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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Straight Outta Compton (Release Date: 8-14-2015) and Dr. Dre: Compton (Release Date: 8-7-2015)

        Andre Young is the most important individual in the history of Hip Hop, it's not even especially close. The near-billionaire first met the world at the age of 23, multi-tasking as a rapper and, more importantly, a producer on N.W.A's seminal debut album, Straight Outta Compton. While his battering-ram flow has remained popular since the moment America first lent an ear, his work behind the soundboard is undeniably his greater contribution, playing puppet master behind some of the genre's greatest and most memorable moments. In other words, Dr. Dre is a curator first, and an artist second, far more interested in promoting Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Beats headphones than he is hearing his own voice on wax. It makes perfect sense that he would enjoy producing a movie about the rise and fall of N.W.A, pulling the strings from behind the curtain make everything work juuuust riiight. It's equally unsurprising then that Dre would pick this moment, after a 16-year hiatus from busting rhymes himself, to finally drop his final solo album; in the span of fewer than ten days, Young is not only introducing us to his origins, but also ridding out into the sunset, the kind of career bookend that unthinkably few are ever afforded. Needless to say, this has been Fuck Wit Dre Day  week.

        And yes, you did read that correctly; there's finally a new Dr. Dre disc. Having contributed only two solo LP's over his nearly three-decades-old career, the tectonic plates started shifting when the MC's old running mate Ice Cube got on Philadelphia's Power 99 radio station and announced that Dre had just finished an album inspired by his experience working on the film. This news, of course, rode in on the coattails of years of anticipation for Detox, Young's stated follow-up to 2001 that never quite saw the light of day. Those who find it strange that the mogul would scrap such a feverishly anticipated offering in favor of a disc he apparently rushed through in far less than a year need to take another look down at those tea leaves; by leaving his fans waiting for so long without ever previously forsaking the project, the Doctor had painted himself into a corner. If Detox was anything less than a cold hard classic, rap enthusiasts the world over would never forgive him. In flipping the script and turning his latest and climactic release into some semblance of a soundtrack, Dr. Dre accomplishes something that seemed impossible as recently as the end of July; a clean escape from all those metric tons of pressure, and some breathing room to boot.

        Thankfully for any fans of his pre-existing catalogue, Dre makes sure to inhale. Compton is far more sprawling and ambitious that one could have possibly expected, spanning 16 tracks and pushing past the hour mark, swapping out one musical styling for another on a countless number of occasions. For a guy often cited as the father of G Funk, a mold of beat-making that emphasizes simplicity and a lack of clutter, the instrumentals here are startlingly dense, revealing subtle nuances upon repeat listens. The deep funk of All In a Day's Work's bass line powers the track from first moment to last, riding out on a nifty, skittering drum beat. For the Love of Money employs that rat-a-tat clicking sound that defines much of southern hip hop to slowed-down, stop-and-start perfection before handing the keys to a spanish guitar. Compton plays out like the hip hop album version of the Oscar Ceremony, where no expense is ever spared, the production is grandstanding and bombastic, and just about any sound or thematic shift seems possible at anytime. The variety and intricacy may prove off-putting to fans of Dre's typically stripped-down aesthetic, but those capable of keeping an open-mind on such a completely closed subject will get a rush out of Compton's uncompromising indulgence.

        In many ways, this is also true of Straight Outta Compton, a film that nearly requires some level of fandom out of its audience to pull it over the finish line. The movie opens in 1986, and focuses almost exclusively on the group's three most prominent members. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is the money man, having accumulated some modest funds through his life as a drug dealer before unwittingly becoming the fourth rapper in the legendary group's arsenal. The words he utters first flow through the pen of a young Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), the group's poet laureate of profanity who, at least in the film's iteration, is not as present on 'the street' as his rhymes would suggest. The same is true of Dre (Corey Hawkins), a music nut who prefers a pair of headphones to a handgun, and a soundboard to a mic. After Eazy puts up the money to print the group's first single, Boyz-N-the Hood, the collective is approached by Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), a decreasingly relevant music manager who sees the revolutionary appeal of N.W.A upon first listen. With his help, the group sky-rockets to both fame and fortune, a pair of devilries that quickly turn them against one another.

