Faded Signs

The Woes That Grew from Concrete

Compton: A Soundtrack by Dr. Dre begins with a documentary detour. A voice with diction sharper than a newly creased pair of khakis welcomes us to a world that “gang activity, muggings and small robberies make blacks want to leave.” The archival audio seems to have been pulled from a 60 Minutes newscast, but we don’t have much time to source the sound. The intro hardly has time to hang in the air before it gives way to the thunderous “Talk About It.” For listeners who don’t abandon the record before it can mature, the subsequent hour of music cements Dr. Dre’s legacy as a hip-hop patriarch with few parallels.

We’ve seen musical figureheads mine local talent on the way to international stardom before. During the heyday of a still-industrialized Detroit, Motown mogul Barry Gordy mimicked automotive production to assemble hit after hit in the mid-20th century. But Dr. Dre’s decades-long reign as one of rap’s most sought-after producers feels different somehow—not an icon of a stable industry, but more like a stepfather to a generation of neglected Gen-Xers and Millennials. Compton is nothing if not a showcase of Dr. Dre’s ability to nurse careers across generations.

On Compton, Detroiters Xzibit and Eminem make predicted guest spots. Kendrick Lamar stops by periodically to remind us that he’s really good at rapping. And when the voice of Dre’s former NWA groupmate Eazy-E shows up on “Darkside,” you realize something: Compton has been throwing a block party for the past 30 years—but we’re still not sure who was invited and who snuck in. The fact that the city has a cultural profile at all—let alone a towering one—is an uncanny collision of talent and corporate appropriation.

We shouldn’t even know what a “Compton” is. It belongs to the same tier of deindustrialized metropolitan satellites as Ferguson and West Baltimore—places where Social Security and revenue from illicit activities are the only sources of income for thousands of households. In his book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, Jeff Chang writes, “If blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive labor, hip-hop culture arose from the conditions of no work.” On the heels of his new album and the new NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, Dr. Dre has been called many things: a misogynist, a visionary and a legend. All are correct. He’s also a job-creator in a world where steady work is hard to come by.

The cultural logic of any given era tends to reflect how people make (or don’t make) a living. And Dre’s day is very different from Barry Gordy’s. Think about Fred Astaire gallantly gliding around the stage or Marilyn Monroe’s insouciant sex appeal. About how easy they made it all look. Certain performers (see: Knowles-Carter, Beyoncè) still channel this sort of beyond-reproach perfection. But by and large, perfection has no place in a world as precarious and insecure as ours. Today, we want performers who let us know just how hard it is to “make it.” Who show us what it means to struggle and succeed. Who exhibit qualities that their less fortunate peers don’t.

But a culture that celebrates winners also depends on the visibility of the losers. Meek Mill is the canvas on which Drake’s greatness is ghostwritten. And there’s no legend of Dr. Dre without the crackheads, “welfare queens,” and unemployed droves of Compton, Calif. 

So much of American entertainment is a talent show titled Shame Game—and as consumers, we’re all appointed judges. We’re preoccupied with parsing the lives of people who somehow made it out of cities and situations that were designed to kill them. We want our geniuses to escape from the gutter, so that we can guilt them for doing so.

Just ask LeBron James. A native of northeast Ohio, the soon-to-be billionaire basketball player named his reality TV show Survivor’s Remorse. His embrace of the Straight Outta Compton meme is no mistake, because the facts of familial abandonment and federal neglect that plague Akron are the same ones that nearly crippled Compton. In America, we like to spread the pain around. And Compton’s is everybody’s.

Seventy years ago, German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht espoused the revolutionary potential of performers who broke the imaginary wall between spectators and audiences. By directly addressing audiences who only expected to be passively entertained, Brecht believed artists could play a role in waking masses from their sociopolitical slumber. Documentaries like the audio clip that opens Compton: A Soundtrack use this device to teach us things. And reality TV shows use it to make us feel like we’re witnessing the drama unfold in real time. But what Brecht couldn’t have imagined was how hip-hop would take the act of breaking the 4th wall to the absolute sonic extreme.

The art form that Dr. Dre has perfected refuses to let us separate it from the situations that spawned it. In fact, it goes out of its way to tell us about them. We listen to rap records fully expecting to be cursed out for an hour. “Fuck your hope, fuck your mama, fuck your daddy, fuck your dead homie,” barks Kendrick Lamar on “Genocide.” Under all the profanity and posing, we suspect these artists are speaking our pain—not just theirs, but all of America’s.

Hip-hop is what happens when Monsanto finds the underground vine that spawned the “rose that grew from concrete,” then duplicates its distressed genes for mass consumption. It’s the cultural consequence of a noncommittal social code: the brightest, boldest bomb of survivor-obsessed culture that needs losers just as much as it needs winners; that depends on death as much as it professes to love life.

In celebrating Dr. Dre, we aren’t just celebrating the music. We’re celebrating the fact that he lived long enough to make it.