Dr. Dre – Compton: A Soundtrack

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Dr. Dre – Compton: A Soundtrack

Andre Young is a legend.

It sounds too simple to say it, too empty.  The mere word “legend” doesn’t really do justice to the man.  This is the guy who, along with a collection of fellow Compton rappers, kickstarted the gritty gangsta movement with N.W.A.  This is the guy who introduced the world to Snoop Dogg, released one of the all-time hip hop classics (1992’s The Chronic), and was a key figure in the notorious lifespan of Suge Knight’s Death Row Records.  His 1999 album 2001 was the hip hop stoner album of choice for every suburban kid at the dawn of the 21st Century.  In between that time and now, he brought the world a plethora of game-changing rappers:  Eminem, 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar (also, as an aside, The Game).  He’s done production with nearly every big name under the sun.  He’s also been hinting at an album on its way for sixteen years now, tentatively titled Detox.

Detox is dead; this much has been made clear in the week since the impending arrival of Compton: A Soundtrack was announced.  The hype got too big, and too real; Dre was uncomfortable releasing what he had, since he didn’t think it was good enough.  It’s not like he had to, either; the sale of his Beats By Dre to Apple made him hip hop’s first honest-to-god billionaire.  For Dre, it’s no longer about the money or the fame.  It’s about love:  love for the people he’s worked with, love for the up-and-comers who are in the same position he once was, love for the city where he started, the city where – if the trailers for the film Straight Outta Compton are to be believed – the man is still welcome with open arms.

That film – about the initial rise to fame of N.W.A. – is the inspiration for Dre’s new album.  Memories came flooding back during principal photography, and he decided to make an album dedicated to the city of Compton, a city that he helped cement in hip hop legend, a city that features as a principal character in the movie.  This is obvious from the first moments of the album, when a news report outlines a brief history of the city as the destination of the black American Dream, a middle class escape from the inner city L.A. ghettos that turned into an extension of that ghetto when employment and opportunity evaporated.  A great deal of the album revisits the violence in the streets of Compton that Dre and company first chronicled at the end of the 1980s; “Talk About It”, “Genocide”, “Deep Water”, and “One Shot One Kill” are classic Tec-toting tracks, discussing gun play and dead men outlined in chalk in the streets.  At the same time, it’s also an album about how far Dre has come from those gritty days in the streets.  “It’s All On Me” details the pressure he felt to perform and succeed, to get up out of the cycle of violence; “All In A Day’s Work” talks about his work ethic, where he puts his nose to the grindstone rather than live the party lifestyle; “Talking To My Diary”, the last song, pays homage to those original days with his friends.  The ghost of Eazy-E shows up more than a few times in the lyrics, and his voice actually appears once, in a snippet in the middle of “Darkside/Gone”, a piece of history brought out of the vaults to guest alongside his old friend-turned-enemy on his grand finale.  In addition to where he’s been and where he’s at, Dre and King Mez take the time, on “Satisfiction”, to call out the pseudo-rockstar life that so many rappers seem to brag about these days, warning that “You leased your car, leased your house, leased your spouse / Know she leavin’ if you run out of paper”.  It’s a potent warning:  Dre’s seen and done it all, and the number of rappers that have risen and fallen in his wake are legion.

It’s the survivors, however, that are in full display on Compton: A Soundtrack.  Snoop Dogg, who Dre first featured when the Long Beach native was just 18, sounds harder on “One Shot One Kill” and “Satisfiction” than he has in decades.  This is not the Snoop of Bush, or even of Rhythm & Gangsta.  This is the Deep Cover Snoop, full of menace despite the years between then and now.  Eminem, whose Marshall Mathers LP 2 I found personally flat and who hasn’t honestly released a decent album since The Eminem Show, goes all in on “Medicine Man”, spitting out a rapid-fire verse in one take that leaves nearly everyone in the dust.  Ice Cube sounds like he hasn’t aged much or done family movies.  The biggest surprise, however, is Xzibit, whose unhinged verse on “Loose Cannons” should by all rights spark a career renaissance for the man.

There’s a lot to say for the newcomers, too.  There’s Kendrick Lamar, of course.  He’s hardly a newcomer, but Section.80 wasn’t that long ago, and he proves over the course of three features here why he’s on top of the rap game in 2015.  Unknowns like King Mez, Justus, and Anderson .Paak pull their weight with authority; Jon Connor is the one who really makes his mark, showing off a deft yet aggressive flow that seems to cry out for its own hyped project.

It’s the production, of course, that’s the star of the show.  Dre’s work sounds immediate, clean, and massive.  I described it earlier today to a friend as the widescreen, million dollar, Spielberg take on modern hip hop.  Every instrument sounds perfectly tuned, expertly EQ’d, and mixed with the steady hand of a master.  It’s not as though one should expect anything different, of course; this is the work of a man who has spent more time in the studio than nearly anyone else in hip hop, and he could probably produce this sort of balanced mix in his sleep.  The only real issue I have with the album is the lack of a real breakthrough track; they all have their own stellar moments, but there’s no standout like “Still D.R.E.” or “Nuthin’ But A G Thang”.  “Genocide” and “One Shot One Kill” come close but that’s where the stainless steel production becomes problematic.  Compton is so well-produced that it actually detracts at times from the grit of the lyrics; it’s hard to imagine running in the streets with 9mm handguns when it sounds like science fiction coming out of your speakers.

