Dr. Dre is one of the architects of West Coast rap and a pillar of hip-hop production. He is responsible for producing a large portion of California’s great gangsta rap catalog and for pioneering G-Funk, a bold re-envisioning of traditional funk sampling. After rising to prominence as the de facto leader of N.W.A., Dre went on the become an early titan of the rap industry, procuring an ownership stake in Death Row Records and releasing his debut, The Chronic, one of rap’s most celebrated LPs, in 1992. Its 1999 follow-up, 2001, is an equally heralded expansion of G-Funk and the last Dr. Dre album in 16 years. To a new generation he is now the face of Apple Music, Forbes’ foremost cash king who made his fortune selling Beats (By Dre). But before he was plugging headphones he was plugging Detox, a now mythic third album that has been continuously delayed since the 21st century began.
A week ago, Dr. Dre took to his new Beats 1 radio show, The Pharmacy, to announce that Detox had officially—and unceremoniously—been scrapped in favor of a different album less weighted by expectations, one that would serve as his “grand finale.” Compton: A Soundtrack By Dr. Dre, a project inspired by the upcoming N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton, is Dre’s swan song, an album far better and far richer than anything anyone in his tax bracket should be making. A compilation-style release, Compton is maximalist in nature with expansive arrangements so grandiose that some songs have movements (See: “Loose Cannons”). It’s a sensory overload with textures that overlap and overwhelm, sometimes abruptly shifting gears into something entirely different, like on “Darkside / Gone.” Despite sharing a big-budget feel and macro approach with its predecessors, though, Compton defies tradition and convention, leaning heavily toward the eccentric with help from a strong team of co-producers: D.J. Dahi, Focus, Dem Jointz, Bink, and Cardiak, among others. It plays like an album conceived in a weird alternate reality where G-Funk is supplanted by a bizarro version ingrown with Hiero, where alt rap tendencies and gangsta rap sensibilities co-exist and Ice Cube and Anderson Paak rap side-by-side.
There are many interlocking components—old friends (Cube, Snoop Dogg, Xzibit, and Eminem), Aftermath signees (Jon Connor and Justus), tenured R&B singers (Marsha Ambrosius and Jill Scott), and a standout newcomer in King Mez—and the bustling sounds can pivot on a dime, but the signature voices and stabilizing forces on Compton are all from Compton or the greater Los Angeles area: Kendrick Lamar, the aforementioned Paak, The Game, and Dre. Kendrick adds his typical ferocious and knotty lyricism (especially on “Deep Water” and highlight “Genocide”), and Dre, ever the auteur, always puts everyone in a position to succeed (just ask Above The Law’s long-forgotten Cold 187um). But the X factor is Paak, whose unorthodox style enlivens tracks like “Issues,” “All in A Day’s Work,” and the brilliant protest record “Animals.” Dre, who gave The Game his original platform, gives him another on the blaring “Just Another Day,” and the emcee delivers big with vicious raps perfectly tailored to his hostile environment. Every element either helps to paint a vivid portrait of inner-city life or waxes nostalgically about Dre’s meteoric rise (with the exception of Eminem’s long-winded verse on outlier “Medicine Man”), and it acts as a fitting tribute to West Coast rap and one of its greatest producers.
Together, this elaborate tapestry of voices and sounds, both new and familiar, conveys Dre’s epic vision. Compton successfully crams the magnitude of his origin story into ambitious, densely packed sonics. Dre rarely raps, but when he does, it’s in a tone of relief. He often writes—or, more accurately, has other people write for him—like rap only brings him stress and he’s happy to put it behind him. But he takes one last look at how far he’s come, and more specifically, where he’s come from. “I remember when I got started my intention was to win / But a lot of shit changed since then,” he raps on closer “Talking To My Diary.” A lot has changed, but Dr. Dre remains a rap force. Compton is a victory lap for a rap mogul whose music landed him at the center of a tech giant.