Can we be honest here? This is better than it has any right to be. A brief recap for those who haven’t been paying attention: Dr. Dre ended his verse on Rick Ross’ “3 Kings” with, “I only love it when her hair long / You should listen to this beat through my headphones”, and I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s an awful couplet. His verse on Kendrick Lamar’s “Compton” was perhaps good kid, m.A.A.d. city’s most forgettable; mainstream-pandering non-album singles. “Kush” and “I Need a Doctor”, both sound more dated than anything else Dre has produced (and after only five years’ of time). Sure, there have been some modest successes: his production on 50 Cent’s “New Day” was triumphant; his verses and co-produced beat (mostly riding on that indelible sample) on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Recipe” were as good as it was going to get. But it wasn’t nearly enough that you would have known that those were produced by the same Dr. Dre responsible for The Chronic and 2001.
So that Compton maintains this level of consistency is perhaps 2015’s greatest surprise so far. When was the last time Ice Cube surprised you with some lines like these” “And these niggas got hatchets and ratchets / Some of them lethals up under the mattress / And matter of fact this is a chance to show my lifestyle out to the masses”. When was the last time Snoop Dogg sounded this awake? Even Dr. Dre, the dominating persona of each of his albums albeit his underwhelming rapping, manages to impress, whether in short sprints (“Sometimes I feel like I could just bury ‘em, bury ‘em / Cause delirium, mass hysteria, scarier area” from “Genocide”; “I gave you niggas the utmost, all you niggas the utmost / Would you look over Picasso’s shoulder, and tell him about his brush strokes?” from “Deep Water”) or over the course of an entire verse.
To get specific, his verses on “Animals” and “Medicine Man”, tucked away in the album’s final stretch, are some of the best in his career. “Damn, why the fuck are they after me? Maybe cause I’m a bastard / Or maybe cause of the way my hair grow naturally” is how he begins his verse on “Animals,” while help from DJ Premier makes it the prettiest (and best) beat on the album; keyboard arpeggios land into a mini-orchestra of flutes and strings. Meanwhile, “Medicine Man” is what “I Need a Doctor” should have been; Candice Pillay’s provides a subtle hook that’s much better ear-candy than Skylar Grey’s grandiose choruses. And Dre provides a verse choke full of assonance, dropping the following words: “evaluation”, “saturated”, “evacuated”, “Actavis”, “activated”, “salivating”, “graduating”, “exaggeration”, “aggravated”, “agitated”, “Matrix”, and “greatest”; the verse sounds so good, it’ll make you do a double take.
From a purely flow perspective, you could argue that Eminem’s verse on “Medicine Man” might be more technically proficient (and to be sure, him keeping the rhyme scheme up as he launches into double-time is a fine moment, and the climax of the album) but his super-staccato delivery is histrionic and emblematic of a lot of his verses lately. Just what is he angry about? Why does he think a paint gun is threatening, especially when he just compared himself to an ‘assault rifle with the sniper scope’? Why does he keep making rape jokes? Clearly, either he’s slowly realizing they’re not funny or the label has decided for him; it’s slightly censored, even on the explicit version.
And the beats sound like what you should expect from Dr. Dre operating in 2015. That is to say, they sound expensive, they sound larger than life – and why wouldn’t they be? He’s the richest person in rap music. But that’s also to say, some of these beats feel serviceable at best; for example, the beat during the verses of “Issues” can’t keep up with the sample of Selda Bagcan’s “Ince Ince Bir Kar Yagar” (which you might know from Mos Def’s “Supermagic,” produced by Oh No) while “Just Another Day”’s horn hook is mechanical. Elsewhere, you’d be hard-pressed to explain what else happened in “Deep Water” that isn’t Kendrick Lamar’s show-stealing verse: Dre’s verses meander (especially the second one, where it feels like he’s killing time for the main event). Beats-wise, there are some highlights: the heavy funk of “One Shot One Kill”; the lullaby-ish second half of the bipartite “Darkside/Gone”, contrasting well with Kendrick’s second-best verse on the album; the cinematic string flurries and swelling guitar lines during Cold 187um’s verse of the constant beat-switching of “Loose Cannons”; the lovely horn solo that closes the album.
One of the most common criticisms I hear about Compton is that it lacks a clear-cut single, that nothing here boasts instant-classic-level status like “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang”, “Forget About Dre”, “Still D.R.E.”, or “California Love” (to name a few). Yet, that’s a dismissible criticism because singles don’t carry albums; albums carry singles. And one of the other criticisms I hear about Compton (and Dr. Dre’s discography as a whole) is that Dr. Dre’s verses often feel ghostwritten. And so what? Why does an image of authenticity matter more than the end product? Why does artifice matter more than art?