“Compton,” the new album from Dr. Dre — producer, music executive, kingmaker and co-founder of N.W.A — was released on Apple Music’s streaming service Thursday night, while on other platforms Donald Trump was entertaining the masses during the GOP presidential debate and Jon Stewart was bidding his final farewell as host of “The Daily Show.”
Dre’s “Compton,” his first album since 1999, offered a different kind of entertainment but sparked just as much buzz on social media by a devoted following that stretches from teens to fiftysomethings.
For their patience, the artist born Andre Young, now 50, has delivered what is for all intents a hip-hop concept album. It’s an often-tense musical indictment that tackles the challenges facing both his hometown and America, gazing back with equal parts nostalgia, wonder, frustration and indignation while luminous beats reinforce the arguments.
The album also displays Dre’s versatility across music, business and culture. He harnesses his ear for talent — he helped bring us Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent and others, after all — to introduce new voices, including Anderson Paak, King Mez and Justus. If history is any guide, each will get a Dre bounce. His thick Rolodex also helped summon more familiar voices, including Snoop, Kendrick Lamar, the Game and, on “Issues,” fellow N.W.A member Ice Cube.
But first, the album opens with an introduction.
“Compton was the American dream,” explains an even-toned voice, sounding like a Chamber of Commerce professional who describes homes with “a palm tree in the frontyard, the camper, the boat.”
“Temptingly close to the Los Angeles ghetto in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it became ‘the Black American Dream,’” says the narrator, who then describes the city’s descent and stagnation.
Taking the cue, Dr. Dre and his “Compton” collaborators argue in rhymed couplets, expertly built beats and sharp vocal hooks that little has changed in the city that he and his N.W.A colleagues documented in classics "... tha Police,” “Dopeman” and “Straight Outta Compton.”
The total “Compton” package is dense with themes that are as relevant today as when N.W.A burst onto the scene in the late 1980s. Inextricably linked with gang culture, police violence and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the band’s crucial early work changed the direction of hip-hop while documenting a township both furious and desperate. In N.W.A’s aftermath, Dre struck platinum with “The Chronic” and continued producing throughout the 1990s while working on his now-abandoned album “Detox.” But decades later the same issues persist.
Maybe this is why Dre announced on Thursday that all profits earned from the new album — released in conjunction with the forthcoming N.W.A film, “Straight Outta Compton” — will help fund a new arts center in his hometown.
As fit and tightly flexed as the man himself, “Compton” is sturdy with untrendy beats built in collaboration with a producing team that includes DJ Dahi, DJ Premier and Dem Jointz. It’s also so verbally dense that to attempt to wrestle it into shape after only a few serious listens is as ridiculous as skimming David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” synopsizing the plot.
Dre’s heavy, workman-like verses fill the record, and he uses his pulpit without hesitation. On “Medicine Man,” the rapper indicts contemporary culture, decrying in one quick verse Internet addiction, underpaid teachers, hip-hop fakers, fame, government databases, teenage girls acting like they’re 22, grown men who act like boys and money leeches. It’s like he’s been saving it up.
He traces his rise from hanging at swap meets to collecting cars while remembering the price on “Darkside/Gone.” On “Deep Water,” Lamar and Justus trade verses and choruses and Dr. Dre warns away copy cats. “Would you look over Picasso’s shoulder and tell him about his brushstrokes? Those opinions, I don’t trust those.”
Dre, though, understands the deal, and for reasons both artistic and savvy, he works to stay away from seeming like a “kids these days” grandpa. He does so by ceding to talented upstarts. Most notable is Ventura County artist Paak, who appears on a number of “Compton” tracks. He’s especially potent in “Animals,” on which he and Dre address media invisibility and institutional racism over a crawling DJ Premier co-produced track. “The police don’t come around these parts — they tell me we’re a bunch of animals,” sings Paak. “The only time they wanna turn the cameras on is when we’re ... up, come on.”
For his part, fellow Compton rapper Lamar, whose recent album “To Pimp a Butterfly” served as another reminder of the Compton talent pool, confirms his import and skills on three tracks. Eminem honors his mentor on “Medicine Man” and rapper-actor Xzibit shines on “Loose Cannons.” Snoop, whose essential early work was produced by Dre, stars in the throwback-grooved “Satisfiction"; with creepy voices echoing in the background and a weird beat, the former Dre protégé delivers what he calls “another lesson from your Uncle Snoop, what what what.”
Such lessons, both musical and lyrical, are all over “Compton,” but equally impressive was the album’s arrival. Keenly marketed to promote both the album and Apple Music’s new platform, “Compton” glided into Dr. Dre fans’ ears with the skill of an expert surfer riding a smooth wave. It was announced suddenly, never leaked and arrived on time as promised, quite literally the complete package. It’s also, at least for the time being, an exclusive to Apple Music, which means that Dre is generating cross-platform attention. It shows the business skills he’s gained through decades building his Aftermath Records and Beats Entertainment empires, and more recently as an executive at Apple Music.
Dre even embedded a sly ad for the service into the album’s closing track, “Talking to My Diary.” Implicitly addressing the problem of compensation in the streaming era, he raps, “I used to be a starving artist so I would never starve an artist — this is my passion, it’s where my heart is.”