Dr. Dre has been holed away for a worrying amount of time. A few years ago, he released a pair of singles ostensibly linked to his since-abandoned third album, Detox, and they were dire. “I Need a Doctor”, in particular, was awkward and clunky, and it seemed as though Dre was straining too hard to perfect his comeback. He only re-emerged from the shadows in the name of Aftermath’s latter-day luminary, Kendrick Lamar, who appeared to be energizing the elder statesman. But even Dre’s surprise appearance on Lamar’s major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city in 2012 felt disjointed, providing more reason to fret over the producer’s impending solo return.
News that Dre had scrapped Detox entirely was confirmed alongside the announcement of this new album. Years of build-up washed away in the cancellation. It must have been a unique catharsis, purging an undeliverable hype with something tangible finally in hand. Compton isn’t a bait-and-switch. If anything, the album is undersold by its billing as a soundtrack, a tag that misleads how well it stands on its own originality. Dre claims the recording was inspired by the set of Straight Outta Compton, the just-released biopic about N.W.A., and for a guy who’s been helplessly coddling music in private for years, Compton ended up being a bit of a rush job. And yet, that haste helps the album sound more of-the-moment and free-flowing. For the first time in more than a decade, Dre’s inspiration met up with a corporate deadline, and you can see the appeal for him: an opportunity to bundle his final record with a blockbuster movie about his career’s origins. In that way, he’s toying with the bookends of his career, polishing the story of his come-up while coming to terms with how to step away for good.
Dre has been here before, of course, years removed from a game-changer with an entire industry’s eyes trained on him, wondering, “How might he do it again?” But he’s less invested in building a comeback narrative on Compton than he was on 2001. Instead, the album finds Dre coming to terms with his career for himself, not others.
If there’s a surprise here, it’s that Dre, a 50-year-old near-billionaire long suspected of drifting out of touch, sounds charged-up, nimble, and relevant. Dre has always relied on other rappers and producers for inspiration and his own legacy is tied up in showcasing talent, lifting and rearranging it for his own cause. On Compton he’s taken the approach and doubled down, and while the album is frequently personal, it’s also communal, pushing his own voice towards the margins in favor of other vocalists. The first raps we hear on the album are delivered by King Mez, a Raleigh native who, alongside Justus, the least known of the album’s features, appears to have helped Dre with the bulk of his lyric writing. (Either one or both of them are credited on all but one of Dre’s vocal tracks.) When Dre comes in on verse two of the sweeping opener “Talk About It”, he brags about his unopened Eminem royalty checks and jokes about buying the state of California. It’s a reminder that Dre is the richest hip-hop artist ever, but he actually seems more interested in pinning down and framing his influence than bragging about his bank account.
“Genocide” is the earliest and clearest standout, carrying one of two showstopping Kendrick Lamar appearances, who bends and stretches his voice to the limits he encountered on To Pimp a Butterfly. The song is also the first instance on the album of Dre sounding completely unlike himself. To be sure, he’s always been an obvious conduit as a rapper, unashamedly channeling the flow and cadence of his ghostwriters, but here he’s adopted a delivery that spills out in bursts, his register is higher, and he’s snarling; it’s not the only place on Compton that Dre’s rapping is both impressively light-footed and almost unrecognizable.
Musically, the album is a reminder that Dre’s palette and appetite for sound has always been eclectic, and rather than retread, we hear him pushing into new territory. At one moment, he’s sampling an obscure modern funk band from Italy (for “One Shot One Kill”) and the next, lifting a guitar riff from a random Turkish psychedelic burner. Throughout, session musicians polish out the edges, and Dre continues to lean on live keys and bass to fill out chunky bottom ends.
Dre’s quietest and most stalwart collaborator behind the boards on Compton is Focus…, son of Chic bassist Bernard Edwards and a longtime Aftermath in-house guy. (Focus… ditched the label in 2009 after spending years on end piling music into the Detox dump. He returned a few years later, working directly alongside Dre.) If Focus… is the easily overlooked workhorse—he contributes keys and bass as well as frequent co-production credits—higher-profile appearances from the likes of DJ Premier and DJ Dahi inflect Dre’s music with their personalities. Primo’s offering comes in the form of “Animals”, impressively billed as the first-ever Premier and Dre collaboration. (Russian producer BMB SpaceKid programmed drums, which carry the best of the Gang Starr producer’s fingerprints.) The song is also the most politically pressing on the album and nearly 30 years after “Fuck Tha Police” we hear desperation in place of rage. Anderson .Paak, a young multi-talent from Los Angeles who’s all over Compton, finds his star turn here. (The song originally belonged to him and Premier.) Still, Dre’s verse is powerful, a member of the one percent grappling with racism and the depressingly consistent anguish of being Black in America. “Why the fuck are they after me?” he booms, “Maybe ’cause I’m a bastard, or maybe ’cause of the way my hair grow naturally.”
The cast of musicians employed on Compton is as varied as ever, but some of the most dramatic displays come from the legends. On “One Shot One Kill” Snoop Dogg rekindles an agitated menace that he seemed to have lost more than a decade ago. Xzibit and Cold 187um dip into a perfect stride over the meandering “Loose Cannons”. The Game, for the first time since The Documentary, sounds like he deserved that original Dre co-sign, owning his original identity instead of falling into chameleonic flow-stealing. “Deep Water” is the most dynamic and brooding cut, a moment where everyone’s contributions click into place. Anderson .Paak’s performance as a drowning man is upsetting and uncomfortable, while Kendrick Lamar appears to be throwing Drake subliminals—and enlisting Dre in doing so. His verse is so overspilling with genius technicality that it’s hard to dwell in any one place.
Part of the trouble in anticipating a new Dre album, then, has been a difficulty in framing our expectations. Hip-hop has been evolving around Dr. Dre for decades: He injected the type of ambitious orchestration into the genre that helped it modernize in the ’90s, cannibalizing and assimilating everything around it. On his previous classics he showed us that new things were possible, a magic that’s available only so many times in one life. Compton doesn’t have the same breathtaking power, but it’s excellent nonetheless, and more complicated and jarring than we could have known to hope for. The biggest and most immediately recognizable accomplishments here are basic: Dre is doing more than just fitting in or harking back, and both of those inclinations together were the real nail biters surrounding his new music anyway. Knowing that this is Dre’s finale, there’s a pleasant melancholy that frames Compton, and with the music in our ears, acknowledging that maybe that’s for the best.