Many thought that Andre “Dr. Dre” Young’s third solo record would never arrive. Sixteen years in the making, the project gestated under the working title Detox as supposed release dates were announced, speculated upon, and then passed by without event. A few disappointing singles cropped up, but it was clear that Young was more focused on his role as label boss, producer for hire, businessman, and mentor to the new breed of rap heavyweights than he was on being a solo artist. Detox seemed like a pipe-dream, and even if it did surface one day, it seemed unlikely to ever live up to the classic status of Young’s first two records, 1992’s The Chronic and 1999’s 2001.
Young’s absurdly successful business Beats was bought by Apple in May 2014, and Apple subsequently assimilated the talents of Young and his team into their company. When the Cupertino tech giant launched its Apple Music streaming service, much of the user experience centred around big name artist and DJ-curated radio stations, broadcast worldwide through the Beats 1 station. Dre’s prominence as one of the highest profile curators, playing music via his own Pharmacy sessions, brought some small glimmers of renewed hope in Detox perhaps seeing the light of day. Many even speculated that Detox would stream exclusively via Apple Music on launch day.
All that speculation passed, and rap fans again seemed set for a disappointment and a long, uncertain wait. And then, on August 1 - a month after Apple Music’s launch - Young surprised everyone. Celebrating the impending release of the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, which documents the infamous career of the groundbreaking group Young helmed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the doctor dove deep into hip-hop favourites and old school classics during his broadcast. At one point, speaking to those assembled in the studio with him, Young broke his silence on Detox.
“I didn’t like it. It wasn’t good. The record, it just wasn’t good. […] I worked my ass off on it. I don’t think I did a good enough job, and I couldn’t do that to my fans, and I couldn’t do that to myself, to be perfectly honest with you.”
Then came the news that shocked the rap world and sent social media into a meltdown:
“During principal photography, I felt myself going to the studio and being so inspired by the movie that I started recording an album. I kept it under wraps, and now the album is finished. It’s bananas. It’s an ‘inspired by’ album. It’s inspired by Straight Outta Compton, we’re gonna call the album Compton: The Soundtrack. I’m really proud of this.”
Even Young’s co-hosts could (apparently) barely believe their ears. A studio album was coming - in a week no less - and the tracklist was as promising as it could be. Many of Young’s 2001 collaborators returned to the studio for guest verses, and young blood like Kendrick Lamar and King Mez were brought in to modernise proceedings.
The concept of Compton as a thematically-inspired take on a feature film recalls Jay Z’s 2007 record American Gangster, which was loosely based on scenes, characters, and places from the Denzel Washington film of the same name. Yet Compton has little to do with the Straight Outta Compton film in any literal sense; the album doesn’t deal with N.W.A.’s early days in many ways other than the occasional recollection, aside, or reference. Rather, Compton is a collection of songs that cast a loving eye back to Young’s home town and his journey from the ghettos of Los Angeles to the Hollywood Hills.
Throughout the album, there are countless references to Compton’s boulevards, landmarks, and social issues; it is clear that the spotlight the upcoming film placed on Young’s hometown creatively inspired him. Young even told Zane Lowe that he had “decided to donate all of [his] artist royalties from the sale of this album to help fund a new performing arts and entertainment facility for the kids in Compton.” The city’s mayor Aja Brown, with whom Young is collaborating on this charitable project, declared that the center would be a therapeutic outlet for youth suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and stated:
“I’m honored that Mr. Young has decided to make a significant investment in his community. He clearly has a heart for Compton, especially our youth. I believe this performing arts center will provide a pathway for creative expression, exposure and training to the myriad of industries that support arts, entertainment and technology - while providing a much-needed safe haven for our youth.”
It is clear from such actions that Young has returned to our stereo systems a more mature man than the loudmouth ’90s provocateur he once was. In fact, everything about Compton smacks of decades-long experience and mastery; Young’s beats have never been as smooth and intricate, and on this record his sonic palette is broader, more confident, and more assured than ever before.
Though it sounds a strange concept at first, as on Young’s previous releases the lead artist’s rapping is never intended to take centre stage. Evidently aided as he always has been by ghostwriters, Young’s flow and the bulk of his subject matter remain fairly uninteresting and generic. Yet the man who brought us the G-funk genre, some of the best rap beats of all time, a roster of the most exciting acts of their time, and the sonic templates of Eminem, 50 Cent, and Snoop Dogg’s early careers is in fine form as a songwriter, studio technician, and creative director.
After a brief intro track, the two opening songs are a decidedly modern re-introduction to the good doctor. Talk About It and Genocide are hard-hitting bangers, with plentiful guest verses supplied by a cleverly assembled selection of young talent. Genocide in particular is a great track; with a harsh beat that sounds part Yeezus and part revving motorcycle, booming deep bass notes that descend harshly alongside a raspy snare hit play alongside aggressive percussion. “Sometimes I feel like I could just bury ‘em/ Cause delirium, mass hysteria, scarier area,” Young raps. “I’m very aware that hip hop needed somethin’ to carry it/ So I married that bitch and swung down in that chariot/ Hangin’ way too fuckin’ close, beware the barrier/ This is hub city nigga, don’t make us embarrass ya.”
