BY ANY MEASURE, the unheralded arrival of Compton: A Soundtrack is akin to a minor miracle. While Andre Young’s clout, in his sixth decade, now extends way beyond the studio, the world’s richest musician (according to Forbes) has recently struggled to enhance a musical reputation founded on his menacing sound designs for the “the world’s most dangerous group” N.W.A and mentoring of rap superstars Snoop Dogg, Eminem and 50 Cent.
As his Beats empire has grown to encompass a streaming service and Apple tie-in, Dre has spent much of the last 16 years under the radar, toiling industriously on the grand folly of Detox (potentially the hip-hop equivalent of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy). A notorious perfectionist, who spent weeks getting the cymbal sound spot-on for 1992’s game-changing G-Funk blueprint The Chronic, he left a rumoured 300+ unfinished tracks littering the cutting room floor before he finally conceded defeat earlier this year.
But the arrival of the N.W.A film biopic Straight Outta Compton galvanized Dre into a creative rethink, as he rapidly worked up an entirely new set of songs, allying his talent for rejuvenation with lashings of nostalgic reverie and a cast of willing, many previously untried, helpers including Anderson .Paak, Justus and Candice Pillay.
The results are often jaw-dropping. The descending double bass figure and brushed drums of Genocide are cinematic, providing an early opportunity for fellow Compton native Kendrick Lamar to further expose the lyrical skills that top the class in 2015. That energy rubs off on Dre’s first great protégé Snoop Dogg, sounding fully engaged and seething with malcontent over the chunky one-note bassline of One Shot One Kill.
As with previous affairs, Dre’s own rhymes arrive cleverly ghostwritten. Their subject matter is still nakedly autobiographical and his chameleonic delivery never less than heartfelt, even offering up a nod to N.W.A.’s most infamous protest song on the reflective It’s All On Me: “Face down on the pavement with the billy clubs/Took that feeling to the studio and cued it up/And now it’s Fuck Tha Police all up in the club.”
“The results are often jaw dropping.”
Musically Dre is never less than inventive. The man who once constructed a beat out of soil being shoveled onto a coffin lid here offers up a wealth of deep soulful melodies and jazzy undertows that writhe below the wordy surfaces. The ratcheting, murderous tension of Loose Cannons and the queasy claustrophobia of Deep Water underline the producer’s gift for atmospherics, while songs frequently detour into unexpected musical avenues (like Genocide’s closing bars of doo-wop). There are a few jarring moments still: an awkward, underwhelming reunion with Ice Cube on Issues, a needless GoodFellas pastiche and Eminem’s unpleasant boast on Medicine Man: “I even make the bitches I rape come”.
Like Lamar’s grandstanding To Pimp A Butterfly, the numerous strands of Compton: A Soundtrack take time and effort to fully unravel, but the rewards are manifold. And if, as its creator has heavily mooted, this is his grand finale, Dre is going out on a high.
Stream Compton: A Soundtrack in full via Apple Music now.
Watch the trailer for Straight Outta Compton.