“I JUST… BOUGHT… CALI-FORNIA!” booms the good doctor upon his (unsurprising) return album (his deal with Apple made an LP inevitable). Due to travel commitments I had the immense fortune to listen to “Compton” and nothing else since the release, with almost no influence from that pesky internet. It’s a rare privilege and basically what we used to do back in the day – buy/consume an album for personal listening pleasure, without the need for analysis, dissection and the public mocking/praise of social media. Jesus, I even had to figure out the lyrics for myself – imagine that (!) Without the memes, reviews or even the opinions of my friends, I had a set of Ears By Jay and my knowledge of “The Chronic” and “2001” alone.
With that little preamble out of the way, let’s just “Talk About It” – no, not “Detox” (which Dre scrapped due to a lack of freshness). “Compton” probably sprang to life thanks to some cosmic tag-team of Tim Cook and Kendrick Lamar: Cook making Andre Young a billionaire, and Lamar breathing life into Compton due to his stunning albums. Clearly, Kendrick takes the lead role that Snoop Dogg adopted in 1992, and that Eminem ran with in 1999 – this proves to be both hugely beneficial and somewhat disappointing (we’ll get to that later). After a short intro, “Talk About It” is a strange track to start with: produced by DJ Dahi, it’s a grower for sure but has a derivative Rick Ross ’09 feel. It also has two artists without Wikipedia pages (King Mez with two verses and Justus with the chorus), and it’s certainly likeable but possibly too bold a choice for such a significant position.
“Compton” arguably kicks off in earnest with “Genocide” – it’s practically perfect in every way, fluidly fitting in with the legacy of “The Chronic”, with maybe THE outstanding instrumental on offer. It’s already clear after two tracks that Dre’s delivery (which has always been a bit underrated) is excellent, and then Lamar brings his energy to the proceedings. “It’s All On Me” continues that ’92 vibe, with a laid-back groove and the kind of beat that Nate Dogg would have killed (Justus and BJ do their best, and REST IN PEACE N-A-T-E). It’s a seemingly personal track (even if you know somebody else is actually writing the lyrics), and the formidable opening is helped by “All In A Day’s Work.” Possessed by the ultimate self-help motivational steroid speech by Jimmy Iovine, a stupidly soulful performance by Anderson .Paak and some ridiculously head-nod shit on the boards, Dre positively infects you with his work ethic. It’s a stunning three-track combo, and gives the album some breathing space.
“Darkside/Gone” is an interesting dual cut, harking back to “2001” (albeit updated with a slightly more spiritual vibe, with Marsha Ambrosius deserving special praise, she’s always had a unique talent). It’s at this point that Dre starts to bring his old mates back to the booth. First up is Xzibit, who must have finished pimping his ride, with a welcome return on the Kim-esque “Loose Cannons.” Then, as Ice Cube details his numerous “Issues,” it starts to sink in that this is a real album, and you may start to pinch yourself. From a personal perspective, the beat on “Issues” is disappointing considering that Mos Def used the same “Ince Ince…” sample on “Supermagic” – the opener on his fascinating “The Ecstatic” LP back in 2009. Regardless, having Cube and Dre reunited is worth the entrance money alone to a lot of people. “Deep Water” is a hard one from Kendrick, blending styles from GKMC and TPAB (the hood, the esoteric), and Dre rides shotgun with aplomb. Whilst the replay value of “One Shot, One Kill” remains to be seen, it contains some brilliant moments: a killer verse from Snoop Dogg, a truly stunning appearance from Jon Connor, and a menacing beat.
After X, Cube and Snoop, I was listening to “Compton” on my knees in a church/temple/mosque just praying to any God that would listen to ensure that (The) Game would not be excluded from the party. Fortunately, Dr. Dre’s biggest fan in the history of the universe didn’t get his heart broken and instead delivers one of the standout tracks in the form of “Just Another Day”. A crazy beat inspires Game to a near-perfect performance, and I’d argue that this could/should have kicked off the entire album (it’s certainly more traditionally impactful than the intro and “Talk About It”).
“For the Love of Money” seems out of place on a Dre album – that’s not a slight on the song itself, just the feel/combination. Cinematic, broad and with Jill Scott bringing her unreal beauty to the outro, it’s strangely welcome. King Mez feels part Kurupt, part Hittman – he bodies “Satisfiction”, even if it is a touch too busy musically. “Animals” is a genial social commentary track, and you start to realise how impressive “Compton” is (I’d argue the surprise guest at the end should have just let their work do the talking, the shoutout is frustratingly inappropriate and genuinely makes no sense).
A noticeable absence thus far, Eminem pops up on the penultimate track “Medicine Man.” His fan base alone will make this the most popular song, but it’s arguably a dull and predictable let down (and that’s coming from one of those Em fans). Yes, his verse is technically proficient, but at this point with no surprises left in his locker – including his abhorrent use of rape as a punchline – it feels like Marshall could have gone so many more interesting ways with his contribution to “Compton.” Yet, he’s resorted to the start-slow-finish-screaming thing, the shock value thing, the wordplay for the sake of it thing… Asking him to change in 2015 is probably wishful thinking, but “Medicine Man” is still an opportunity missed (all the more so, since Dre’s verse is far more nuanced). The album closes in style with the well-judged “Talking To My Diary” and it finally sinks in that this is IT for Dr. Dre. A sad but inspirational moment, it’s a fitting end to it all and even if this proves that he could easily pump out another wonderful album, it’s the right time to step away from the microphone: on his own terms and, like the trumpet outro, on a high note.
There is no doubt that “Compton” is an impressive album, not to mention one that we possibly would never have received were it not for a special set of circumstances. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, but it’s also notable for what it lacks. Yes, he has nothing else to prove, but “The Chronic” and “2001” had searing singles, cultural touchstones and the nerve to take over the world. Put simply, “Compton” needed some fucking singles, Dre. It just needed ONE “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang…” It just needed any one from “The Next Episode” or “Still D.R.E.” or “Forgot About Dre…” All the raw materials are there, and it wouldn’t have detracted from that well-crafted album feel. It also would have helped push this into a different sales level – something that would have been beneficial, considering that Dre is diverting the royalties through charity back into Compton itself.
Saying all that, this is a worthy addition to his canon, and it’s an album that can be firmly recommended as one of (an already impressive) 2015’s best. It’s delivered well, engineered remarkably, intelligently thought-out and takes plenty of musical risks. Aiming to birth up-and-comers like Justus, King Mez, Jon Connor, Anderson .Paak and Candice Pillay fits in with the heritage; juxtaposing them with older cats like Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Xzibit and Game works well, for the most part. Giving Kendrick Lamar the lead role pays off: although he’s not necessarily the right MC to deliver a gigantic single, what he’s brought to the table far outweighs that one deficiency. And then there’s the orchestrator himself, Dr. Dre.
After three decades in the music business, it’s inspiring to see him deliver an excellent album: overseeing it, driving his guests/writers/producers onto greater things and delivering it in an interesting way is no mean feat. His voice has matured, and there is an unerring sense of authority that time, wisdom and one billion frickin’ dollars could well give you. Listening to “Compton” without the internet definitely gives a sense of perspective – this is not a classic, and only those swept up in the emotion of receiving an unexpected gift will view it as such. But after such a long wait, getting a third and final Dre album that’s THIS good? That’s enough. It’s enough.