Dr. Dre has created the greatest neo soul album in years. Rather than attempting to imitate current rap trends or update G-Funk, Compton – A Soundtrack By Dr. Dre finds Andre reminiscing about his childhood and the subsequent struggles of trying to make it in the music game with nothing to his name but some big ideas. Joined by a varied cast of singers and rappers, Dre’s rhymes don’t offer much beyond constantly reminding us of his rags to riches story and throwing a middle finger up to any doubters. But he’s never been noteworthy as a vocalist, dating back to when he stood in for Ice Cube on the second N.W.A. album. The real narrative here is in the music, which delivers a lush cinematic feel, capable of switching from menacing to celebratory in a heartbeat.
Where the beat is sometimes relegated to simply supplying the backdrop to lyrics in hip-hop, the reverse is true here, with the rhymes often becoming superfluous to the instrumentals and the hooks, which is where the real story is told. This is the final evolution of Dre as a producer in the traditional R&B sense, where he’s orchestrated disparate elements into a greater whole far beyond the confines of the standard rap producer compilation. Hip-hop has always been about drawing in and combining a diverse group of ingredients in a unique way and, as such, Compton collects a lifetime of musical influences into one incredibly slick package that avoids sounding over-calculated or cynical.
Many of the old pals that drop by to contribute don’t add much to the proceedings other than adding the expected star power in much the same way that the final episode of Late Night With David Letterman did, lending a certain ‘retirement party’ feel to proceedings at times. Jon Connor, Kendrick Lamar, and Eminem offer spirited dedications to the man of the hour, while appearances from Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and The Game are simply serviceable. Dre still has a massive chip on his shoulder, and many of his verses seem to labor the same couple of points, but that’s been his formula since day dot. A few tracks would have been stronger without Andre’s vocals, but since this is his grand finale, it seems a little mean-spirited to deny him the chance to gloat. Of course, it wouldn’t be an authentic Dr. Dre project without random violence against women, so naturally some unfortunate female gets shot in the face and buried in one of the skits. Stay classy, Andre!
Like all good LA rap, this is designed to be car music, so all that really matters is how does it bang in the whip? The mix of tight drum programming, deep bass, and restrained live instrumentation ensures that you’ll have no complaints in the ‘Music To Drive-By’ department, while both engineering and mixing are flawless as usual. The real victory here is how Dre has made soul sound tough again, rather than being the exclusive dominion of hippy stoners and heartbroken lotharios. The singing on Compton often outshines the rapping, with Anderson .Paak and Marsha Ambrosius being the clear stand-outs. Dr. Dre’s proficiency as a modern R&B producer is the most welcome surprise that Compton holds. Here’s hoping that he focusses his talents on working with more soul singers now that he’s got this last bout of rapping out of his system.
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