A few singers - Anderson .Paak, Candice Pillay, and Marsha Ambrosius - appear on multiple tracks, lending smooth vocal touches to the largely-catchy choruses. It’s All on Me is the smoothest cut on the album, where atop a funky slow-burning beat Young taps neo soul singer BJ the Chicago Kid for the heartfelt chorus. “And it all falls back on me/ Sometimes, somehow, it all falls back on me/ No matter where we are, no matter what we doing, it’s on me/ If it was up to you that’s just the way it’s always gon’ be,” BJ sings as Young raps about the early days of N.W.A., giving us the closest deliverance of his inspired-by-the-film promise.
The instrumentals of Compton are track-for-track typical Young - smooth kick drums that extend into deep sub bass, crisp hi-hats and snares, sweeping strings, and soul and gospel harmonisation form the palette. And as always the foundation of every track is formed by tasteful live instrumentation, including sparse guitar lines, walking bass riffs, and bluesy piano flourishes.
Compton is uniformly gorgeous; warm, lush, and more detailed than Young’s past releases. The Chronic was mainly an aesthetic continuance of N.W.A.’s patented messy, chaotic rush of noise, albeit supplemented by Young’s first forays into live funk instrumentation; 2001 was colder, more digital, and very minimalistic, undoubtedly more meticulously crafted, but less soulful. Compton is somewhere in-between, while also something new; it is interesting to see how heavily Young has bought into the template employed by his young protege Kendrick Lamar on that rapper’s last record To Pimp a Butterfly.
Blending the old with the new in a dizzyingly busy amalgam of funk, soul, and even jazz, many of Young’s productions here chop and change from moment to moment, as on Darkside/Gone and Loose Cannons, where the existing beats are completely swapped out for something new again and again, seemingly at a whim. Previously, Young’s beats tended to be introduced at the beginning of the track before remaining static and largely unaltered while the verses and choruses unfolded. Here, the music feels more alive, more energetic, and more human.
Darkside/Gone is one of the most exciting tracks on the record, and a particular highlight. Ambrosius’s emotive vocal guides the track through all its sudden changes, and the whole thing miraculously never feels jarring; standout verses and inspired production collide to form an infinitely repeatable hit. Mez and Lamar turn in two of the album's best guest features, while the ghost of N.W.A. star Eazy-E returns via a fantastic sample, and Young’s verses are perhaps his best of the record: defiant, defensive, and impressive.
Another exceptional cut is Deep Water, a dark, slow, aggressive sucker punch, where trap production elements, hard-toothed bars, and a threatening “sleeping with the fishes” theme make for a winner. Lamar’s guest verse (his third and final for the album) in particular is fantastic. The young Compton rapper visits more confrontational, clichéd territory than usual, as he raps: “No releasing me, I got the beast in me/ I gotta holla, keep the decency and make the TNT my product/ I’m a C-O-M-P-T-O-innovator, energiser/ Inner-city bullet fly ’til that bitch on auto pilot,” seemingly relishing the opportunity to trade thug-rap rhymes on a Dr. Dre track. “I don’t give a fuck about your whereabouts/ All I care about is wearing out your area/ And airing out your upper body/ When I catch ya, walking out your parents house.”
Ironically, Young’s old friends Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube turn in some of the dullest guest features of the record, and their reunions here don’t live up to the golden-era energy such a combination once promised. Elsewhere, when on Medicine Man Young is blessed by one of Eminem’s best guest verses in years - a lengthy, fast, schizophrenic one-take wonder that is fittingly the last guest verse on Compton - the track doesn't hit as hard as it could have. Unfortunately, the song is in some ways ruined by the chorus sung by young vocalist Candice Pillay; here, Young revisits the unsuccessful formula he has used on other Eminem collaborations from recent years, where a baby-voiced guest vocalist half-mumbles their way through the hook, intended for contrast but delivering disappointment.
Some of these tracks are fairly forgettable - Talk About It, All In a Day’s Work, Satisfiction, Animals - but due to Young’s inimitable talents as a producer, there is always something to redeem a track. While there is nothing on Compton that will retrospectively sit alongside Young’s past classics with any sort of confidence, that is not to say that the music here is not of a high calibre.
There are very few moments that fall flat on Compton. Sure, broader issues effect the overall impression of the record - largely repetitious subject matter, some bland hooks, and a few lacklustre guest performances - but none of these issues are major problems when taken in context. Whenever an element fails to break new ground, the superb instrumentals provide more than enough positive influence for the track to work out in the end.
Young is known first and foremost as an innovator who has carried rap music and its changing trends on his back for decades, guiding the changing tastes of audiences and directing a host of fantastic musicians toward the best output of their career. While Compton is not particularly innovative, it is a clever record. Young was wise to scrap the (probably) disappointing Detox project in favour of this pseudo-inspired-by soundtrack, because this format allows him to reference the past lyrically and musically within safe confines. Without sounding stuck in his ways, Young can play to his strengths under the guise of nostalgic tribute, while also employing young up-and-comers to breathe some modern life into the tracks.
Young has been making music for over thirty years, and very rarely do musicians at such a stage in their career ever make music that counts amongst their best . Compton should be seen as an example and lesson for any artist at a similar stage in their trajectory; here, Young gives us enough to remind us why he is still one of the greatest producers and innovators of the modern era, while also gently rekindling interest in his best work and re-establishing his legacy. Sometimes re-inventing the wheel isn’t the smartest move, and on Compton Young understands that. Instead, he’s strapping wide rims onto his low-rider and taking a drive through the neighbourhood that made him who is. We're just tagging along for the ride.
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