Review: Dr. Dre – Compton: A Soundtrack

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Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre isn’t the album we were waiting for. It’s the album we didn’t even know we wanted. Inspired during the filming for “Straight Outta Compton”, Dre walked away from Detox, an alleged forthcoming album over a decade in the making, to create what we currently have on our hands. Compton isn’t Detox, but it’s sobering in the best way possible.

Dre’s past solo work, The Chronic and 2001, are more than just landmark releases – they’re cultural touchstones that serve as definitive examples of hip hop sound for their respective eras. That Dr. Dre would release an album 16 years later that captures a disposition and dialogue that aligns so deeply with current events while simultaneously expanding on present sonic trends should come as no surprise.

You can buy Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre on iTunes.

You can buy Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre on iTunes.

It’s hard to boil Compton down to one particular theme, but it’s clear that this release appears to be Dre’s own personal retrospective on over two decades of west coast hip hop and its cultural impact on a city and the country as a whole. That’s a lot of weight for one release to carry, but Dr. Dre’s shoulders bear the burden alongside friends, both new and old. This isn’t unexpected – Compton’s voice is and has been a collective and collaborative one ever since N.W.A. took the scene all those years ago.

This time around, it’s hard to ignore the painful situational similarities. The L.A. Riots feel not as a distant historical event, but rather as an aching reminder of how little has changed and how much racism continues to plague our country. There is frustration and despair present on Compton to be sure, but there’s also hope.

To listen to Compton is to transition back and forth between time periods, both thematically and sonically, sometimes getting lost along the way. This creates for wonderful moments when verses from the old guard sound remarkably current and urgent. Listen to the way the tempo changes on “Loose Cannons” when Xzibit takes the stage or the throwback beat on “Issues” that makes room for Ice Cube to drop the line, “Today was a good day”.

As with every Dre release, though, blossoming voices get plenty of space to speak, and Compton is no exception. Unsurprisingly, Kendrick Lamar takes every opportunity to flex his muscles, defiantly spitting, “Still I got enemies giving me energy, I don’t wanna fight now / Subliminally sent to me all of this hate, I thought I was holding the mic down” on “Darkside/Gone”. Other up and comers like King Mez and Jon Conner get their chance to shine as well.

Dre spills some guitar riffs across his canvas on “One Shot One Kill”, providing a grimy beat for a confident Connor to spit, “I told my city, ‘Hold me down,’ now look how high they hold me up”. The track is a perfect backdrop and you can feel Dre’s ability to capture an emotion in the music. Just like “One Shot One Kill”, all of Compton is layered with an intentional feel for not only the individual rappers who appear on the track, but the message we take away.

“Deep Water” and its aquatic vibe is a perfect example. Here, the menacing beat offers Lamar an opportunity wrestle with his past and present experiences with his home city in a moment that feels like a spiritual extension of good kid, m.A.A.d city. “I’m a C-O-M-P-T-O-innovator, energizer / Inner-city bullet fly til that bitch on auto pilot” he spits before lamenting, “This is life in my aquarium”. As the track ends with a drowning Lamar gasping for help over the sounds of delicately placed horns and a clanging buoy, the imagery is excruciating.

When Compton isn’t meditating on the past turned present struggles of the city itself and the divide between a projected and actual reality, it’s reflecting on the musical movement it spawned. Both Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg contemplate on the genre they spearheaded and sneer at the fraudulent fallout on “Satisfiction”. And what would a Dre experience be without longtime sidekick Eminem losing his mind for 32 bars? Em spends his time on “Medicine Man” reflecting on his own journey alongside the Doctor, while predicting his eternal persistence as he fires, “And I hope my spirit haunts the studios when I’m gone / My picture jumps off a poster and just floats through the halls / And fucking goes through the walls like the ghost of Lou Rawls”.

In perfect fashion, Dre is able to tie the entire ruminating whirlwind together with “My Diary”. The closing track speaks deeply of Dre’s appreciation of his roots and his fond memories of friends in the lab when it all started. “I remember when I got started my intention was to win / But a lot of shit changed since then / Some more friends became enemies in the quest of victory / But I made a vow, never let this shit get to me / I let it pass, so I consider that part of my history…And don’t forget that I came from the ghetto”.

In just over an hour of runtime, it’s easy to forget about Detox. That album may surface one day, but it’s hard to imagine it having the same cultural weight that Compton brings to the table in 2015. It’s a record littered with violence – something that in the late 80s was a jolt from the comfortable confines of suburban safety for many. Now that violence bangs like a gong, resounding in the eardrums of indifference to racial hate and the brutality and death that ripple out of it.

For over two decades, Dr. Dre has been at the forefront of a movement that offered a glimpse into a reality that feels so foreign for so many, juxtaposing his storytelling against a backdrop of timeless music and sound. If Compton is the closing chapter for Dre as a solo artist, it’s an appropriate ending. Time will tell if the album earns the same cache as his past work and stands the test of time, but right now, it feels like a dose of the right kind of medicine.

4.5/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

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