Compton, Dr. Dre’s third official album, arrived on telephones coast-to-coast last week. Presented on a platter through Apple Music, the company Dre says made him hip-hop’s first billionaire, it’s a shockingly strong album, a confident statement that upends expectations of a 50-year-old who’s spent more time over the past decade in board rooms and bulking up than releasing music. Inspired, Dre says, by Straight Outta Compton, the film celebrating the story of Dre and N.W.A, Compton is—like many Los Angeles hip-hop records these days by young and old alike—steeped in the city’s long history with hip-hop. It’s busier than his earlier, more stripped-down records, and built upon the sound of a contemporary, more bohemian Los Angeles music scene. But the album is nonetheless a true Dr. Dre release, from the chip on its shoulder to the occasional shock-misogyny to his incomparable pop instincts, a lineage that has placed him at the center of American song. Even if this album doesn’t make it to that center—after all, times have changed—Compton is proof that this unifying sensibility remains at the center of his art.
When The Chronic hit like a shockwave at the end of 1992, its sound defined a generation of rap stars and fans, a wave impossible to underestimate. It recreated California from top to bottom in the popular imagination, propelled a new generation of multi-platinum stars, and its impact across the country was, even in hip-hop, unprecedented in its influence. It reconciled, definitively, the question of blowing up or going pop: no compromise was required. Pop wasn’t a mystery genre opposed to hip-hop’s aspirations; it was a method, a strategy, a toolkit to achieve them. Dre marshaled the talents of others—Daz, Snoop, RBX—and fit them to a sound that made everything else in hip-hop sound nervous, agitated. This was confidence. This meant gestures visible all the way to the back of the auditorium; to the outer ring exurbs and back again.
2001 arrived in 1999 at the center of hip-hop’s commercial peak: Three years after ’Pac, two years removed from Bad Boy’s world-conquering No. 1 records, and three years before 50 Cent duplicated Snoop Dogg’s success, the album again created a blueprint, this time for a commercially mature genre celebrating its arrival at the apex of American pop culture. He was again accompanied by a rookie superstar and a fleet of producers, instrumentalists, writers, and ghostwriters to enact his vision, to populate a reinvented version of California. This time, the videos were crisp, the low riders were polished, and the music was too. Dre’s music was made to reach everywhere, and now the packaging matched his musical ambition.
Years of anticipation for 2001’s announced sequel, Detox, had already given way to years of joking references when Compton was finally released. Detox was delayed and pushed back to the point of absurdity, with tepid records like 2010’s “Kush” and 2011’s “I Need a Doctor” promising a static, compromised vision: These were the records of someone working scared, roping in proven chorus mavens Akon and Skylar Grey to boost waning inspiration and a dated archetype. There are only so many ways to reinvent that wheel.
Compton feels liberated from past Dre iterations due to a sidestep. With the substantial contributions of producer/rapper/singer/drummer Anderson .Paak and rapping (and likely ghostwriting) from Kendrick Lamar, this is a new sound. In some ways, it’s much more aggressive, denser, closer in some ways to the wall-of-sound sonics of the Bomb Squad or the kitchen sink-energy of Prince Paul than Dre’s historically sparse sound design. Much like earlier Dre records, it’s mastered with a brashness that has considerable presence, demands attention. Only this time, the mix is also filled to the brim, takes up space—instruments and sound effects, sudden transitions, drop-outs, punch-ins, its sense of momentum unrelenting.
The album’s opening run is its most gripping, with the marching band horns and martial snare rolls of “Talk About It” giving way to the vivid sound design and belligerent menace of “Genocide”—imagine Floetry’s Marsha Ambrosius covering Mac’s “Murda, Murda, Kill, Kill”—before shifting into a Marvin Gaye-like mid-tempo funk feature for BJ the Chicago Kid. Dre has always worked with a panoply of guests, some of whom would never be heard from again, and others who would define their era; rappers like King Mez feel like the 2015 Hittman, where deferential lyrical classicists have replaced pugnacious gangsters as the malleable roleplayers of the era.
