Not so long ago, rappers equated their albums, songs, studio sessions, even their partying with “making a movie,” as if their life moments were epic big-screen fare. But none — save perhaps Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — has ever truly matched their Technicolor aspirations as well as Compton: A Soundtrack, billed as Dr. Dre’s third studio album, and his first in 16 years.
Compton is the musical movie inspired by a real movie — the replacement of his long-delayed Detox album that’s inspired by the N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. From the subtitle to the cover art to the small overture on the album’s “Intro,” which precedes a narrator chronicling the titular city’s fall from suburban dream to war zone, Compton announces itself as a cinematic event. For those who grew up with Dr. Dre, it’s like the rush of watching a new Star Wars trailer — grandeur mixed with nostalgia and cutting-edge tech, familiar faces and new, old plotlines refreshed for 2015.
On “Talk About It,” North Carolina’s King Mez, one of the album’s handful of new Dre co-signs, rhymes, “I’m the black Eminem, I’m the humbler 50, I’m D.O.C. — who do it better?” Like everything about Dre during the past three decades, Compton is an addition to the highlight reel that relies heavily on the highlights that preceded it, making it a project both burdened and supported by its own self-mythology — “I remember selling instrumentals off a beeper,” Dre rhymes with characteristic self-importance on the same song, over industrial-strength instrumentation that starts and stops with trap drum rolls and explosive 808s. “Millionaire before the headphones or the speakers/I was getting money before the Internet/Still got Eminem checks I ain’t open yet.”
It’s an epic boast, the kind that hip-hop was made for, even if it is, like many of the album’s lyrics, a retread of a well-worn story. It sometimes seems as if Dre has run out of new things to say, and there are quite a few underwhelming vocal performances. Dre sometimes sounds awkward and unnatural. The album’s new voices — there are 18 featured vocalists — are largely anonymous and strangely non-specific. Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg return as co-stars, but it’s not the triumphant reunion it should be: They’re almost unrecognizable here. Snoop’s delivery on the punishing “One Shot One Kill” is uncharacteristically vicious; on “Satisfiction,” his delivery is oddly truncated. On “Issues,” Ice Cube’s vocals are overlaid and punched-in to the point that it’s impossible to rap along.
But it’s like critiquing the acting in a Michael Bay movie — because look at those explosions! Here, it’s the unbridled majesty of the sonics. Though Dre co-produces only half of the album’s tracks (with as many as four other boards men on each song), he’s credited with leading the mix on all, and every sound is meticulously maximized. “Genocide,” featuring low end that rumbles and a ferocious verse from Kendrick Lamar (who provides most of the album’s standout verses), is the kind of music that almost justifies the existence of $300 headphones. At the end of “Issues,” birds chirp, sirens blare and guns pop — all blending into the other but still standing out distinctly, panning from ear to ear.
“Would you look over Picasso’s shoulder and tell him about his brush strokes?” Dre asks on “Deep Water,” a masterwork filled with fractured voices and aquatic metaphors. It doesn’t matter that on this album about Compton only three of the 18 guest stars are actually from the city, or that the other 15 come off as a jumble of generic characters. It doesn’t matter that the album’s opening promises it will say something significant about the CPT, but never delivers. Dre has the most bulletproof reputation in hip-hop. The kind that turns his origins with the electro-romance group World Class Wreckin’ Cru into a youthful footnote, forgives his mediocre post-Death Row/pre-Eminem release Dr. Dre Presents: The Aftermath, forgets the big-budget false-starts from Detox and glosses over his instances of misogyny (which is still on display here). The truth is, no one in hip-hop makes music that sounds this good — music that powers through all noticeable shortcomings. Despite its numerous flaws, Compton is still one of the most engaging listening experiences of the year.
This story will appear in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.