When an important artist disappears for years on end, the fear is always that the artist will finally return with something underwhelming. That’s not what Dr. Dre has done with Compton, his first album in 16 years. Instead, he’s come back with something overwhelming. Compton is an album absolutely stuffed with music, with vast orchestrations full of expensive sonic details and gleaming gunmetal textures. It’s a weird one, too. All those flourishes don’t necessarily serve songs or prop up hooks. There’s not a single surefire radio single on the album. Instead, those textures are ends unto themselves, towering monuments to themselves. Songs switch up halfway through, completely interrupting their own flows and becoming entirely new things. On the first few lessons, it becomes hard to tell when one song ends and another begins — partly because the songs themselves are changing so much, partly because there’s so much sonic information that it takes your brain a few listens to even process it. Dre has already operated on the principal that rap music can and should sound as bold and expansive and huge as, say, Quincy Jones’ production for Michael Jackson. That’s absolutely there on Compton; musically, this might be the brightest, most expansive thing I’ve heard all year. But he’s also taken that gift for expansiveness and allowed it to become messy and idiosyncratic. Dre is richer than God, and he doesn’t have to make hits anymore. So he’s made the conscious decision to ignore that impulse entirely. Instead, he’s made a symphony.
When Dre announced the album’s existence last week, he also said that he was shelving the long-gestating Detox because he didn’t really like it anymore. Dre is a notorious perfectionist, a Kubrick type who forces vocalists to record their parts over and over until they’ve nailed exactly the sound that Dre had in his head. And so it seemed strange that Compton was going to be something else: A relatively quickly-assembled record inspired by the release of the new N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton. For a little while, I had a theory that the album really was Detox, or at least the most recent version of it, rebranded and thrown out into the world so that Dre wouldn’t have to deal with the weight of all those years of expectation. And it seemed like there was no way Dre could put together an album this elaborate on any sort of constrained timeline. But after keeping it on repeat all day, I’m more inclined to believe Dre. This isn’t Detox. The album doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the movie; it’s like Jay-Z’s American Gangster in that way. But like American Gangster, it uses the release of this movie as an opportunity for Dre to look back on his past and to look inward at his motivations.
Compton opens with a newscaster’s voice explaining how Dre’s hometown went from suburban idyll to dangerous slum. And it’s the first of Dre’s three albums that’s more interested in societal forces and social injustice than in partying and street-level violence, though there’s still plenty of both. Just as he did on 1999’s 2001, Dre grouses about his place in the world and the idea that the rest of the world isn’t doing gangsta rap right. But he also addresses larger ills, as he sees them: “Kids sipping Actavis and they ain’t even activated / Married to the internet, stuck in place, salivating / Ain’t nobody graduating.” Dre makes explicit reference to Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and on the lovely DJ Premier-produced “Animals,” the singer Anderson .Paak denounces people who don’t come from the ghetto but who act self-righteous about rioting. This is the most confrontationally political album that Dre has helmed since Straight Outta Compton.
For that reason, the most important of the many, many guests on the album is Kendrick Lamar, Dre’s most recent prominent beneficiary. Kendrick gets three verses on Compton, and they’re all tricky and fiery and purposeful. He never adjusts his style so it’ll fit into Dre’s sonic universe, but he does rap a bit harder and more directly than he’s been doing lately. It’s absolutely exhilarating everytime his voice drops in. And I’m willing to bet that those three verses aren’t Kendrick’s only contributions to the album. In a lot of ways, the album’s ambitious formlessness, its maximalist arrangements, and its everpresent conscience make it feel like Dre’s answer to Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Also: Dre has long worked with ghostwriters, and often on Compton, he adapts a halting, tourettic flow that has Kendrick’s fingerprints all over it. Even if Kendrick isn’t writing Dre’s verses, Dre is, at the very least, attempting some version of Kendrick’s style. It’s not the most fluid, instinctive thing coming from Dre, but it works anyway. Dre doesn’t get a whole lot of credit as a rapper, possibly because we know he didn’t write everything he says and partly because his legendary status as a producer tends to overwhelm it. But Dre has one of the all-time great rap voices, a husky and aggrieved bellow that gives his songs a certain authority.
Of course, we don’t get that much of Dre rapping. This is a Dr. Dre album, which means we get guests galore. There are entire songs here where Dre doesn’t rap at all, where he turns things completely over to his collaborators. And most of those collaborators realize that they’re getting a chance to rap on a Dr. Dre album, and they respond accordingly. Old comrades Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg sound tougher than they have in years. On “Just Another Day,” the Game huffs ferociously, going a long way toward erasing the image of himself as a starstruck hanger-on. The album has a surprising surplus of neo-soul singers, with Jill Scott and BJ The Chicago Kid joining Floetry’s Marsha Ambrosius, a longtime Dre collaborator, and they fit into the constantly-shifting landscape just fine. And there is some pure rap-nerd gold in there, as well. It’s great to hear Xzibit on a Dre track one more time, and it’s even greater to hear Above The Law’s Cold 187um appearing out of nowhere on the same song. (I could do without the mid-song skit where Cold 187um kills a screaming woman, just like I could do without the one Eminem verse. As always these days, Em is deeply impressive on a technical level and deeply disturbing on a human level. There’s no excuse for the “I even make the bitches I rape cum” bit.)
But as much mic time as Dre gives to his famous guests and his old sentimental favorites, he also has plenty of time for absolute unknowns, guys like King Mez and the aforementioned Anderson .Paak. In fact, the amount of spotlight that Dre gives to these guys almost feels perverse; King Mez gets to rap on the album before Dre himself does. It’s easy to imagine these guys turning into forgotten footnotes like 2001 guest Knocturn’al. But they work on the album — partly because there appearances feel like moments to come up for air in between the big moments, and partly because everyone sounds great on a Dr. Dre track. Jon Connor, a Michigan rapper who has always bored me silly, sounds like an absolute world-beater on the rumbling “One Shot One Kill.” I don’t know if I’ll ever enjoy a Jon Connor song again, but he had a chance to shine here, and he took it.
One thing that separates Compton from Dre’s last two albums: It seems to exist on its own timeline, completely removed from anything else happening in rap right now, Kendrick’s participation notwithstanding. The Chronic and 2001 both existed at the center of rap music, taking things that were already around (the emerging West Coast G-funk sound for The Chronic, the terse-but-luxuriant big-budget late-’90s rap sound for 2001) and doing those things bigger and better than anyone else. Those albums had songs that connected immediately and moments that were immediately quoted on playgrounds around the world. Compton does away with a lot of the things we’ve come to expect from Dre albums — the slithery hooks, the absurdist comedy sketches. But it also does away with any attempt to pull all of rap to its center. Right now, Noah “40” Shebib’s cloudy, minimal emo-bloop has essentially come to define mainstream rap production. The monolithic, cluttered-but-sleek funk of Compton couldn’t be further from that. It’s its own thing completely, a massive and suffocating statement from a billionaire sonic-genius dreamer who doesn’t need to do this anymore. Compton doesn’t need to exist in the context of 2015 rap. It exists in its own context, and it’s all the better for it. That’s enough.