Why Hip-Hop Hasn't Forgot About Dre

From 'The Chronic' to 'Compton,' this is how the Good Doctor has remained relevant over all these years.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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With Compton, Dr. Dre has done something that no hip-hop artist has ever done: He released an album at the age of 50 that we care about.

The we that cares is a collective we. It includes not only the American mainstream that enjoys post-prime records from one-time superstars like Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2 and would’ve lapped a Dr. Dre album regardless of content, but also it more importantly includes actual hip-hop fans who would’ve torn Compton to pieces if it sounded more like a rushed project meant to promote a movie rather than an appropriately amazing Dr. Dre album.

Father time has bested one hip-hop artist after another. One by one, the aging greats have either left the genre behind for greener and more unchallenging pastures, become parodies of themselves, or produced less exciting material and watched their relevancy slip away.

But not Dr. Dre.

Dre has avoided the fall off by creating an album that is simultaneously reminiscent of everything that made his past work so excellent and shares an excitingly current relationship to today’s sound du jour.

In large part, Dre has defied age in a way few if any in hip-hop have because his career resembles no one else’s. He’s one of rap’s biggest figures, both in terms of critical contributions and his name, but he’s lived the majority of his 30 years of rap life in the shadows.

He took seven years between The Chronic and 2001 and nearly 16 between 2001 and Compton. During those periods Dre worked both for himself and other artists, filling his time with sessions that, as he once told the L.A. Times, continue “until it happens.” His measured approach in the studio has always been a part of his legacy, and back in ’97, he claimed that that perfectionist’s attitude, which sometimes manifested in dimly lit studio sessions that could last up to 79 hours, was the reason for his longevity in rap.

Since N.W.A catapulted him to fame and The Chronic entrenched his presence, Dre has been a behind-the-boards genius living and thriving behind the scenes. All those hours spent in studios soon drew him away from the public eye. When he’s emerged to make his grandest statements they have shifted the game accordingly, but those moments have been relatively few and far between.

A producer by nature and a rapper by necessity, Dre is most comfortable out of the spotlight. In shirking it Dre has mostly dodged the scrutiny of the personal and professional imperfections that come with years under its illuminating glare.

There’s no doubt this time out of the light has helped elongate his career. However, his longevity is mostly due to his unimpeachable musical resume.

His creative output has done as much in changing the sonic and emotional tone of hip-hop as anyone’s. He “started this gangster shit” with N.W.A’s historically important anger and defiance, redefined how gangster rap and hip-hop could sound with The Chronic’s g-funk, and laughed “at the haters who say Dre fell off” with hit after hit on 2001.

Outside of his own projects, Dre is rap’s ultimate kingmaker. He not only introduced the world to Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, Game, Kendrick Lamar, and others but provided them with the sound that defined their earliest and biggest successes. Each of those artists has passed through Aftermath’s hallowed halls, a label that, under Dre, has had 16 of its 22 releases go platinum.

Finally, for better or worse, Dre has stood at the forefront of hip-hop’s mass commodification. “There are very few people that have the kind of credibility that Dre has with music fans,” said Noel Lee, founder of Monster Cable Products Inc., in an L.A. Times story in 2010. Dre has effectively wielded this influence to make Beats headphones a trusted product, with Beats having done for him what Nike did for Jordan. He is also now the musical face of one of the world’s biggest companies in Apple. As much as money can be used as a faulty signifier of worth, there is something to being rap’s first billionaire.

Dre is basically rap game Forrest Gump, a truly special journeyman who in one way or another has made his presence felt at history’s biggest moments. He just has a knack for being a part of the big things.

The latest and, according to Dre, final addition to that resume is Compton. It’s a seamless and cinematic concept album featuring a behemoth reflecting on what made him that. As with his whole career, what shines brightest on Compton is how the album sounds. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica put it best, saying, “it’s ornate and grand-scaled, and somehow also deft,” a true reflection of its creator.

Dre is basically rap game Forrest Gump, a truly special journeyman who in one way or another has made his presence felt at history’s biggest moments.

No part can be separated from or overshadow the whole, which makes listening to the album an experience. Songs evolve within themselves and then ultimately bleed powerfully into one another, like when the ending high hats in “All in a Day’s Work” reemerge in “Darkside/Gone” and hold you in a trance. Throughout the album the audio bounces from speaker to speaker, making even the shittiest Apple ear buds capable of a captivating and immersive surround-sound experience. Though Compton’s spectacular cohesion can lead to lulls, the album has enough triumphant moments that rise above the rest.

Lyrically, the album is not quite as excellent. Kendrick Lamar’s herculean effort (both in his own verses and his obvious contributions to Dre’s) takes top billing alongside impressive contributions from newcomers like King Mez and vintage verses from legends like Snoop and Xzibit. But, since when have we needed lyrics to be the focus of Dre’s work?

Between Compton and Straight Outta Compton, the film about the formative years of his superstardom spent with N.W.A, Dre is in the midst of an expansively self-reflective moment. As creatively excellent as these two looks back might be, the way this public rehashing of his whole career ignores his history of violence towards women is problematic. In the wake of all the press surrounding Dre, his brutal beatings of three women—rapper Tairrie B, TV personality Dee Barnes, and onetime girlfriend Michel’le—are getting warranted attention. The neglect to acknowledge the glaring personal faults of his past and to show some maturation is one of this album’s most important flaws.

In a time that is sure to be among the most celebratory of Dre’s career, the same we that will be enjoying Compton must be sure not to let the problematic aspects of his history be swept under the rug. Although both must be acknowledged, neither his personal faults or creative genius should be absent from or totally dominate his overall narrative.  

Will Compton become as era-defining as The Chronic? No. Will it spawn as many hits as 2001? Not a chance. But, by (supposedly) finishing his musical career with an album that is just as creatively daring and excellent as his past work, Compton makes as important a personal statement as either project. Like Jordan in 1998 he’s going out with a capstone moment, leaving his follow through in the air and the Detox trolls stumbling around confused like Byron Russell.

At the age of 50, Dre will likely now return to exerting his influence away from hip-hop and the mainstream media’s spotlight, his most recent emergence having entrenched his place as one of hip-hop’s most definitive figures.

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