Michael Jordan was the first time I ever witnessed greatness.
I heard about other great players from my dad and older brother, but I hadn’t seen them with my own two eyes. Throughout my childhood Jordan was the pinnacle of athletic ability, the human embodiment of greatness. I still have incredibly vivid memories of his playing days. Not just the dunk contests or the game winners. Not just the commercials either. I remember Michael Jordan as the reason why people fought over #23 in rec league. I remember kids sticking their tongues out on a drive to the hoop. Everyone wanted to be like Mike. I may not have been able to appreciate basketball like I do now, but even then I knew it. Watching him play, seeing it with my own eyes, I could see what true greatness was. It wasn't just the six rings or the Nike endorsement, it’s changing the landscape of a sport, of a culture.
Also, Space Jam.
There’s a whole generation of kids now in high school who never saw Michael Jordan live, and no matter how much we tell them, how many YouTube highlights we show them, they won’t every truly get it. Not really. You can know something in your head, but greatness defies logic and reason. It has to be felt to be understood.
For me, and many in my age bracket, Dr. Dre has always been more lore, more myth, than man. Hip-hop is deeply rooted in history, you have to pay respect to the legends, but while I certainly respect the man for his resume I can't ever say I really felt it. I can appreciate a good sample flip, but I wasn’t old enough to appreciate what Dre was doing in real time, to see what N.W.A did, to see just how The Chronic changed the game. For most of my life Dre lived high above us, tweaking Detox in the corridors of hip-hop’s Mt. Olympus, pulling strings and giving us gifts from time to time. Some headphones here, an Eminem beat there, but never much actual music of his own. I understood his greatness but never “felt” it. I wanted to bask in it, to be awestruck by it, to live in that greatness like I lived Jordan's. I hoped that Compton would change hip-hop yet again so I could watch the Dre effect in action.
I don't think it happened.
On the surface, on the “see it” level, this album is a success. The production is exquisite. Now that I have a deeper understanding for the way a song is constructed, the sounds and techniques implemented, I can appreciate Dre’s unmatched producer chops. As I mentioned in my 1 Listen Review, my “biggest takeaway is how diverse and strong the production is” and that production goes much further than just flipping a sample or adding a snare, production is often having a vision for a song and making that vision come to life. It’s knowing that this sample from Bink would be perfect and then hearing BJ the Chicago Kid’s voice over it (see “It’s All On Me”). I now know that “Animals” was originally meant for a completely different album, but Dre truly made it his own and it’s the best song on Compton. That's where Dre shines. He’s an absolutely incredible producer not just because he can get my head bobbin’ but because he really puts people in positions to win; just ask King Mez or Anderson .Paak. Dre could have put together a throwback album full of old G-funk beats, but instead he took the challenge head on and created an modern hip-hop album. That kind of risk takes stones and I commend both the idea and the execution. But still, I’m stuck.
I see what made Dre a legend, I hear it, but I just don’t feel it.
While this album certainly has its moments and strengths it’s not without its weaknesses. While Dre’s production prowess is on display, his rapping ability isn’t on the same level. Mr. Young sounds very different than how I remember him. His voice sounds a bit dulled, it’s just not the same Dre who reaches through the speaker and slaps you in the face with his growling flow. It’s not bad, but it’s also not enthralling. I can't get lost in the music. Sometimes he feels like a means to an end on the mic, like I’m listening to him so I can get to that hook or the section from Anderson .Paak. Take “All In A Day’s Work,” one of the strongest efforts on the album. While I enjoyed the record, while it still gives me goosebumps, it has less to do with the Doctor and more to do with the way Anderson comes in at the 3:20 mark. As soon as I press play I find myself anxiously looking at the run time, waiting for that moment like the last period bell in high school. I’m waiting the whole song not to hear Dre rap, but for that moment the beat breaks down.
And as lively as the instrumentals are, at times Dr. Dre feels flat. It’s not just how he raps, but what he's rapping about too. I have no problem with Dre telling us how far he’s come, and listing all the things he’s done, but I already know the history. I wanted Dre to bridge the gap from past to present, to let me feel what so many felt who were too young to feel it. Compton is littered with guest verses and cameos, which is fine, but the ultimate effect is that it feels more like a Dr. Dre compilation than a Dr. Dre album. The result of all these features, all the different voices, sounds and styles, is that Andre’s narrative gets lost in the shuffle. I wanted an album that would show me his greatness, not tell me about it.
Did this album shake up hip-hop? Will it change the fabric of rap like the Dre of old? I’m not sure. We asked those questions on Twitter and got a dizzying array of responses. For me Dr. Dre made a hip-hop album for 2015, and I feel like that’s where it will stay. Compton cemented his legacy without a doubt, closed out the Detox travesty, and proved he could still make an exquisite album, but it feels like it will live above hip-hop culture, not in it. Compton is a Michael Jordan highlight reel - sure you can see him whizzing by defenders and dunking from the foul line, but there’s only so much you can know without watching the flu game, without sticking your tongue out on a lay-up on the playground. I can hear what makes Dre one of the greatest producers ever, but I still can’t completely feel his impact.
Dre insists this will be his last album, his curtain call, and that’s for the best. He deserves one last championship. But it also means that if you’re looking to truly feel Dr. Dre’s greatness, unless you were there, a witness to N.W.A, a smoker of the Chronic, in line to buy 2001 on CD the day it dropped, you’re just straight outta luck.