Like those huge ‘COMPTON’ letters towering ominously over the LA skyline on the sleeve, Dr. Dre’s new album – his first full-length effort for 16 years – looks set to overshadow all other things rap-related for the rest of the summer.
Replacing ‘Detox’, the long-awaited, heavily trailed and ultimately aborted follow-up to Dre’s previous work ‘2001’, ‘Compton’ is modeled as a soundtrack inspired by the new N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton, out this month.
So from the scene-setting intro to the reflective closer ‘Talking To My Diary’, the 16-track set serves partly as a sociological study of those storied Compton streets, and partly as a homage to the gangsta rap subgenre they created – all set to huge, epic sounds that boom out with all the large-scale bombast of a Jerry Bruckheimer production.
But despite the sizeable array of assembled guests, from Dre’s inner rap circle (Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Xzibit, The Game) and old school Compton pals (Ice Cube, Cold 187um, and – posthumously -Eazy-E) to newer charges (Jon Connor, BJ The Chicago Kid, Anderson Paak, King Mez, Asia Bryant), the album never really loses its broader focus.
We find Dre in full N.W.A reminisce mode on ‘It’s All On Me’ – backed by a luxurious old school soul groove – and recalling his own formative years on the semi-autobiographical ‘Animals’, which reliably thumps with producer DJ Premier’s signature boom-bap: “Still trying to figure out why the fuck I’m fulla rage/I think I noticed this bullshit right around the 5th grade/Paraphernalia in my locker, right next to the switchblade… I’m a product of the system, raised on government aid/Just a young black man from Compton, wondering who can save us/And could barely read the sentences the justice system gave us…”
The realities of Compton street life are further explored by the supporting cast: The Game dodges cops and rival gangs on the way to the liquor store on ‘Just Another Day’, while Kendrick Lamar - in superb form here - brings things full circle on ‘Genocide’ with what ultimately serves as a fine précis of N.W.A’s lasting legacy: “Fucked the world up when we came up, this is Compton, homie”.
The appearance of Cold 187um, from N.W.A affiliates Above The Law (who dropped the all-time classic ‘Livin’ Like Hustlers’ LP – overseen by Dre - on Eazy-E’s Ruthless label in 1990), is a neat touch. But it also draws attention to the surprising absence of MC Ren (core N.W.A member who assumed the group’s chief rhyme-writer role after Ice Cube left in ’89) whose presence may have bolstered proceedings further. Still, that’s a minor grumble - the other main one being a pointless burying-the-body skit at the end of ‘Loose Cannons’ - against an otherwise fine set.
Dr. Dre’s 1992 debut, ‘The Chronic’, completely rebooted west coast gangsta rap for the ‘90s, setting those deadly Compton turf wars to a new cleaner, breezier G-Funk sound built upon gleaming synths and sizeable chunks of old Parliament-Funkadelic records – making Snoop Dogg a star in the process. Later, in 1999, Dre would help prime the genre for its unstoppable mainstream charge into the 2000s with ‘2001’ (anchored by ‘Still D.R.E.’, ‘The Next Episode’, ‘Forgot About Dre’ and the rest) and in some ways mastermind the careers of Eminem and, later on, 50 Cent.
Predicting ‘Compton’’s lasting impact is an altogether trickier task, as it surfaces at a time when hip-hop is an increasingly disparate genre, with different sounds developing within different cities, all pulling in vastly different directions. ‘Compton’ may be less state-of-the-art than other rap albums in 2015. It may spend a lot of its time reflecting on the past. But as an argument for that now famous district in South Los Angeles and its continued importance and centrality to hip-hop, it’s forceful and convincing, and one that ensures those Hollywood-style ‘COMPTON’ letters will continue to loom large - not just over L.A., but over this genre as a whole.
Words: Hugh Leask
- - -
- - -