Dr. Dre has enjoyed one of the most remarkable careers in hip-hop history. In music’s most youth-dominant genre, not only has he managed to roll with the changing times, he has ranked among the most powerful forces steering the direction of the rap industry for a solid two decades. Which makes it a little disappointing—if not totally surprising—that after 30 years in the business, he finally made an old-timer’s album.
Compton, Dre’s long-awaited follow-up to 1999’s cultural juggernaut 2001, is not very good. It’s rarely flat-out bad, and a few moments and performances do stand out, but as a body of work—one with the heretofore immaculate Dr. Dre stamp of approval, at that—it doesn’t amount to anything more than a collection of fancy new sounds in the service of some musty old ideas.
Actually, the most worrying thing about Compton is how little it sounds like a Dre record at all. As a producer, he’s widely considered the godfather of both West Coast gangsta rap and the G-funk sound that soon followed; as a rapper, his husky, laconic voice rode over the wavering synths of his beats, and gave him an unmistakable identity even if someone else wrote the words.
In fact, it used to hardly matter who wrote them. Famously, Snoop Dogg and the D.O.C. were the primary lyrical architects on his solo debut, 1992’s still-massive The Chronic; by the time 2001 came about, though, they’d given way to Hittman, Mel-Man, and Eminem. His production teams tended to have an even higher turnover rate, resulting in a Warholian factory of beatmakers all under the careful guidance of the man in charge. But at some point in his transition from primary composer of sounds to the master evaluator, tinkerer, and mixer of the work presented to him by others, the quality of “Dr. Dre’s” output hinged entirely on the quality of his associates. When he was overseeing the compositions of Daz Dillinger and Scott Storch and Mel-Man and Mike Elizondo while reciting lyrics from Snoop and Eminem and Jay Z, the result was 2001. When you stick him with producers like Focus and Cardiak and rhymers like Jon Connor and Justus, you get the muddled, unspectacular Compton.
But the deterioration of his own voice—his actual, physical voice—might be the worst part. It’s often hard to even tell Dre’s own rhymes from those of his bloated and anonymous supporting cast here: These days, it more closely resembles a reed-thin Scarface or WC impression than the iconic bass of yesteryear. It’s unclear whether this is a DMC-esque physical erosion, or if his current writers failed to provide cadences and flows that complemented his natural resonance. At any rate, it’s jarring to listen to the umpteenth lukewarm Compton verse while trying to decide whether this rapper is a newly introduced guest or the man himself. Dr. Dre just doesn’t sound like Dr. Dre on this.
Which in turn only exacerbates the lyrical problems here. Even when blessed with bars from many of the greatest rappers of all time—from Eminem’s frantic, verbose outbursts to Snoop’s simple, clear, melodic earworms—Dr. Dre solo albums have never been about much more than having fun, bucking back at the haters, and reasserting his preeminence. Compton takes a different tack. As is typical of aging rappers long removed from the poverty and struggle that both gave them intensity and grounded them in reality, Dre’s lyrics here set aside his real experiences for an assortment of lofty, awkward concepts. Just look at some of these song titles: “Genocide,” “Issues,” “Satisfiction,” “Talking to My Diary.” Bitter rapping about the illusory nature of rap-borne luxury and success isn’t what we’ve come to expect from a Dr. Dre song; what we want is to hear the guy talking some dope shit over a dope beat with that dope voice of his. This ain’t that.
And so, on “Medicine Man,” the 50-year-old shakes his cane at the new hip-hoppers with their cups of lean and tight pants, while also tut-tutting society at large for allowing the young and the old alike to avoid acting their age. He continues yelling at the people on his lawn on “All in a Day’s Work”:
And some of these housewives way too fucking desperate
These bitches thinking fame first
I can’t knock the hustle, shit, it’s all in a day’s work
But that’s that shit with potential to make the game worse
Shit, it’s just something about that Hollywood curse
They just thirsty
This is Dr. Dre? “Let Me Ride” Dre? “Keep Their Heads Ringin” Dre? “Still D.R.E.” Dre? Decrying modern fashion and reality TV? Seeing as most of this album’s lyricists are twentysomethings, you have to figure Dre briefed them on the topics he wanted to touch on; they would’ve done well to ignore him. But then again, he maybe should’ve ignored his own guest-rappers, too. Jon Connor and Justus and King Mez are all technically proficient, but none have the individual personality or style necessary to stand out even when they’re delivering their own rhymes. Mez sounds like former Justus League affiliate Chaundon, Justus at times sounds like he’s channeling Drake, Marsha Ambrosius has clearly been listening to a lot of Georgia Anne Muldrow lately, and basically every other verse exhibits a plain case of Kendrick Lamar envy.
Kendrick’s figure looms large on Compton, and not just because he makes three appearances in the flesh. He’s the closest thing Dre has found to a successor to Snoop and Eminem: a legitimate star among both core rap fans and people who actually buy rap albums (two groups who have less and less to do with each other these days). On all three of his songs here, I find myself spacing out until the exact moment his voice comes in: On “Darkside/Gone,” right when he says, “You look at my lifestyle,” my mind immediately snaps back to attention, the richness and expressiveness of his cadence demanding to be reckoned with. Nobody else here has that effect on you. Not even Dre himself.
As for the music, everything sounds polished and immaculately layered in the manner of all late-period Dre product, but with too few hints of the classic Dre sound. If anything, most of these songs sound like wan attempts at neo soul, or like something off a less heralded Roots album. His focus seems to be live instrumentation these days: See the guitar and keys on “It’s All on Me,” the full brass section on “Loose Cannons,” or the trumpet solo that finishes off the album-closing “Talking to My Diary.” That focus worked on an album like 2001, when Dre used live instruments to flesh out the skeletons of what remained largely G-Funk-inspired tracks. But the incongruous strings and trumpets here just further the impression that what you’re hearing isn’t Dr. Dre, or at least not the Dr. Dre you want.
Compton does have a couple high points, though it’s likely no coincidence that those songs clearly call back to a bygone era. The best song here is “For the Love of Money”: The beat and hook are so infectious (as is Jon Connor’s call-and-response-ready opening verse) that you can’t help but want to turn it all the way up. Of course, the song’s appeal is obvious: It’s basically a cover of 1995’s Eazy-E-assisted Bone Thugs-N-Harmony song “Foe tha Love of $.” The other track that stands out is “Animals.” The oddly monikered Anderson .Paak—Compton’s most unique voice and probably the record’s biggest beneficiary, in that he sounds more at home on these sorts of R&B/rap hybrids than Dre and the rest of his colleagues—is the star on this one, singing meaningfully about America’s disinterest in urban plight and echoing Ice Cube’s lamentations in Boyz n the Hood:
And please don’t come around these parts
And tell me that we all a bunch of animals
The only time they wanna turn the cameras on
Is when we’re fuckin’ shit up, come on
The other notable thing about “Animals” is the production: Dre handed the reins over to fellow rap legend DJ Premier. Primo—one of Dre’s closest East Coast analogues—never had the same level of crossover success, but his influence on the culture has been similarly profound. Here, he sticks to a simple two-bar loop most likely lifted from some old jazz or soul record barely anyone has ever heard, or heard of: It’s the same formula he perfected in the early ’90s, and the result is a beat that’s unmistakably DJ Premier in terms of both sound and dopeness. It’s too bad Dre couldn’t find a way to funnel whatever new tricks of the trade he’s picking up these days into the tried-and-tested style that made him a legend; instead, on most of Compton, he seems trapped between two spheres, trying something new in an old world he wishes had never changed.
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