The first time we see Dr. Dre in the new movie Straight Outta Compton, he’s sprawled in a pile of vinyl, his eyes closed as Roy Ayers’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” blares in his headphones, vibraphone mallets splashing against his eardrums. The teenage Andre Young we come to know in the first half of F. Gary Gray’s film is a dreamer, a student of sound ignorant to the tumultuous details around him. Contractual malfeasance, emotional discontent, unrepentant violence — Dre feels none of it, content to compose thunderous song after thunderous song, as his friends try to conjure the intensity to match his music. And they often do.
Eazy-E and Ice Cube are the other primary figures in Straight Outta Compton — the prophet and the poet, the not-so-canny CEO and the creative soldier. But Dre is everything — to N.W.A, to this movie, to 30 years of rap music itself — and also nothing. A social cipher, a rapper unconsidered, and an apolitical evader, he has existed as the living embodiment of anticipation for an entire generation of rap fans who have awaited and doubted his long-promised third album, Detox. That album, of course, has been canceled, a fever dream we’ve recovered from all too quickly. Instead, his surprise new project, Compton: The Soundtrack, a sort of spiritual companion inspired by the movie that appeared on Apple Music last night, makes him the first rap artist to release highly anticipated albums in four consecutive decades. At first blush, it is neither masterpiece nor mistake. Instead, it’s the first eyes-wide-open moment in a solo career that has been undeniably earth-shifting but also socially abstract.
While he’s rarely mistaken for a conscious leader, no one rallies a squad like Dre. His horde of mentees — among them Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, and in many ways his moneyman Jimmy Iovine — has used his recording insight and overwhelming mastery of production to launch superstar careers. (Is there any doubt Iovine — who is sampled delivering an aphoristic motivational speech on the new album — has now benefited from a Dre partnership at least as much as Eminem, the biggest rap star ever?) This talent management is highlighted in a crucial early scene in Straight Outta Compton, when a young Dre coaches a nascent Eazy-E on how to land on the beat during the recording of “Boyz-n-the Hood.” He shames Eazy into greatness, gently mocking a performance out of him. Dre has always had a knack for surrounding himself with the right collaborators, and for putting them in a position to succeed. He’s a flexible general manager, moving talent in and out without sentimentality, deftly executing his vision for a successful franchise. And not just superstars-in-waiting like Cube or Snoop, but figures like the Lady of Rage, Daz Dillinger, and Kurupt, who contributed lyrics and guest appearances during the making of his 1992 album, The Chronic; or the producer Mel-Man and multi-instrumentalist Mike Elizondo, who crafted elements of the aerated astral funk on Dre’s 2001. The list of absorbed and abandoned Dre coconspirators is long enough to fill a marble notebook. But Dre’s creative process is strictly egalitarian — to the winners go the songwriting credits.1
And then sometimes little else. Whither Mel-Man?
Compton is no exception — it is flooded with names both bold and anonymous. There is a surprisingly visible underclass, like the relatively unknown Anderson .Paak and King Mez, tenacious young Los Angeles–based MCs recruited as much for their writing as their fealty to Dre’s historicity. There are several R&B singers here, too, more than he has ever employed, from the veteran Dre collaborator Marsha Ambrosius to the South African singer Candice Pillay and sandy-voiced BJ the Chicago Kid. Then there is the litany of longtime cohorts — a becalmed Cube, an invigorated Snoop, an at-home Xzibit, a so-at-home-he-might-sign-a-lease The Game — all aware of the moment, using their voices with a battering-ram force that has been absent in recent years. Most prevalent is Kendrick, who shows up for three inspired moments of desperate eloquence, all of a piece with his recent To Pimp a Butterfly. These are two-pronged gambits — on the one hand, Dre is a magnanimous discoverer of talent. (Imagine King Mez’s excitement this week.) But in another light, he is the beneficiary of so much youthful labor — happy to subsume the energy, insight, and hard-won lyrics of yet another wave of famished voices — while also flashing the digits in his Rolodex.
As the Meek Mill–Drake beef — born of a petulant claim to authorial grievance — roils to a simmering stew of moralizing despair, it is worth noting that Dr. Dre has rarely cared to hide his ghostwriting, providing credits to Cube, the D.O.C., Eminem, and many others throughout his career. His harrumphing, state-your-purpose verses on “Still D.R.E.”? Jay Z wrote them, and everyone who cares to know that probably already knows it. Save the bona fides for the poets, Dre knows that glory is in the greater product. Dre is also a vessel in his own journey. His voice is surprisingly present on Compton — his rapping is stout but gruff, and at times as impressive as it’s ever been, marked by a newly installed sing-song in his voice. And it heaves with puffed-chest aggression conjuring invisible opponents, shadow doubters who would deny his legacy. It’s really the only move left for Dre, a near-billionaire headphones mogul who also happens to be perhaps the most respected musician in his genre’s history. Now his album — commercial at times, crude at others, but often delivered with a piquant clarity — is the most discussed in one of the most fertile years in recent hip-hop history.
It is also a perfect album for this digital streaming moment. Sampling has always been at the core of Dre’s work — that Charles Wright funk-march on N.W.A’s “Express Yourself”; the bending guitar notes and spider-walk bass line culled from Leon Haywood for “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang”; the operatic stroll of David McCallum incorporated into “The Next Episode.” These are old songs, with grain and grit embedded even amid Dre’s finely tuned soundboard. They made many of Dre’s songs old favorites the minute they were released — he is a recombinant artist of the highest order, forever the kid lying on the floor of his mom’s house, spacing out to Roy Ayers. Compton has its moments of sampledom, but it is also more clattering, compositional, and clean than any Dre album before it. The high-toned musicianship that Elizondo enforced on 2001 is ratcheted to another level here — instead of samples, there are solos from Baltimore trumpeter Dontae Winslow; but at times, there’s a plasticity that Dre has never offered before. Don’t worry about copping the vinyl — if you’re listening with earbuds, you’ll get the gist just fine.
But if the music is often hulking and inhuman, the energy feels like a return to 1988, when Andre Young sat in a room with 19-year-old O’Shea Jackson and redefined the way young people understood their relationship to societal power. Gone is the ’90s nihilism, replaced by a kind of nostalgic urgency. Kendrick in particular is used as a pendulum, a conscience on Dre’s shoulder, reminding him of his more radical roots, while also swinging back to reflect the soul-killing moments black Americans observe every day. He ends “Genocide” by braying, “My discretion, fuck your blessing, fuck your life / Fuck your hope, fuck your mama / Fuck your daddy, fuck your dead homie / Fuck the world up when we came up, that’s Compton homie!” The song then dissolves into a sickly sweet barbershop trill of “murder” chants. There are also allusions to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, but the album turns on a bizarre killing of its own, as a woman is inexplicably killed by a man driven mad on a post-song skit appended to “Loose Cannons.” There is a virulent anguish at work here that is all too familiar, the discomfiting thrill of the old colliding with the sober truth of the now.
For Dr. Dre, who is 50 years old, there is risk in doing anything at all. His empire is secure, but his legacy never will be — it never is in hip-hop. It’s why Detox could never be, and why Compton was inevitable. The only way for Dre to go forward is to go back. To celebrate Eazy, who died 20 years ago; to reconvene with Cube and Snoop; to let Eminem run wild on the palpitating “Medicine Man”; to point at the conditions of a horrifying youth that hasn’t changed all that much in this country. Thirty years later, Compton is salvation and suffocation for Dr. Dre — a haven of creative expression and a theoretical prison. He left a long time ago, but it’ll always be home.