Last month, Dr. Dre ended up on the top of a Forbes list of the year’s highest-earning musicians — this while releasing virtually no music. Dre is up there because of his Beats By Dre headphones line: expensive, reportedly-kinda-crappy ear goggles that are marketed almost entirely on Dre’s name. Dre is able to rake in those all those millions, then, because of his rep as a details-obsessed audiophile. And the main reason he has that reputation is The Chronic, an album that celebrated its 20th birthday on Saturday. Upon its 1992 release, The Chronic was almost certainly the best-sounding rap album of all time, and it might still be. It plays out as a cohesive whole, with even the skits crashing intuitively into each other. Dre supposedly spliced it all together on reel-to-reel tape to get that effect. And he pushed his crew of rapper proteges to their breaking point, forcing them to record their takes over and over until the sounds coming out of his mouth matched the sounds in Dre’s own head. That’s a level of Kubrickian precision rare in any genre and pretty much unheard-of in rap. The Chronic has a ton of samples, but they don’t sound thin or crackly; they’re full and symphonic, usually thicker and deeper than they were on the original records. Dre had a cadre of studio musicians beefing them up, and he somehow got near-perfect results from these guys. The album layers on sounds with symphonic scope, keeping a loose live-band sounds while doing synthetic things that no live band could do. On the heavier tracks, evil zither pings fall from the ceiling and drums seem to erupt from every corner, and even on the smoother songs, those winding keyboard-squelches have a horror-movie bite to them. All the elements of the album’s sound existed before it, but Dre transformed all of them, making a whole and sui generis aesthetic out of them. If that depth of sound was all that The Chronic had going for it, it would belong on greatest-rap-albums lists. But it’s not. Not even close.
Dre also, of course, introduced a rich cast of characters with The Chronic, one who more or less took over West Coast rap in the ensuing years. Dre, of course, had been in N.W.A, serving as a kind of part-time rapper and musical director; he was never a star the way Ice Cube and Eazy-E were. He’d helmed classics (throw on the D.O.C.’s No One Can Do It Better if you haven’t heard it in a while), but in the greater pop-culture landscape, he was a fairly marginal figure. But he was a shining star compared to the cast of unknowns he assembled for the album. Snoop Doggy Dogg, a young Long Beach native with a magnetically menacing drawl, was an unknown who immediately became a sensation thanks to his chilly delivery on the sountrack song “Deep Cover,” which immediately preceded The Chronic. Snoop is the one everyone remembers from that album, and he gets most of the best moments. But there’s also Kurupt, all measured, understated nastiness. There’s the excitable, beat-hopping Daz. Rage, based on a run that started with The Chronic and lasted a couple of years, may still be the toughest and most ferocious female rapper of all time. RBX, a gravelly ranter, sounded simply demented, and his delivery of the line, “Haven’t you ever heard of a [long pause] killer?” is pretty much the big bang moment for the entire horrorcore subgenre. Nate Dogg made silky hook-singing into something a dead-eyed badass might do. Jewell, the album’s other singer, got less career mileage out of it (at least until “Who Will Save Your Soul”) (just kidding), but she’s still a crucial part to the swell of sound that comes with so many of these songs. These were all young guys, all broke, all more or less living in the studio while Dre brutally ran them through the motions. And when the album took hold and captured imaginations, most of them became stars, at least for a little while.
And then there’s Dre himself, anchoring the ensemble with a weighty self-assurance that still doesn’t get enough recognition. Dre may or may not have been writing his own lyrics; it doesn’t much matter. His delivery on The Chronic — a hard and heavy-lidded boom of a voice — holds everything together and keeps it from simply being a crew album. Dre’s delivery, at this late date, may be the most underrated thing that The Chronic has going for it. He sold those lines.
He also sold a vision, almost entirely remaking inner-city Los Angeles in the popular imagination. This was only a few months after the Rodney King riots ripped through the city, and there’s plenty of anger on the album; “The Day The Niggaz Took Over” is only the most obvious example. And there’s nihilism, too; “Bitches Ain’t Shit” may still be the most morally indefensible song that’s ever appeared on a classic album. (What’s its competition? “Under My Thumb”?) And god knows, there were plenty of tin-eared cultural pundits talking about the album like it was a public menace. But there’s a breeziness, a melodic warmth, that doesn’t square with that image. If you compare it to The Predator, the album that Dre’s old N.W.A compadre Ice Cube released just a few weeks earlier, the difference is stark. The Predator is a great rap album, hard and hectic and volatile, obviously animated by some of the same defiant spirit that went into the riots. The Chronic, on the other hand, reimagined the region as a place where people had fun, where the guns tucked into waistbands didn’t stop anyone from enjoying the barbecue. According to Jeff Chang’s book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop (easily the best non-ego trip rap book ever written) the sonic sensibility doesn’t have anything to do with the riots. Instead, it’s the sense of euphoria that took over the city’s rougher neighborhoods after the historic Crips/Bloods gang truce. This was an album about good times.
That aspect is, of course, key to its appeal. The Chronic was forbidding and inviting in equal measures, and it might’ve had even more resonance, in popular music and in the larger culture, than Nevermind did. It changed the way people talked and dressed across the country, and it remade almost all of West Coast rap in its image. I can attest well enough that it caused crews of dorks in Baltimore Catholic middle school parking lots to wonder where you could get a lowrider with hydraulics. You can draw a sharp historic line between rap albums that came before The Chronic and ones that came after. It was a meteor that left a smoking hole in the earth, and we probably won’t ever hear its like again. There have probably been better rap albums in the years since, but there’s absolutely never been a better example of music as world-building.
So: Best song from The Chronic? Best verse? Line? Video? What memories does it invoke? And can you think of an album that sounds better in a car on a sunny day? Because I can’t. Take it up in the comments section, and let’s watch some videos.