Review Summary: 'Give me one more platinum plaque, and f*** rap, you can have it back.'
16 years would be a long time for any respected musician to make a comeback, but since the release of ‘2001’, Dr. Dre’s path has been repeatedly blocked by obstacles that he’s created for himself.
His announcement of the death of gangsta rap may have had foundations in truth particularly in the mainstream, with Eminem’s Encore
-onwards identity crisis, 50 Cent’s complete failure to justify the hype following his debut, and D12 never achieving a run of stability before Proof’s death took them out of the game. However, this was sure to have an impact on his own relevance – where would he fit in when/if his album was released?
The ongoing tease of the now defunct ‘Detox’ project may well prove to be a worthwhile exercise – while ‘Kush’ and ‘I Need A Doctor’ showed that Dre was still active, and his work was still being lapped up and craved, the signs pointed to an unsatisfying (if assuredly lucrative) conclusion.
And of course, the jump from MC to businessman made many question his ability to provide a worthwhile final product to his rap career, fears over a lack of focus and incentive ringing constant through the last decade.
doesn’t so much put those fears to bed as much as turn the lights off, lock the doors, burn the house down, and nonchalantly walk away.
In attitude Dre is back to his abrasive best, coupling obvious (and ultimately, deserved) ego with political anger and retrospective.
On one hand, his age and experience take a forefront, providing passionate commentary on the lack of progress and continued prevalence of racism across America (‘Animals’), the darker side of the Compton upbringing that’s shaped his success (‘Genocide’) and the difficulties of having such influence and fame (‘Deep Water’) – but then on the other, we have the Dre that made his previous works so outwardly fun, brimming with braggadocio and cartoonish confidence, while still completely deadpan and convincingly threatening.
Dre’s habit of using his releases to spotlight others has always worked well, and one of the strong themes here is that (possibly more so than his other works) his vocal sounds like it feeds off the energy of his guests. He sounds younger, he sounds revitalized, and he sounds downright hungry. On the subject of guests, the same goes for Snoop Dogg – whatever your opinion of the guy, he’s made some frankly bizarre missteps in recent years and on here he sounds back to his self-assured, barking best.
There’s no real weak guest here, although the vocal stylings of Anderson .Paak can sometimes come off a little obnoxious, like a nasal and more immature Kendrick Lamar (who excels).
Finally, this section would be nothing without a nod to the (maybe surprisingly) solitary Eminem verse on the penultimate track. The fallout from the more controversial lyrics has unsurprisingly been well documented – but in keeping with the reactions they were getting for their work on early albums, the combination of Dre and Em hasn’t sounded so ballsy and triumphant for years.
From a production standpoint, this sounds like a little more of a natural progression to The Chronic
, with a number of instrumentals taking a breezier, atmospheric approach rather than the tight, minimal earworms of the latter. The percussion mainly takes a back seat to layered live instrumentation and subtle deep bass – saving the aggression for the rhymes.
For example, the choral hook and drums on ‘Satisfiction’ sound like an outtake of the sessions that produced ‘California Love’ and ‘No Diggity’ almost 20 years ago, but dressed up in fresh new flair that doesn’t so much take inspiration from his peers in the subsequent time, but almost shows them how it’s done.
If the undeniably catchy, but overly vulnerable false dawn of ‘I Need A Doctor’ four years ago served a purpose, it showed a direction Dre could have gone in and guaranteed success without particularly satisfying or challenging his audience, and possibly challenging himself even less. While the resulting Detox
may have had a little more instant impact, one suspects this record will last longer in the memory.
Without resorting purely to hypothesis of what could have been, this record is the one Dre wanted to make, and just as much as in ’92, he’s not in the slightest concerned with the opinions of naysayers – just listen to the jarringly gentle choral hook of ‘Medicine Man’ to allay any doubts on that score.
It may seem like Dre is doing himself a disservice here by giving a ‘soundtrack’ label to a record that stands alone so strongly, but in keeping with the biographical nature of the film, what’s apparent here is that he actually hasn’t changed a great deal as a rapper or a producer in the 27 years between first and last record – he’s true to his principles and his upbringing, and is proud to sit atop the throne in the kingdom of rap he was so influential in creating.
Where the soundtrack tag does fail the record, however, is that it suggests a narrative, and more structure than the album provides - with the exception of the intro track and the good choice for a closer in 'Talking To My Diary', these tracks could essentially be in any order and it wouldn't affect the progression of the record.
Dre could have faded here, but don’t be under any illusions. This record sounds completely fresh, but is constantly aware of what made The Chronic
so successful – this final effort refuses to compromise and stands proudly.
It’s only a matter of time before that ‘one more platinum plaque’ takes pride of place as his final trophy.