In its midsection, Dre moves away slightly from the historically-minded indie L.A. scene. The album takes on a muscular tinge, with the overdriven guitars and energy drink bombast of “Issues” and “One Shot One Kill.” Perhaps Dre conceives of these bellicose records as a weightlifting soundtrack; either way, they are redeemed, in part, by pulling away from tastefulness that might otherwise operate like a drag on a latter-day Dre LP.
Vocally, Dre has become a chameleon, reflecting the tendencies of the writers who’ve come to his aid. Those who enjoyed the stolid Dre of late-period cuts like Snoop Dogg’s “Imagine” (which featured a similarly hermit-esque D’Angelo!) won’t find much like that here. Yet even as his voice has gone ragged, its baritone slightly disintegrated, he is still a presence, even if there’s been some fading around the edges. It’s not always easy to tell who’s rapping. There’s a lot of growling throughout, from both vets and newcomers, who often seem to have taken their cues from Kendrick on “The Blacker the Berry.” Unlike previous Dre efforts, his voice is a manic, aggressive construct, abandoning taut control for a feeling of release, an energy loosed upon the world.
The Dre who slapped Dee Barnes (at the very least) is here almost as a trolling presence. After the vets Xzibit and Cold187Um (of Above the Law) growl and snarl over “Loose Cannons,” a woman is dispatched in a skit reminiscent of Em and Dre’s “Guilty Conscience” video, but without that song’s sense of humor. It feels less like shocking art than requisite branding. In “All in a Day’s Work,” there’s an extended passage lamenting the morals of women on reality show and Eminem appears for a typically agitated late-period verse that ends with a pointed rape punchline, just to show he can, one surmises. It’s not as much actionable as it is wearying and boring, less apt to inspire defenses of free speech than eye-rolling and discomfort.
That said, Compton’s lyrics, relative to previous efforts, have a bit of an agit-prop edge. There’s a consciousness of consequences, as on .Paak’s hook for “Animals”: “The only time they want to turn the cameras on, is when we fuckin’ shit up.” No doubt Dre has benefited from this dynamic in the past—after all, a mask shaped by violence is as essential to his m.o. as the color blue was to Picasso—but for the first time there’s a degree of self-conscious second-guessing. What are those teens from the exurbs who Dre reached so effortlessly taking from the music? But it’s done carefully, subversively, without breaking gangster rap’s third wall.
In many ways, Compton is a child of To Pimp a Butterfly, if only Kendrick had the same sense of urgency when reaching to the bleachers. Where Lamar’s work has never wrestled much with populism’s tools—he’s not quite as grudging about it as J. Cole, but treats them as a strategic necessity rather than a pillar of his art—Dre is defined by his sense for music’s ability to create a vast common ground, where one can’t help but join him. And so the textures of current-day Los Angeles, the textures of proudly marginal artists descended from Madlib and J Dilla, are tightened, made more economical, punchier, more concise: choruses that risk being cheesy (but you love anyway), formal song structures, self-evident emotions, direct lyrics. Rather than pushing outward arbitrarily, it plays carefully, purposefully, with pop predictability and the unexpected. So the DJ Muggs-esque Game feature “Just Another Day,” wedded to a beat that meshes wobbling Madlib sonics with a Girbaud-sagging gangster breakbeat—real underground shit—still feels widescreen, brought to the foreground by singer Asia Bryant’s closing chorus.
These pop instincts are brought to bear on an underground sound, and on a smaller stage than Dre has ever landed previously. How small is it, exactly? Apple Music is where Dre has moved all his chips. It’s unsurprising that this album came out on a platform that yearns to be the new center, to recreate the feel of monoculture at a time when algorithms have pushed everyone toward isolated personal playlists. Ironically, it may have been his best move. Dre over Mustard beats would be a diminishment; Dre revisiting his past sounds like a surrender. Compton is his third-best album, but that’s hardly an insult. His skills have always been about immediacy, the grandiose, a sixth sense for the universal. On Compton, that’s still intact.