        If that sounds just a little too similar to a cautionary tale you'd see on VH1's Behind the Music, that's because it absolutely is. The script, as written by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, is a slave to the music biopic formula: they start at the bottom, attain wild success in the first hour, are driven apart by sex and money, and eventually come to realize that nothing should stand in the way of their bond. My apologies to anyone who thinks I should have included a spoiler disclaimer before that last sentence, but ruining the narrative minutia of Straight Outta Compton is sort of like ruining the grand finale of a maze you'd find in the Sunday paper; you might not know exactly how it arrives at its final destination, but both the start and the finish are apparent at first glance. This adherence to rhetoric also assures that the picture, just like all of its genre contemporaries, is decidedly more engaging and exciting in its first half.

       Not everything on hand is cliche. Director F. Gary Gary is clearly interested in both stylistic flourishes and pocket-sized character moments, even as the film's narrative engine constantly forces him to move on from places and ideas in which he might otherwise stay. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, a consistent Darren Aronofsky collaborator, packs the flick with vivid imagery, swooping in and out of rooms and conversations, honing in on certain moments to the point where the frames become almost hypnotic. While in the theater, these instances were frequent and alluring enough to distract from all the common-place aspects that color in the margins, but the movie starts to fray at the seams as soon as you give it time to settle. The films high points, like Eazy's first foray into the studio, or the group's ill-fated Detroit concert, will prove irresistible to the bored TV watchers who encounter SOC when it begins its assured endless rotation on almost every cable channel below 100; they'll find it equally easy to grab the remote when all the standard issue elements reappear.

        Turning away from Compton is entirely more difficult, do in large part to the revolving door of rappers on hand. Given that this is the final offering from hip-hop's most accomplished talent scout, all of Dre's most famous finds can be located on the track list. Ice Cube largely sleepwalks through his verse on Issues, though Snoop Dogg has hardly ever sounded as hungry as he does on One Shot One Kill. Eminem, an MC who's never sounded anything less than starving, bites down hard on Medicine Man, and Kendrick Lamar, present on three different tracks, continues his mind-bogglingly triumphant 2015 by almost stealing the album from Dre himself, all while putting the screws to Drake on more than one occasion. The cast is rounded out by a slew of lesser-known artists, but much of what your ears fail to recognize is actually Dre himself. Young nearly sounds like a different person on a few different tracks, spitting Kendrick's lyrics on Genocide with unforeseeable aplomb, almost desperate sounding on the second half of Darkside/Gone. Possibly the album's best moment, however, comes when the legend takes the stage all by himself, on the illustriously produced closer Talking to My Diary.

        Talking is the only track from Compton actually employed in the film that supposedly inspired its creation, likely because it's also the number most concerned with Dre's story and legacy. Gary's film is positively obsessed with deifying its subject manner, to the point of stripping the outfit of some of their most essential elements. N.W.A was, at their core, a five-pack of shock artists and provocateurs, so when Jackson proudly intones that, "Our art is a reflection of our reality," it's difficult not to think of Eazy-E informing us on 8-Ball Remix that, "Police (are) on (his) drawers/ (he) has to pause/ 40 ounce in (his) lap/ and it's freezing (his) balls." This is not meant as in insult or diminishment; N.W.A threw a wrench into the machine of popular music that's still messing with the system unto this very day. The movie would just rather you think of these five men as visionaries with a salacious streak than trouble-makers who eventually became capable of branding themselves and altering the musical landscape in the process.

        Doing so would require 'a take,' something for which Straight Outta Compton is desperately starved. Yes, the two-and-a-half-hour film is smartly paced, exquisitely acted, and features some of the best sound design in years, but the need to make an epic robs the movie of any real focus. Contracts are signed after one conversation, future wives are met suddenly, and being proposed to the next time they arrive on screen; there's simply too much story here to satisfyingly cram into 150 minutes, forcing even cursory fans of the group to pine over just how tremendous an eight-hour mini-series might have been. There's certainly enough gas in the tank, and perhaps the cinematic rendering of N.W.A's career will be rounded out by the inevitable film versions of the lives of Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg. The rapping career of the real-life Dre needs no further fleshing out. Compton might not be the jaw-dropping achievement that Detox was supposed to be, but the album ensures that Young can finally ride out into the sunset with his head held high, no doctor required.

Straight Outta Compton: B-
Compton: B+



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