Well it’s been over a week since Dr. Dre dropped Compton and blew all of our collective minds. On August 7th, I was busy, but on August 8th, I found myself on a beach in Malibu. Now, I know. Malibu is not Compton. But seeing as I live in New York City, Malibu was pretty damn close, geographically speaking of course. And I had driven through the heart of L.A. to get there, so I was feeling somewhat immersed in the L.A. vibe.
For those who don’t know the background to this album, it was Dr. Dre’s first in sixteen years. Sixteen years!! But instead of dropping the highly anticipated album Detox, he announced he was scrapping it in favor of a newer project, Compton. He felt the music was flat on Detox and explained that he had become inspired by working on the new film Straight Outta Compton the bio-pic about N.W.A.
The album is great, nothing hard hitting like his earlier projects or even the projects from N.W.A, but in today’s atmosphere in Hip Hop it was a welcomed refresher. I was slightly surprised that it didn’t have a more West Coast feel to it, which Dre is famous for (my standard would be the beats on The Chronic 2001), but instead was “boom-bap”orientated (the classic East Coast style).
The major message that I came away with (not surprisingly) from the album was just how important Compton is to Dr. Dre’s life. But upon more reflection, I became a little curious and even slightly disappointed that the album was so focused on Compton.
The first song on the album, the intro track called “Intro”, is essential to understanding the whole album. In a hauntingly good news report-esque story, a narrator explains how Compton was once at the heart of “Black America’s dream”, but soon crumbled into something quite the opposite. He describes how Compton slowly became poorer, even though the Black middle class had established itself in Compton. After showing how Compton rose, the narrator shows just how far it fell:
[Verse 1] –
Forty-seven homicides last year gave Compton one of the highest per capita rates in the country. Juvenile gang activity, muggings, small robberies make some blacks want to leave.
What the narrator is describing is the process of suburbanization and red lining that occurred in the United States during the 1950s. Americans were moving into the suburbs in droves, and the U.S. government was facilitating this growth with loans-a-plenty.
However, as per usual, Black people in this country lost out. Realtors actively steered Black families into neighborhoods that contained other minorities and lower quality homes. White people didn’t want Black people in their new neighborhoods because they didn’t want their housing values to go down.
As a part of this process, whites in the inner cities realized that they too should move to the suburbs because the government was giving out such generous loans.
Black families had the same idea, but with discrimination from the banks, they were left in the inner city, where little attention was paid, leading to the ghettos developing only in the inner cities, and not the suburbs.
Compton was a prime example of a Black neighborhood that had middleclass aspirations, but was boxed out of the growth in the 1950s, and began to break down due to crime and disrepair.
So with all that informing how I listened to this album, I began to understand why Dr. Dre was still going on about Compton after all this time.
The first song’s chorus struck me as bizarre. Even though it’s a catchy song, Justus sings on the chorus that “one day I’mma have everything”, which is a strange sentiment for Dr. Dre to be portraying. He sold Beats Music to Apple for one billion dollars. He doesn’t live in Compton anymore. So what else could he be striving for?
Then I thought about this album’s connection to the film Straight Outta Compton. It’s a film that deals with racial discrimination, police brutality, and Hip Hop music. Now, what time period am I speaking about? Well that’s exactly what struck me. Nothing that N.W.A dealt with back in the 1980s has changed. Crime is the same. Racism is the same. Compton is the same.
Seeing this connection, I saw just why Compton played such a pivotal role in this fifty year-old billionaire’s album. And I got to understand Dre’s mindset more on the song “Darkside/Gone”, with Kendrick’s verse:
I'm fucking with shit that you only can get on an oversea flight now/
You scared of my heights now/
But still I got enemies giving me energy, I don't wanna fight now/
Subliminally sent to me all of this hate, I thought I was holding the mic down.
I thought I was holding my city up/
I thought I was good in the media/
You think I'm too hood in my video?
But really no clue you idiot/
I just can't help myself.
But with or without all the diamonds though to you/
I'm just another nigga.
Now Kendrick spits this verse, but it is powerful because it reflects how Dr. Dre feels. Are the parallels starting to trip you out yet? Kendrick is from Compton, dealing with his newfound fame while seeing the place where he came from crumble. Or was that Dr. Dre’s story? Dre provides a response on the track:
Now who you know who came this fucking far
From the fucking bottom?
30 years in this bitch and I'm still here
I took this industry by storm young and black/
Killing them softly/
Don't ever call me fortunate, you don't know what it cost me.
