Let nobody accuse Dr Dre of not having an eye for a marketing opportunity. For 16 years, the rap mogul has largely conducted his affairs off-mic, building beats for Kendrick Lamar and protégé Eminem, refining his high-end headphones brand Beats By Dre, and all the while teasing a couple of follow-ups to 1999’s still-got-it gangsta epic ‘2001’. Those albums – the long-promised ‘Detox’ and an instrumental album, ‘The Planets’ – have failed to materialise, but in 2015, there is more important work to attend to. Following a $3 billion handshake, Beats is now part of the Apple Music empire, with Dre along for the ride. Then there’s Straight Outta Compton, a Hollywood telling of the story of Dre’s ’80s gangsta group NWA with the good Dr and former bandmate Ice Cube in the producer’s chair. That ‘Compton’ appears now, you sense, isn’t so much down to an artistic epiphany as a way of triangulating business interests and getting cash registers ringing.
But there’s the question of a legacy, too. The 50-year-old says ‘Compton’ is his swansong, and you certainly get the sense of a tale concluding. A long cinematic pan across Los Angeles, the city that spawned him, it’s about as reflective as a record can sound when its maker appears to consider himself infallible. Opener ‘Talk About It’ finds Dre retelling his story, from hood hustler to company CEO – his first line, following a deft verse from new protégé King Mez, is a boomed “I just bought California!” – while giving the first indication of how his slinky G-funk productions have opened up to acknowledge newer rap styles such as drill and trap. Early stand-out ‘It’s All On Me’ draws on satin-smooth soul to reminisce upon his youth, from recording beats to a four-track to beatings from police billy-clubs. The wistful ‘Darkside/Gone’ – which features fellow Comptonite Kendrick Lamar – even finds Dre dropping a sample of Eazy E’s voice to give the impression his late NWA bandmate is looking down on him from heaven. (That Eazy made it through the pearly gates might surprise some, but amidst all this gritty reality, the odd swerve into fantasy is quite appealing).
‘Compton’ is guest-packed, a wise choice for several reasons. For one, Dre is not hip-hop’s greatest wordsmith – famously, he’s employed ghostwriters to pen rhymes, and his skill on the mic remains gruffly able, rather than flamboyant or particularly rich in craft. But the line-up, mixing A-listers (Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, The Game, Snoop Dogg) with talented newcomers (such as the aforementioned Mez, or R&B singer Anderson .Paak, who appears on six of these 16 tracks) means Dre looks like a man with an enviable phone book, but still with his ear to the streets.
If we’re considering legacy, though, ‘Compton’ reminds you of the unwelcome aspects NWA brought to the game. Tracks like ‘Fuck Tha Police’ were phrased as a response to racist police brutality, but Dre’s music has seldom tried to struggle towards any moral high ground; broadly, the message is succeed, and fuck all y’all. Such coldness prevails. On ‘Loose Cannons’, a woman pleads for her life before being shot dead and buried in a shallow grave by the rapper Cold 187um; nastier things have happened in the history of hip-hop lyricism, but something about the absence of context, the flatness of delivery, makes this feel particularly depressing. Likewise, Eminem’s cameo on ‘Medicine Man’ is technically superb, but the content – “I even make the bitches I rape come”, and so on – somehow comes over both hateful and boring. In this regard at least, Dre won’t be missed. But it’s hard to deny ‘Compton’ is brilliantly constructed, a masterclass in 21st century hip-hop. He won’t be forgotten, either.