1999 / Music

Review: Dr. Dre Fights Against His Past

Rapper On His Own Again

Photo: Death Row Records

Photo: Interscope Records

When Dr. Dre first made his name with the seminal rap group N.W.A., he was a skinny kid, decked out in a Raiders cap, splitting his time behind the turntables and the mike.

By the early ’90s, Dre had proved that he was a master producer — one capable of creating funky and complex grooves and churning out hits.

But after spending years helping other artists behind the scenes, Dre is back with his sophomore solo album, “Dr. Dre 2001.”

It all began more than a decade ago. N.W.A. was formed in 1986 and quickly established itself as the voice of the West Coast rap community and the preeminent gangsta rap group. The group included Dre, rappers Ice Cube, the late Eazy-E, MC Ren and D.J. Yella.

Though the group’s lyrics were chronicles of street life, they were no more socially conscious than rap’s forefathers. The group’s popularity, bravado and freewheeling use of four-letter words were. They
brought L.A.’s gang-bangin’ reality to the ghetto and suburbs alike.

The group’s sound also had a lot to do with it. While Yella and Dre arranged a hodgepodge of ferocious samples for the music (Dre also did his fair share of rapping), Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Ren dueled it out,
trading lines and splitting the beats with their unique vocal styles.

Dre’s choice of samples were the landscape for the songs, the urban jungle in which the lyrics of life, death, love, hatred and violence were embedded.

In 1989, the group released its best record, “Straight Outta Compton.” Though the album’s most famous cut was “F–k Tha Police” (a song that raised the ire of the FBI), the album’s best cuts were gritty
tales like “Gangsta Gangsta” or “Express Yourself,” which was a defiant proclamation of what the group was about: rapping about what was going on in their lives with no holds barred.

In 1991, the group released “Efil4zaggin” without Ice Cube, who left the group following a money dispute. Despite the void left in the group, the album reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart in its
third week of release.

Shortly after its release, however, Dre would also leave the group for the same reasons as Cube. (Rumor has it that the group has reunited for one song and plans on recording a new album due next fall, with Dre’s former protege Snoop Dogg taking the place of Eazy-E, who died of complications due to AIDS in 1995.)

By the time Dre began his solo career, he was allowed to explore the full spectrum of sound. His grooves were now thicker and fuller and more intricate. Less sample-driven, the songs were slow grooves featuring sci-fi keyboard lines. The central focus of his music was the beat and the bassline — sometimes snarling and sinister, other times playful and carefree, it not only set the tone for the song but made it accessible.

After helping set up Death Row Records, Dre began work on his first solo effort, “The Chronic.” More than a gangsta rap masterpiece, it was a hip-hop masterpiece.

But while Dre was just beginning to hit his musical stride, he also discovered the perfect partner in rapper Snoop Dogg.

Snoop was reportedly a friend of Dre’s brother, and his smooth and sly vocals were an excellent counterpoint to Dre’s rough and ready style.

Dre would produce Snoop’s solo debut, “Doggystyle,” which eventually sold 5 million copies. He also produced a hit single, “California Love,” for Tupac Shakur. Both projects expanded on the laid-back funkiness of “The Chronic” but let both rappers leave their individual marks.

But all was not well within Death Row, and shortly after working with Shakur, Dre bolted from the company.

After leaving Death Row, Dre formed his own label, Aftermath, and released a compilation album, “The Aftermath,” in 1996. Though the album didn’t equal the success of his previous work, it showed Dre broadening
his musical horizons.

Dre’s most recent success was the critical acclaim he received for producing the debut album of his new protege, Eminem, last year.

And now, seven years after his own solo debut, Dre offers up “Dr. Dre 2001.”

The overall tone of the new album is one of identity. “Don’t call it a comeback,” LL Cool J once said, and that echoes throughout this album. But besides all the chest pounding, the album is also very personal.

The album really gets going with “The Watcher.” Intensely biographical, the song’s lyrics dwell and document the ups and downs of Dre’s road to stardom — the money wars, the backstabbing, the heartbreaking visits to hospitals (Dre went to visit Eazy-E while he lay dying). The music is a stuttering, subdued rhythm, accentuated by plucked strings and muted horns.

The album’s best track is its first single, “Still D.R.E.” It takes its cue from many of “The Chronic’s” best jams, adding a plucked guitar figure and a buried, slithering bass. The song also reunites Dre with Snoop, who parted ways after Dre left Death Row. The song itself is Dre and Snoop restaking their musical claims and professing Dre’s legacy. Besides selling records, Dre says, “I still take time to perfect the beat and I still got love for the streets.”

But for all his insistence that he was never going soft, there is a moment of vulnerability when he raps, “Even when I was close to defeat/I rose up to my feet.”

“What’s The Difference” is another orchestrated number and a personal tale that sounds like it is an attempt to inspire empathy. Perhaps stung by criticism, Dre lays his soul bare to a certain extent — even saying that he misses Eazy-E — while asserting that he hasn’t lost any of his powers.

But halfway through the song, Eminem hijacks it and it becomes a twisted story about killing his daughter’s mother and driving around with the body.

The album’s most personal moment, however, is “The Message.” Dedicated to Dre’s deceased brother, the song is the “why” conversation Dre might never have had with his brother. It opens with a swirling harp and features soulful vocal interludes starring Mary J. Blige.

Unfortuanately, there is a fair share of misogyny on the record. “F–k You” masks its war against “bitches and hos” with Snoop’s slick rhymes and purring guitar licks. This behavior reaches its lowest point with the musicless “Ed-ucation,” which is an offensive story about a woman getting pregnant to keep a man who isn’t hers. There’s really no point to this story except to “educate” others that there are some people out there who still cling to such notions as gospel.

For the most part, the album relies heavily on “The Chronic’s” established pattern: “Rapper A” rhymes over a slow-tempo tune with spacey-squiggle keyboard effects, while a softer-voiced “rapper B”/”singer A” sings or raps the chorus.

The only real change in Dre’s recipe is that the basslines are almost invisible (the only song with any kind of danceable bassline is the funky “Let’s Get High”). And Dre’s heavy-handed use of bass on his previous efforts was the cornerstone of his sound. Its absence robs most of these songs of any power, not to mention accessibility.

Overall, the album is a frustrated effort. It is mostly formulaic, relying too much on mutated grooves from “The Chronic.” But for Dre’s focus on telling everybody he knows who is and what he’s done, he never really escapes those accomplishments, though he does branch out a bit with his use of strings and horns.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 1999 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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