Dre is addressing similar themes that Kendrick brought up on his recent album To Pimp A Butterfly. On his song “Satisfiction”, Dre examines how his lifestyle has changed, but hasn’t made him happier. He raps:
It shouldn't be so hard to be yourself
My nigga wake up
Stay up, pay up, straight up, cake up
Which is followed by the hook that summarizes this point:
Simple pleasures, rockstar living
Drugs and mansions, hit the ceiling
Cars expensive, blow this action
So even though Dre has moved up out of Compton (literally to the hills in LA), he does not feel happy about his position. As I said in my article on Kendrick’s album, Dre has a sense of survivor’s guilt, or at least a yearning for the past. It’s not as simple as “out of sight, out of mind” for him when it comes to Compton. Dre has been rich longer than he was poor, but he stays fixed on his days in the past, specifically those he spent in poverty.
But then again, that’s not so difficult to believe because Compton hasn’t been able to advance since the days when Dre made it out. Just as those middle class Black families that moved to Compton, Dre must have been optimistic about his future and the future of Compton at the end of the 1980s. The whole reason N.W.A rose to prominence was because of their messages about gang violence and police brutality in Compton, scared mainstream America at the time through the new medium of Hip Hop.
But then we reach today. Compton is the same, much of the racial discrimination in this country is the same, and the police brutality is the same if not worse. And what about Hip Hop, the politically feisty, counter culture musical art form? Well, it’s become soft and bogged down in mainstream politics and aesthetics. No wonder Compton is on Dre’s mind.
And if there was any doubt in my mind at the parallels to the past at that point on the album, I then heard “Animals”. It is my favorite track by far on the album, for several reasons. Besides the supreme production, and DJ Premier and Dre on the same track (I know, I screamed like a little girl too when I heard Premo at the end), it was the content of this song that made it so good. It begins with Anderson .Paak rapping:
Bullets still ringing, blood on the cement/
Black folks grieving, headlines reading/
Tryna pay it no mind, you just living your life/
Everyone is a witness, everyone got opinions/
Got a son of my own, look him right in his eyes/
I ain't living in fear, but I'm holding him tight.
Dre follows up with a verse where he reflects on his younger days in Compton:
Just a young black man from Compton wondering who could save us/
And could barely read the sentences the justice system gave us/
So many rental cars with bricks, I think they probably funded Avis/
Some of us was unbalanced but some us used our talents, shit/
Not all of us criminals but cops be yelling, "Stay back nigga!"
Not only do you get .Paak’s perspective on today, but Dre follows with his recollection of the past, showing just how little has changed. .Paak summarizes this beautifully, singing:
And the old folks tell me it's been going on since back in the day/
But that don't make it okay/
And the white folks tell me all the looting and the shooting's insane/
But you don't know our pain.
Now I’m not trying to say this is a new development. You’d have to be an old white guy “under a rock” to not realize that the events going on today in Black communities are nothing new. But as far as Dre’s album, I understood why Compton meant so much to him, and why it would be almost absurd if his final album wasn’t all about Compton.
And that’s why I was ultimately disappointed that the album was so focused on Compton. That’s not a slight on Compton, but rather on America and our society. It’s been twenty-seven years since N.W.A came out with their album Straight Outta Compton, rapping about the terrible conditions Black people were facing in Compton (and all over the country). What has changed since then? Frankly, not enough, which is exactly what Dr. Dre shows us on his latest album.
And I know I attacked Hip Hop earlier when I said it had conformed to mainstream ways, but albums like Compton demonstrate the old way of thinking in Hip Hop. Luckily, Dre is not the only rapper reflecting on these issues. Actually, many of his peers from the late 80s and into the 90s have done just the same.
The greatest comparison would be Common’s last album Nobody’s Smiling, on which he collaborated with up and coming Chicago MCs to tell a story about Chicago today, and the problems the city faces.
Even artists like Nas and Jay-Z have found it hard to move on from their younger, poorer days, and constantly reflect on how they are unsatisfied with their current situations. Jay and Nas both live in Manhattan, but you’d never guess that with the amount of times they shout out Brooklyn and Queens respectively.
So where did this leave me? Well, flying home to New York City, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. But then I realized that this is Hip Hop’s chance to “make a comeback”. With all the social issues facing this country and the flow of progress and change seemingly at a weak trickle, we need a catalyst to help spur on the change our country so desperately needs.
With films like Straight Outta Compton, and songs and albums like Compton and Nobody’s Smiling, hopefully Hip Hop can return to its politically active past. And while racism and discrimination still exist, maybe this new perspective, that is, of the successful Black man, can help us understand where today’s racial tensions and problems are, and how we can address them.
My final verdict on the album is pretty positive. I think the album sounds great, and even though Dr. Dre isn’t the best rapper, his songs have meaning and lines that make you think, something that most Hip Hop songs do not have today. And while I said I was disappointed about the focus on Compton, that merely was to say that I was disappointed that the same problems are still plaguing Compton, as well as Black communities around the country. I think I was mostly upset with the fact that Dr. Dre couldn’t make an album about how Compton has grown and thrived since his childhood.