For the last eight years, Detox has existed in a similar information void -- and we love it. The lack of information makes the market rife for speculation. All Punxsutawney Dre needs to do is pop up once a year to remind us that the album is on the way and make some abstract comments about drums tones, and we continue spinning the wheels. However, as recently as this past weekend Dre's principle protege, Bishop Lamont, performed purported album material, which has only further stirred the rumor pot.
For those who find this an exercise in futility, despair not: Dre's been leaving clues in plain sight. Though solo material has been scant, his post-2001 output is filled with top-ten collaborations -- Eminem's "Real Slim Shady"; Eve's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind"; Mary J. Blige's "Family Affair"; 50 Cent's "In Da Club"; the Game's "How We Do" -- and in the last two years alone held notable spots on the albums of major artists including Jay-Z, Nas and 50 Cent. Furthermore, his collaborative work has been consistent in purpose and subtle in progression. Looking at this output provides a glimpse at Dre's changing values and techniques.
The warning signs came quickly: Dre became comfortable with his 2001 success and wore the hide off those beats. Snoop's "Lay Low," Eminem's "Bitch Please II," Jay-Z's "The Watcher 2" and noticeably the NWA reunion cut "Chin Check" all conjured those spare 2001 drums, bass burps and celeste or horn counterpoint parts. Among these, 2000's "Hello" was exceptional for its literal adherence to Dre's past laurels. Over a familiar break, Dre reunited again with the NWA alum to demand their propers for "starting this gangsta shit." While all three took turns explaining their vainglorious lives and accomplishments, Dre broke from rhyming and more or less spoke his mind: "I don't need your respect/ I don't need to make another album, bitch/ I don't got to do shit." OK. Although Dre may have been off with the "Hello" beat, his verse was a necessary vent. Considering his recent success carving out an America's Worst Nightmare persona for Eminem, it made sense for him to move further behind the production board to make his statements.
Much of Dre's success has revolved around shaping an artist's musical identity. Instead of just giving an emcee a track to spit atop, he helped shape Snoop's, Eminem's and 50's respective sound. Thus, Snoop became the '90s G; Em became the Cable Guy; and 50 became the club thug. But perhaps because Dre's sonic tutelage has been so holistic, each artist has left the nest with varying degrees of success. Snoop spent years trying to tap an empty G-Funk well before recreating himself (with notable success) as a neo-pimp. Dre has participated on every 50 album but has relinquished the job of hitmaking to other producers; most recently, Ty Fife re-upped Dre's "Outta Control" for 50's requisite annual hit "Straight to the Bank."
However, "Fight Night," a minor D12 posse cut from the group's 2001 album, Devil's Night, is an example of the recognizability and value of the good Doc's lessons. Eminem took the core of the song -- its aggressive yet droning tone -- and turned it into his own freestyle/performance anthem "Lose Yourself." Freed from the erratic contributions of his cohorts, Em used the structure of "Fight Night," "Kashimir"-like guitar riff and all, to give his 8 Mile adrenaline-pumper the necessary Cinerama drama. Whether intentional or not, Dre's lessons have allowed his proteges to graduate -- in Em's case, from a novel caricature to a VH1-worthy dramatic actor.
Dre's 2001 collaboration with Eve "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" rang the alarm about his pop ambitions, but the 2002 follow-up "Satisfaction" better captured his understanding of pop's sugar-sweet aesthetics. Dre curbed the gangsta lean of "Let Me Blow" by de-emphasizing the drums and pushing up the bass. He also kept Eve's sass in the fore and the sultry femme vox in the background. In short, he played up the Pussycat-feminist appeal of "Let Me Blow." But he forgot ine major ingredient, the crossover pop-star endorsement (e.g., Gwen Stefani), which left "Satisfaction" lingering at the lower end of the charts. That said, "Satisfaction" was an excellent example of Andre's pop music education -- lessons that he has clearly shared with his studio collaborators, like Scott Storch (Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera), Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette), and later on Mark Batson (Dave Matthews Band) -- and his interest in breaking from "this gangsta shit."
As mentioned above, Dre's relationship with 50 Cent has been exceptional because unlike with many of his past proteges, he has maintained a steady presence on all of 50's albums. Their musical relationship has not only built the rapper's identity but that of an entire genre. In other words: Dre helped Eminem craft specific sounds that have become unique to Eminem (who else would ride "The Real Slim Shady" or "Just Lose It"?); in the case of 50 Cent, Dre helped create sounds that signified an entire category/"tag" of hip-hop. Dre and 50 crafted the gangsta sound and image of the 2000s.
"Heat," a comparatively minor single from 50's heralded major-label debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin', was the bizarro blaze of glory that literally summarized this concept. Before M.I.A. gave the middle class the pass to point two in the air like Gene Autry (and perhaps why the "thug life" crack is still so potent), Dre and 50 paired a beat based on guns cocking and firing with ridiculously violent lyrics ("Your brain jump out the top/ like Jack-in-the-box"). Like today's shoot-'em-up video games or Hollywood action sequences, the song was an intentional embodiment of every violent gun fantasy.
Credit Dre for playing up this quality in 50: His kill-'em-all-and-let-liberal-academics-sort-it-out pose was not just spin on entertainment and media, but was being played out in the real life invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Dre and 50 recognized the necessary shift in G culture. The '90s G had the Clintonian panache to do a C-walk while plugging a cap in your ass, but today's gangsta simply killed by any means necessary -- repetitious, unflappable and mechanical. Or, as 50 intoned, "God's on your side/ Shit, I'm a'ight with that/ 'Cuz we gon' reload them clips and come right back." "Heat" became the musical equivalent.
