s insane, but you don’t know our pain,” he sings on the chorus. These lyrics certainly don’t address the issues of institutionalized racism with the high-concept poeticism of, say, To Pimp A Butterfly, but their simplicity is what makes them so moving. When Paak repeatedly sings “Got a son of my own, look him right in his eyes / I ain’t living in fear, but I’m holding him tight,” during his verse, it cuts to the bone. And Dr. Dre, never one to mince words or shy away from conflict, delivers one of his most socially conscious verses in typically stark terms: “We need a little payback / Don’t treat me like an animal, ‘cause all this shit is flammable.”

There’s so much going on in Compton that it feels like a double LP despite having sixteen tracks that somehow all play out in the span of an hour. As everything I’ve written thus far may suggest, that lengthy feeling doesn’t come from a sense of repetition or poor pacing, but rather the fact that the album is loaded with moments that feel truly significant, and that give a West Coast hip-hop (and Dr. Dre) fanatic such as myself a lot to unpack.

That’s why it’s nice that the record leaves off with a relative breather, “Talking to My Diary.” The cut features a smooth beat that plays out like a denser version of the muscular G-funk found on 2001. The real highlights, however, are Dre’s nostalgic verses which bring him back full-circle to his N.W.A. days. No references to Snoop, Em, Aftermath, Death Row, Kendrick, fame, or fortune. Just “[Eazy] in the booth and Cube in the corner writing / Where Ren out? Shout out my n**** Yella / Damn, I miss that… shit, a n**** having flashbacks.”

Closing out Compton by throwing things back to the era of Straight Outta Compton makes for an incredibly poignant ending. West Coast rap music has long thrived on the mythicization of its most important artists, and between Kendrick conversing with Tupac and Dre thinking back on his career beginnings in detail, it’s been fascinating to watch the past and present of these narratives become woven together.

At this point, it feels vital for hip-hop to reconsider the modus operandi that N.W.A. pioneered and other West Coast heavy-hitters perpetuated. Right now, racial and socioeconomic dynamics in our country are unbelievably fucked up, and it’s about time that hip-hop music once more adopts the demeanor of The World’s Most Dangerous Group — that punkish but no less intelligent mindset of not taking “no” for an answer, of always scrutinizing your environment, and of never giving credence to those who don’t deserve it. The fact that one of the founding members of said group is one of the first mainstream artists to do so is incredibly surprising, but if any artist has the power to comprehensively detail the problems they faced and the potential they see in a marginalized community in a way that will grab the attention of a wider audience, it’s Dr. Dre.

Dre has stated that Compton will be his final album. That would be an incredible shame. Now that the pressures of delivering Detox have finally been obliterated, I’m hoping D.R.E. has more up his sleeve.

He always seems to.