At the end of it all, of course, Compton proves that Dre is the last man standing from the 20th Century.  Snoop, Eminem, Nas, the Wu as a collective, Puff – they’ve all fallen off.  Dre emerges from the smoke and wreckage of the golden age of hip hop victorious, with Compton as his trophy; it’s dented and covered in blood, to be sure, but massive and impressive for all of that.

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[Compton: A Soundtrack is available exclusively on iTunes]

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

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Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Sometime over the past few years, trap music has become the dominant form in hip hop.  As a subgenre it owes everything to spare, menacing beats, MIDI-triggered snare rolls that resemble the chatter of assault rifle fire, and a sing-song flow of drug-game braggadocio and ignorance that is infinitely more Soulja Boy than Sista Souljah.  It’s a cathartic form, to be sure, but in the wake of several high-profile killings of unarmed black men by the police (and police wannabes) in America, it has little to offer in the way of commentary besides more nihilism.  It’s no wonder then, perhaps, that there has been a recent movement towards the past, a retreat that suggests that the inspiration for progress might be better mined from earlier forms of black music.  Joey Bada$$ went back to the gritty streets of New York in the 1990s; D’Angelo enlisted The Vanguard and went back to the conscious movement days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, specifically Sly and the Family Stone, hard soul, and quiet storm; Flying Lotus turned back to a kaleidoscope of jazz forms, and even Kanye has reached back (slightly) in his apparent embrace of British grime.

Then there’s King Kendrick, the man who brought Compton back to the limelight with what was easily the best album of 2012, good kid m.A.A.d. city.  That was an album of hard beats and hood politics, a grandiose concept album that summed up what was best about pre-trap hip hop.  To Pimp A Butterfly is not that album – it’s an entirely different thing altogether.

Right from the beginning you can smell the p-funk – squelchy instruments, stomping basslines, ass-shaking grooves.  Lamar isn’t even subtle about where he’s going – he’s got Parliament/Funkadelic madman George Clinton right there, guesting on it.  Then there’s what can best be described as a spoken word poetry piece over squalling jazz improvisation.  Then “King Kunta” comes on and conquers the world with one groove.  This is Kendrick Lamar, 2015:  willing to scribble madly outside the lines, not content to simply be a commercialized unit, making a name for himself as an honest-to-god artist.

That’s what the album seems to be about, incidentally:  the constant conflict between Kendrick Lamar, the rapper who made it up out of the streets of Compton, shattered expectations, and became widely recognized as the leading light of hip hop, and Kendrick Lamar, the guy from the streets, still caught up in petty beefs and those hood politics from good kid m.A.A.d. city, a man who abandoned his friends and family to live and die in L.A. while he puffed himself up and toured the world.  On one side, “u”, which features a second verse where he breaks down and raps while sobbing, screaming at himself in a hotel mirror about how he failed, he let down everyone he knew, how he wasn’t there when the people he cared about bled out and died.  On the other side, “i”, which is much better on the album than it ever was as a single: the To Pimp A Butterfly version has a serious dance groove running through it, making the declarations of self-confidence, love, and the world being more than slow suicide all the more powerful.   The conflict is given poetic roots at the very end, following the “interview” Kendrick conducts with Tupac Shakur for the last five minutes of “Mortal Man”.  He identifies the caterpillar, the hard part of him that scrambles to survive in the “mad city” of L.A., the part that constantly looks for ways to survive.  The butterfly, then, is the beautiful, artistic, human part inside of him, the talent that is only looking for an outlet.  Being hardened by the struggles of life in the mad city, the caterpillar only looks for ways to pimp the butterfly out, to use it to continue the survival of the caterpillar.  Trapped inside the cycle of thoughts that this produces, the only way out is for the caterpillar to use the butterfly to bring new ideas and ways back to the mad city, and to free itself from the stagnancy of the past.

It’s a heavy concept far removed from the surface-level nihilism that has infected hip hop for the past several years, and I think that’s kind of the point.  Lamar conjures up the old ideals of race consciousness and unity, taking specific aim at the idea of dividing a people by arbitrary and useless lines:  on “Mortal Man”, he says “While my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one / A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination / Made me wanna go back to the cities and tell the homies what I’d learned / The word was respect / Just because you wore a different gang colour than mines / Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man”.  On “Complexion” he discusses the ridiculousness inherent in discussing who’s “more black” than the next person, and segregating each other based on the darkness of skin.  “Hood Politics” sets out the bigger picture beyond the constant infighting between street gangs: “From Compton to Congress it’s set trippin’ all around / Ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodLicans / Red state vs. a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to fuck with you / No condom they fuck with you / Obama say “What it do?”.  On “The Blacker The Berry” Kendrick turns the finger on himself, calling himself a hypocrite for preaching black politics and mourning the death of those like Trayvon Martin when gangbanging caused him to kill another black man and set back unity just as much as any external enemy.

To Pimp A Butterfly is the most powerful album released in some time, an examination of the state of local and national race politics and an examination of the meaning of the conflict between art and money.  Married to mutant funk, jazz, and soul, it uses old music to sound new again, in turn escaping the useless cycle of money and violence between rival sets to embrace a much wider scope of “us vs. them” – the struggle between the downtrodden and those that seek to keep them down.  It’s much more than simply a worthy followup to good kid m.A.A.d city – it’s takes a gigantic leap forward to establish a much fuller circle with which to define Kendrick Lamar’s artistry as a whole.

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