Thursday, August 13, 2015

Dr. Dre - Compton: The Soundtrack Review

It’s been 16 years since we’ve last heard a full-length Dr. Dre album. During that time he’s built his resume through other avenues, name branding and production credits amongst others, the former of which has nestled him amongst the world’s richest people. And yet, just as devoted fans began to lose hope for his next release, Dre, through the power of Apple, announced Compton: The Soundtrack alongside a conclusive statement on the now-defunct Detox, his hallowed mystery album. At 50 years old Dr. Dre is more a businessman than rapper, exclusively releasing the album through iTunes, a week before the noted movie of N.W.A.’s come-up Straight Outta Compton hits theaters. The pieces all fell into place as a corny, painfully forced tie-in to make a profit, wrapped up in Dre’s revival. And while it is that, thankfully, it’s so much more. Compton: The Soundtrack is appropriately named, a tour de-force of artists colliding for one common goal: to retell Compton through the eyes of rappers who’ve associated with it in some way, whether through Dr. Dre or the streets themselves. It isn’t remarkable, there’s hiccups throughout that deter it from greatness, but for Dre’s first project in a decade and a half things surprisingly aren’t stale, outdated, or uninspired. 

Compton initializes itself on a frightening tale of the cities once-fantasized beginnings, quickly revolting into a state of turmoil, before breaking into ‘Talk About It’ with a reckless voice hollering “I don’t give one fuck.” The intro bears resemblance to Thurz’ ‘Molotov Cocktail,’ the intro to his concept album centered around the L.A. Riots, both effectively use the means of a radio report to convey the distress found within the city. And while Dre may lose focus at some points here, for a substantial 16 tracks things are markedly concise. ‘Genocide’ looks at the constant violence surrounding the city, while ‘Deep Water’ analyzes the same problems more critically. ‘All In A Day’s Work’ and ‘For The Love Of Money’ both accentuate the obsession money has over the rising youth in Compton and how it translates into adulthood, in this case Dr. Dre’s accumulated wealth. And ‘Issues’ and ‘Animals’ both look at gang and police brutality from the same perspective, addressing it in a manner that sounds one half convincing, the other half pleading. The tracks that do deter, most notably ‘Satisfiction’ and ‘Medicine Man,’ have their desirable place as commentary on Dr. Dre’s life.

While the narrative throughout accurately represents the title, Compton: The Soundtrack is further developed with how features are handled. By my estimates, there’s 38 verses spread over the 15 tracks (excluding ‘Intro’), yet less than half of those belong to Dre, 18 to be precise. This disparity is welcomed though because who fills his spots is a who’s who of Compton life. From modern rappers, like Kendrick Lamar and the Game, to legends, like Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, to up-and-comers, like Anderson Paak and King Mez, the seams within this album are littered with breathing life spanning 3 decades of Compton. While Dre never stands out, his voice distinctively off causing it to be more in line and less noticeable, he never submits a subpar verse, and neither does any feature, including old heads that have showed wear and tear. Apart from Eminem’s still killer verse on ‘Medicine Man,’ he’s the only one who has a handful of cringeworthy lyrics, par for the course of his persona but still eye roll-inducing. Two songs back to back, ‘One Shot One Kill’ and ‘Just Another Day,’ feature Jon Connor and the Game as their lead artists respectively, an interesting choice further positioning Compton as an album grander than the direct name attached to it. 

There’s a looming problem with Dre’s latest though, and it isn’t one immediately evident. Considering his accolades in the field, Dr. Dre falters more often than not with the music’s production, with a clear lack of direction. With such a diverse cast, it seems, Dre wanted to satisfy all conditions, making an album that settles into monotony where neither the classic or present sound is represented, just meandering portions of each. What results is a collection of okay beats, with a few tantalizing exceptions, that sound pulled from the early 2000’s Gangsta rap lull. A lot of the songs suffer from over-indulgence causing each part to succumb to the whole, reducing the beats to simple placeholders for artists to rap on. The closer, ‘Talking To My Diary,’ forces a beat that would be better suited behind a radio DJ rambling off ads, while ‘Satisfiction’ uses a sample and a multitude of muzzled sounds that all drown each other out, and ‘Talk About It’ tries to incorporate other influences, including some Trap synths, that really only partially works for King Mez’s fantastic opener. 

While there are forgotten beats on Compton, they’re only the case due to others which shine. It’s not a coincidence either that the best tracks here are the ones with the best production, standing out amongst the crowd and bringing the artists to their A-game. ‘Genocide’ effectively molds hollow snares and an ear-to-the-ground drum pattern with Candice Pillay’s Reggaetone ramblings, giving an open beat allowing for multiple flows, which Kendrick uses to the best of his abilities. ‘Deep Water’ emphasizes a stuttering synth pattern that transforms rappers mid-speech, while ‘It’s All On Me’ reduces things to a smooth, laid-back cruise through the L.A. streets. And the best culmination of Dr. Dre’s sound, vision, and style comes together on ‘Animals,’ slated as the first Dre/DJ Premier collaboration, the track features meshes beautifully with an anthemic chorus revealing the ways in which others view inner-city black culture. Nothing here is revolutionary, but they’re sentiments told with a earnestness that’s hard to come by, one that revels in a brighter tomorrow as opposed to ongoing the violence of today.

There are times, during its hour plus runtime, that Compton falters and eschews a fathomable track record, namely on tracks where the sum of the parts doesn’t evolve into anything remarkable. Following Anderson Paak.’s vividly realistic portrayal of a drowning man at the end of ‘Deep Water,’ things take a bit of a stalwart turn, as cruise control becomes engaged until the album’s last couple sendoffs. Dre managed to avoid the often-plagued comeback album however, gimmicked as a return when it’s almost always a letdown, an impressive feat on its own considering Dre’s removal from the real world and into the 1%. A throwback record to Compton throughout the three decades of Rap dominance is just what Dr. Dre needed to showcase at the turn of his half century life, a culminating testament that’s, if anything, more about him than the streets itself. Compton: The Soundtrack is a calming measure to Dre’s own mind that he’s still endured the challenges of his youth and, despite acquiring a myriad of dollars, he can still relate to the every day struggles of those lost inside the Compton walls. 

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