Dr. Dre’s announcement that he’s dropping Compton: The Soundtrack has this Scholar very excited. It’s his first album in 16 years and he’s calling it his “grand finale,” noteworthy word choice given the 1989 N.W.A. & D.O.C. collaboration of the same name (“The Grand Finale”). Since his work with The World’s Most Dangerous Group, through his Death Row and Aftermath Records days, I’ve always been particularly drawn to Dr. Dre as a producer first, but equally as an artist.
Dre’s raps have always been solid, but along with his top-tier production it’s his penchant for putting together a strong cast of supporting emcees and bringing the best out of them that’s his true genius. The aforementioned “Grand Finale” is a good early example of just that, with Ice Cube, Eazy E, MC Ren, and the D.O.C. blessing the mic while Dr. Dre and DJ Yella lay the beats, hype the track, and handle the deejaying. Both The Chronic and Chronic 2001 albums were prime examples as well, with Snoop Dogg and Eminem respectively headlining a strong team of emcees including both Daz and Kurupt of Tha Dogg Pound, The Lady of Rage, Xzibit, Hitman, and a few others. With both that and Dre’s release of the track listing for the new record in mind, here are 4 things I’m checking for as the August 7th release date nears.
1) Dre’s Production – Dr. Dre is my favorite producer, plain and simple. I know I’m not alone when I say that. He’s a legend. His work with N.W.A. helped popularize the sub-genre of Hip Hop known as Gangsta/Reality Rap. His trademark G-Funk sound paved the way for Death Row to become one of the most successful and iconic Rap labels in its history and defined an entire coast. After launching Aftermath, his production evolved, still rooted in G-Funk, but bassier, heavier, and with more knock. Less worm whistle chill, more horn/synth hype, but equally fantastic and game changing. Since 2001, we’ve heard the good Doctor’s work on albums from Hip Hop heavyweights Eminem, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and The Game as well as other scattered offerings throughout the years. It’s always solid and sometimes stellar. I personally feel that he hasn’t evolved a ton from his early 2000’s Aftermath sound, and he may not need to. I love the vast majority of what I hear and I’m sure he’s not going to shortchange us from a production standpoint given it’s been a while since he’s put anything meaningful out. But I wonder if he’s got yet another industry changing seismic sound shift left in him. I’m not sure that he does, but I hope I’m wrong.
2) Blend of Young & Vet – Studying the track listing on the Compton: The Soundtrack reveals an interesting and potentially exciting mix of younger artists such as King Mez, Justus, and Asia Bryant with veterans such as BJ The Chicago Kid & COLD 187um. Given Dre’s penchant for bringing the best out of his experienced collaborators as well as developing young talent, this blend of new and seasoned can turn out really well. It could also flop. As Dre states in the clip above, the album came together in a few months, extremely quick by his perfectionist standards.
Though he was very active in the game while he transitioned from Death Row to Aftermath Records through the 90s, it did take him almost a decade between 1992’s The Chronic and late 1999’s Chronic 2001. Since then we’ve been waiting on Detox, a project Dre says is now scrapped because he just wasn’t happy with it, despite how hard and how much time he admittedly spent on it. As a fan this sucks, given that an average Dre beat is better than 90% of anything else you’ll hear. He’s that good and that much of a perfectionist, so I respect his decision to shelve Detox. But it’s disappointing that he’d give up on something he put a lot into. It also worries me a bit.
I worry that the Compton project might be rushed. It’s possible it took moving on from Detox for Dre to finally get over the creative hump. If that’s the case, then Compton should be a gem, if not an outright game changer. If he simply felt compelled to put something out in conjunction with the upcoming film, Straight Outta Compton, it might be a letdown.
Admittedly I’m a bit fanboyish when saying this, but after 16 years I’ll take a letdown Dre album and I’ll probably like it more than 80% of what’s out now. But I want a gem. I want a game changer. And I worry that given Dre’s perfectionist approach, he simply didn’t allow himself enough time to most effectively manage Compton’s blend of young and old. It’s a fair concern I think, but honestly I’m betting on the good Doctor nailing it. We’ll find out soon.
3) Old Reliables – Though I worry the record is rushed, the reason I’m confident I’ll still enjoy it is because he laces track after track with some of the greatest to ever do it. Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar are sure to bring the heat. These are all Hip Hop legends in their own right who sound particularly good on Dre beats. And yes, that legends sentiment includes Kendrick Lamar despite his relative youth. Dre and Cube helped change Hip Hop with their roles in N.W.A., so there’s a natural chemistry when they work together. With Snoop, Eminem, and K Dot, Dre helped foster their talent and was directly responsible for putting them on a path towards greatness. In other words, more strong, natural chemistry. They’ve created classics before, so even a decent showing from this cast will lead a to a worthwhile project. I don’t think any of these guys would bring anything but their best for Dre’s first release in forever though. I’m betting on fire.
That said, though understandable it’s noteworthy that neither 50 Cent nor The Game made the project. Neither is any longer directly linked to Dre’s Aftermath label, even at the parent company level, so it’s a defensible omission. Still surprising however, given Dre’s similar role in launching each of their careers. It’s particularly notable in Game’s case, as he’s in fact a Compton artist who routinely reps and pays homage to N.W.A., right down to his skin art. Not that I’m overly concerned, I trust Dre’s ear, but I wonder whether 50 or Game felt some type of way…?
4) Heat Check / Popular Reception – With Dr. Dre stating that this will be his last hurrah in the Rap game, presumably as far as albums go if not altogether, I wonder if he himself has concerns about his time in music having passed him by. Or maybe that he’s contributed what he’s meant to contribute in Hip Hop / Entertainment and that he may feel it’s time for him to focus on his other vast enterprises. Dr. Dre’s stake in the Apple funded Beats brand is no secret. Additionally, at 50 years old and with several Hip Hop classics under his belt, as well as a sure eventual induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of N.W.A. (long overdue) and perhaps even as a solo artist and/or producer (is that really a stretch given his accomplishments?), musically he really doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone… including himself. Legend. Signed, sealed, and delivered.
It’s unlikely Dre fans won’t at minimum enjoy the album, but what about everyone else? What about Hip Hop’s younger, core audience? The Drake, Nicki Minaj, J Cole, Odd Future, and K Dot generation? What about crossover appeal, given that Compton: The Soundtrack does in fact double as the accompanying project to the film?
What if it doesn’t gain too much traction from the “Bad Blood” sector? Might Dr. Dre simply be at a point in his career where he doesn’t care to pander to what’s hot and therefore is putting out one more project that he believes in for his core fanbase, regardless of how it’s perceived beyond that demographic? I personally think this album has a hint of Dre being ready to walk away. He worked extremely hard on Detox, didn’t like it, scrapped it, and now all of a sudden we got Compton: The Soundtrack. This might be Dre’s, “fu*k it, here’s your album, I’m out” moment. If it is, I just hope it’s another game changer because Hip Hop could use a little shifting right now.