So, what was Dre planning for the Game? The pitch was that Compton-bred Jayceon Taylor would "bring back" the West Coast. But Dre's introduction of the Game on the rapper's major-label debut single, "Westside Story," told a more nuanced story. Beneath the gang shot-outs, local references and choral emphasis on "Wessyde!" lurked a familiar beat. The music didn't fit any regional stereotype: It wasn't West Coast G-funk, nor was it East Coast hardcore. No, this was the sound of Dre's international pop success Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Dre seemingly opted for increasing the brand recognition of the G-Unit stable instead of branching out musically. "Westside Story" was more evidence of Dre's marketing savvy rather than musical innovation. That the relationship between Dre and the Game became estranged was perhaps a blessing in disguise. Each has since been freed of the obligation of churning out the same material for the sake of a brand.
Singer Truth Hurts received an unfair amount of ink in the early 2000s for being an example of the flaws in Dre's artist-centric label Aftermath Entertainment. Ironic jokes -- maybe she hurts too much -- came easily. Which was a shame because Dre made his first serious post-2001 creative breakthrough on the singer's debut, Truthfully Speaking. Though he produced relatively little of the album, his oversight led to a sonically adventurous album. The single "Addictive" responded to the then-popular interest in Bollywood samples by pairing one of the great playback singers Lata Mangeshkar with Truth Hurts' powerful voice. "Grown" and "Queen of the Ghetto" were anthems that would make Oprah bristle. And Dre's own "Push Play" added weeded sea legs to his normally glossy beats. However, perhaps because the record strayed too far from the pack, Truthfully Speaking received weak promotion and Dre's experiment fizzled out.
Fast forward to 2007 and by now Dre had refined his production approach. He focused increasingly on details and tailored his music for each voice. So in a sense Sunshine Anderson's "Problems" may have been his attempt at redeeming the Truth Hurts debacle. Granted, Anderson's smooth chops hardly compare with the rugged gospel-inflection of Truth Hurts. And Anderson was a one-off, not one of Dre's pet projects. That said, "Problems" was mutually beneficial for both singer and producer: Anderson got to show off the robust side of her voice and Dre got to revisit Truth Hurts' corner blues. The result was a compromise: Where Dre brought out the adventure and fire in Truth Hurts, he instead smoothed Sunshine Anderson's edges, while retained that blues core. The low brass stabs lent a '50s Vegas swinger quality that calmed Anderson's troubled hook, "I wish I could drink and smoke my problems away." In a sense, the song is a case of Dre learning the same lessons of past generations of black entertainers. However, Dre seems able to balance his artistic experiments with his commercial concessions.
Most of Dre's "bangers" knocked systems out on the strength of the drums and low end, instead of a fracas of sharp sounds (think of the staccato scratches of Premier or Kanye's sped-up samples on his early works) or fat synths (like how Timbaland and Polow da Don have given many of their songs a bowling pin shape). In contrast, Dre's "The Next Episode" and "In da Club" made speakers rumble like Paul Bunyon strolling with ankle weights. Which made "I'm Just Getting Warm," a to-date unreleased Busta nugget, a curiosity on Dre's resume.
A fracas of high-pitched pings carried the song like a Swizz Beatz production. And the LL homage was an atypical nod to Dre's peer -- as opposed to his usual move to reach in the crates for an older reference. Frankly, the song made Dre sound young. The move may have suited Busta because of the rapper's constant efforts to stay on the top shelf of hip-hop stars. But the track sticks out in Dre's oeuvreas an unnecessary daliance into pop concessions.
Dre took outsourcing rhymes to a new level following his altercation at the 2006 Vibe Music Awards. He maintained his producer role and had Crooked I spit three verses on his behalf. While having others respond to one's beef was nothing new, "Say Dr. Dre" was an unusual response record because Crooked I's performance as Dre. The MC not only channeled Dre's anger but also alternately slipped in and out of Dre's voice: "I made the chronic leaf a logo for pot culture"; "I own the patent on gangsta rappin'." The beat itself was an anonymous sloth, typical of dis/response/freestyle fare. But the song as a whole acted as an unintentional metaphor for Dre's role as a producer: back in the cut, calling the shots.
As early as 2002, Dre expressed his uninterest in mainstream topics in rap. Though he never specified his preferred alternatives, the most distinct quality of Dre's music in the last few years has been an air of sophistication. Many of these records are better suited for a crisp fall evening with a warm glass of brandy instead of a bottle of cold Cris in a steamy club.
It is no surprise that Dre's experiments have worked mostly with seasoned artists, like Jay-Z. The seeming minimalism of 2006's "Lost Ones" -- just a piano riff, drums and bass and voice for counterpoint -- was a perfect fit for the even-headed Hov. The beat created enough emotional backdrop to add weight to Jay's stories: After all, how much could Everyman actually care about a millionaire's celebrity break-up with a business partner, GF troubles and death of his nephew?
Much like "Lost Ones," Lamont's "Grow Up" illustrates Dre's greatest strength: to play up an MC's strengths. In stark contrast to his chest-beating anthems for 50 Cent, Eminem or the Game, all of which seem to compete with the MC for the listener's attention, Dre took a backseat and allowed the MC to (literally) do all the talking. Like Steve Reich performing a tight-rope act, he crafted a track that breathed so softly that it required Lamont to drive the song through lyric and performance. Instead of embracing the impersonal FedEx/file-transfer method of today's music composition, Dre makes clear that close collaboration still has a place in his art.
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