‘Compton’ Puts Dr. Dre Back in the Director’s Chair as Hip Hop’s Reigning Auteur

The word auteur is thrown around more and more to describe rap’s greatest minds, but the release of Compton makes one wonder whether anyone deserves this tag more than Dr. Dre. There is no doubt that Kanye West’s albums are robust orchestrations with countless moving parts, but his reliance on readymades of sound, bits of already existing crate glory, belies his role as hip-hop’s resident curator. An auteur, properly designated, creates fully formed cinematic worlds — or at least the soundtracks to them. And, as Jon Caramanica points out in his excellent review of Compton, Dre’s “real peers” are film composers — he mentions John Williams, but Bernard Herrmann makes more sense to me — who “communicate emotional direction with broad, legible strokes that set the tone for the details to be sprinkled atop them.”

Dre’s long-awaited third album opens, fittingly, with a cinematic prologue that proves the city of Compton is not only the set or setting of this feature, but, as the cliché goes, its protagonist. “Compton was the American dream,” it begins before dovetailing into a refreshingly stone-faced expression of black politics — a move that unionizes the album not only with Dre’s originary work with N.W.A., but also with Compton’s young geniuses, Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples (who spent plenty of time there). The narrative is unsparing (it reminds me of Dickens’ masterfully dark opening to Bleak House) in the way it mocks white flight (“Whites don’t buy houses in Compton anymore”) and broaches the unsayable: “Juvenile gang activity, muggings, small robberies make some blacks want to leave.”

Compton’s first proper song, “Talk About It,” opens with Dre acolyte King Mez, who promptly trucks the themes of the intro into familiar territory. (“Fuck Glocks,” says Mez, “I’m all about Fort Knox.”) Still, Mez knows this all makes more sense than it would on a record less rooted in a physical location — he’s trading in a Watch the Throne logic of money over guns, but he’s talking to actual people in Compton. Anyway, it doesn’t take long before the principal arrives. “I just bought California,” Dre raps in a way that embellishes the track’s insane percussiveness. Compton is layered with moments like this — that join an almost ballistic, carnival-esque atmosphere with drums that will inspire many iterations of the word “propulsive.” Frankly, for those of us who, like A$AP Rocky, thought To Pimp a Butterfly good but a little too jazzy, Compton is an immediate relief.

This is to say that Compton is a good time. It’s also so huge and muscular and weird that its component parts will take weeks of listening to fairly assess. Nevertheless, at least one fact of the album asserts itself: the features, of which there are many, are quality. In his role as auteur, Dre has often chosen to stay in the background. Here it’s a mix: Compton is an ensemble, and he proves himself by doing what other directors don’t always do — he makes those around him better. If Drake and Kanye West have been recently criticized for overshadowing the talents they cultivate, Dr. Dre might be pitched as the the counterexample. On Compton, Lamar, Snoop, even Xzibit (!) — they’re all either better than usual or at least at the top of their game. The only exception is Eminem, whose verse on “Medicine Man” is a grandstanding act of inadvertent self-parody reminiscent of Jay Z’s verse on “Monster.” It’s also worth mentioning that Compton shows once and for all that Eminem has been superannuated by Kendrick Lamar — who, let’s all admit, often sounds like him. This album had room for only one of the two.

And it’s Lamar on “Deep Water” who steals the scene, so to speak. It’s obvious that he’s reigniting a stray beef with Drake, who will not be so keen to respond this go-round. Still, the verse is more of a teaser, and if Compton lasts it will be seen as just one good moment among many — you don’t fast forward to the good parts of a favorite film. In any case, my early estimation is that Compton is Dre’s Watch the Throne, only his throne is a fold-up director’s chair. Final album or not, I doubt he’s leaving it anytime soon.