A Tale of Two Comptons: Will the real Dr. Dre please stand up?
The first time we see Andre Young in Straight Outta Compton, he’s lying on the floor of his room, surrounded by familiar names on 12” sleeves: Galaxy, Zapp, Marvin Gaye.
Roy Ayers’ ‘Everybody Loves the Sun’ fills the room and Young (played by Corey Hawkins) plays the air piano with his eyes closed, caught in a haze. The music is turned off by his mother, who tells the audience in no certain terms what we need to know: Andre has a child to provide for and a musical career that will shortly have him kicked out of the house. People had such low hopes for both of them, she says, and we know that by the end of the film the prodigal son will have proved those people wrong. Of course he will – if you paid for a ticket to Straight Outta Compton, you were celebrating the path Dr. Dre took to get you in that seat.
Dre has long seemed suspended over our culture for his tutelage of generations of stars, but 2015 turned it up a notch. Over the past year, the man has understood the importance of his past and moved towards turning himself into a figure even more mythic than before. On its release in August, the F. Gary Gray-directed story of N.W.A. became the highest-grossing music biopic of all time, bringing in over $60 million in its opening weekend. In the coming months, as awards season hits high gear, Universal will be hoping that Straight Outta Compton represents a populist vote for the Oscars, relying on the film’s audience satisfaction for leverage. The movie itself is a pleasing, if derivative tale of friendships bonded and broken and bonded yet again, despite the odds of fame, fortune and gang culture. These young men are loyal to one another in their brotherhood – something the movie’s Oscar campaign points towards by listing all the actors in N.W.A. roles for the prized of Best Supporting Actor.
Straight Outta Compton allowed Dre’s legacy to be maintained in a more positive manner than usual, and the cinematic shine seemed to alleviate any pressure surrounding other creative ventures. It took just under 16 years, but 2015 saw the mega-producer’s third album, Compton, released into the world with the subtitle A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre. It’s a glossy piece, elegantly mastered and maintained, with the sort of ostentatious orchestration we rarely considered from our maestro – until this year, he’s been a man of clipped, organised funk and pristine surfaces rather than musical clout and wonderment. Before this, the spectre of Detox – the long-gestating “most advanced rap album ever” – hung over every musical decision that Dre made. All of a sudden, Detox no longer existed (“It wasn’t good,” the rapper said on his Beats 1 radio show by way of explanation) and a collection of songs said to be inspired by the biopic arrived in our iTunes. Whether Compton would have existed without the film is a cause for debate, but there’s no denying that the film gave the album and its creator a rationale to be out in the world.
If Straight Outta Compton served any wider purpose beyond entertaining us, it got Dre off our backs. In a fascinating New York Times Popcast from earlier this year, Jon Caramanica and former XXL editor Reginald C. Dennis discussed the fascinating thing about Dre’s churlish relationship with making music – that he wants no part of it, that he finds little joy in it, and that his need to advance his art comes at the cost of his mental capacity. It’s there, front and centre, on 2001’s ‘Forgot About Dre’ where he raps: “Give me one more platinum plaque / Then fuck rap”. It’s there on Compton’s most glaring misstep, ‘All In A Day’s Work’, with its Jimmy Iovine introduction (!), lyrics about the “Hollywood curse” and sentiments like “rich as fuck but guess what, I’m back to work”. The song takes the wind out of your sails because it doesn’t sound like motivational music as much as the grumbling of a corporate executive who has given his heart to the machine. Dre is obliged to think he’s giving to the culture, when really his lack of joy saps the inspiration from his gift. Compare ‘All In A Day’s Work’ to another 2015 corpo-rap comeback story in Puff Daddy’s ‘Workin’ (from his underrated MMM tape), where business acumen never allows musical responsibility to become an albatross around the artist’s neck.
Effectively, the creation of ‘Fuck Tha Police’ has been glorified on the silver screen, burning an image into our head of Dr. Dre The Rebel; on Compton, he’s tired of music, more tired of his audience, and effectively building a shrine to business partners that have helped make him a business mogul. It’s telling that on album highlight ‘Animals’ he stays out of the way of guest Anderson.Paak speaking on police brutality in 2015, while his on-screen avatar turns his anti-police rebellion into a piece of Man of the People mythology.
More pressing as Straight Outta Compton became a runaway hit was the reinvestigation into Dre’s violent past, with former TV personality Dee Barnes writing a Gawker op-ed about the time Dre publicly assaulted her at a record release party in 1991. For a younger audience, Barnes was the punchline to a traditionally caustic Slim Shady jibe (“You gonna take advice from somebody who slapped Dee Barnes?” on ‘Guilty Conscience’). Dre was a hitmaker who turned himself into a corporate megabrand with headphones and a workaholic image; Barnes was a faded memory, part of his pre-corporate come-up. The furore that arose anew around the violence was emblematic of a year where holding abusers to account deservedly became a mainstream conversation, from #TheEmptyChair to Emma Sulkowicz carrying that mattress to porn actress Stoya’s accusations of rape towards fellow performer James Deen.
As Dre’s history of violence gained a renewed focus, with other names speaking up against him, his onscreen heroism (where he stands up to Suge Knight then gets in a car chase for, um, Screenwriting Reasons) began to dwindle. Soon enough, there was an apology in a New York Times press release: “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.” The noise dwindled, but the effects lingered – the attempts at revising the story of N.W.A. into a babyface biopic narrative were not as foolproof as expected. And If F. Gary Gray’s film truly has a shot at the Oscars, expect these accusations to arise again.
Though the response to the abuse controversy was intricately managed, with added commentary from his new bosses at Apple, it showed chinks in Dre’s armour, something that does not happen often. It seems we can’t get much emotional clarity from the man behind the boards – Straight Outta Compton essentially gives the audience the same level of access as a Wikipedia page, with the emotional turning point of his brother’s death surely the last personal thing he will share with the listening public (on 2001’s gorgeous closer ‘The Message’). That isn’t to chastise Dre for his privacy – artists can choose whatever they wish to present to the world – but Compton the album shows a man obsessed with work and undesiring to let us in to experience some of his emotional journey. What does it mean to be hip-hop’s first future billionaire, or have well-storied and sometimes tragic relationships with your children? If you’re obsessed with work, what are you working towards exactly? The hungriest he was in 2015 was felt via his fleeting presence on the year’s most important rap album, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, and that was in a voicemail message.
But that is Dr. Dre, as 2015 comes to a close. A year of two Comptons – the cinematic one that represents his entry into folklore and the album that showcased his obsession with working towards pristine art. Both were positional statements rather than fully fledged projects, and threatened temporarily by ugly realities. If his past doesn’t resurface in 2016, then Dr. Dre can’t be touched. But what difference could it make to the Dre persona when he never allows us in?