Time has really passed since The Chronic came out. The film Straight Outta Compton, the HBO mini-series The Defiant Ones, and Dr. Dre’s third solo album Compton have all come out in the last few years, each re-mythologizing the birth of G-Funk and west coast hip-hop. The Chronic has become iconic to new audiences, and it has been—again and again—noted by critics and artists alike as being one of the greatest albums ever recorded.
And perhaps rightfully so. The breadth of style track to track is remarkable, even more so given the cohesiveness of the album as a whole; the interplay of drums and bass is occasionally gasp-inducing; there should be a Behind the Music episode just about the transition from track 4 to track 5; and who would have thought that dentist-drill synths could sound laid back? Everything about the production of the record situates Dre as an indisputable innovator and disruptor in hip-hop.
When The Chronic’s repeated memorialization is not emphasizing the record’s masterful production, it is pointing to its generally profane and violent subject matter, appropriately contextualizing the lyrics in terms of social realism and free speech boundary-pushing. But in general there is no popular description of Dre’s lyricism—there is not the frank acknowledgement that, for a milestone rap album, the central rapper does not seem to have evolved all that much from his recordings of four years previously, at least not in the way the rest of hip-hop had between 1988 and 1992.
Talking about Dre’s rapping necessitates first talking about Snoop Dogg’s, the MC who is ultimately the album’s star. Snoop’s spoken-word introduction to the listener on the opening track is mood-setting and situates him as the record’s figurehead, not dissimilar to Nicki’s introduction on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The gravity of his charisma is immediately apparent and is comparable to ODB’s on 36 Chambers a year later. Most importantly of all, Snoop’s rapping is really, really good and rife with lyrical flourishes that sound actually effortless.
On “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” the album’s first and most successful single, consider Snoop’s rhythm on “Ready to make an entrance…” and “Give me the microphone first…”
Consider his melodic touch on “nothin’ but a G thang, baby” and the following two lines on which harmonies are able to land.
Consider his hilarious comparison of himself to funky, old collard greens.
Now compare all of this to Dre’s flow. It is rhythmically regimented, poetically awkward, even clumsy. He seems to reach for the quickest rhyme or the first one that comes to mind instead of the most effective:
Used to be my homie, used to be my ace
Now I wanna slap the taste out your mouth
Make ya bow down to the Row
Fuckin’ me, now I’m fuckin’ you, little ho
…or just abandoning rhymes altogether:
Bodies being found on Greenleaf
With their fucking heads cut off
Motherfucker, I’m Dre
Answering Snoop’s food lyric on “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” Dre’s second verse features the cringe-worthy:
Droppin’ the funky shit
That’s makin’ the sucker n****s mumble
When I’m on the mic it’s like a cookie:
They all crumble
This is not the type of masterful setup/punchline one might expect from someone whose name is synonymous with hip-hop evolution. One often gets the sense that, lyrically, Dre is having a hard time catching up to some of Snoop’s least listenable rhymes.
And there is a veritable heap of unlistenable rhymes on this record. Beyond the strangeness of such a foundational hip-hop album being packed with unconventionally half-baked lyrics, the most difficult part of engaging The Chronic today is its obsessive employment of misogyny and homophobia, specifically the way that the same sexual violence threatened against Dre’s and Snoop’s rivals is leveled as an inevitability to every woman described on the record.
The most egregious example of obsessive misogyny would be on The Chronic’s last track, “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” Verses from five different rappers exclusively describe women as being expendable sex objects, simultaneously somehow dismissive and also hateful, with guest rapper Kurupt offering:
We don’t love them tricks
‘Cause a trick’s a bitch
And my dick’s constantly in her mouth
This brand of sexual fantasy/delusion is anticipated by each of the album’s three skits and an oppressive enfilade of references to the rappers’ genitals. The homophobia can be characterized similarly, with Dre and Snoop ambiguously obliging their dick-and-ball obsessed rivals or dominating them in such a way where a blowjob would signify a sort of kowtow. The opening tracks give us:
I want y'all to put these bizzalls in your jizzaws
And work them like a strizzaw
I'm hollering 187 with my dick in your mouth, beyotch
Gap teeth in your mouth so my dick's gots to fit
With my nuts on your tonsils
While you're onstage rapping at your wack-ass concert
And I'mma snatch your ass from the backside
To show you how Death Row pull off that hoo-ride
These lyrics paired with throwaway homophobic jibes (e.g., But here's a jimmy joke about your momma that you might not like / I heard she was the 'Frisco dyke) cement a general ethos within the record that homosexuality equals violence or is entitled to it. All of this is to say that The Chronic is very hard to listen to if one is even remotely sensitive to the shittiness of generalized disrespect and hatred; enjoying the album basically necessitates willful ignorance on some level.
But simply admonishing this wildly acclaimed album because of its violence seems simplistic in 2018, mostly because similar criticisms have been leveled already. What seems more appropriate to me is to re-contextualize the album completely by shifting Dre’s legacy from undeniable hip-hop legend to profitable post-Reagan shocker.
Comparisons between N.W.A. and Guns N’ Roses have been made before—Matthew Duersten wrote about the similarities between Straight Outta Compton and Appetite for Destruction for Los Angeles Magazine in 2014: Los Angeles origins, penchants for sexualized violence, vocal conflicts with contemporary musical peers. True, I guess, although his analysis was ultimately that people should like both groups. The more compelling point was missed entirely, that the two could be framed as existing within the same musical tradition of pre-millennium taboo.
Dre’s legacy following The Chronic can be characterized similarly. His massive involvement in the launching of Eminem’s career and his prominent production on Em’s first three albums betray a bottom-line interest in profane button-pushing.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism. Again, developing a moral framework in which listening to flawed music can be politically correct seems beside the point and played out. What’s striking in the context of this recent resurgence in the Dr. Dre narrative is the seeming necessity to reconcile the horror with the iconography: Dre is simultaneously a spearhead of free speech in popular music and should also feel remorse for the things he’s said; he is an irrefutable hip-hop godfather whose music is now popularly viewed as deeply flawed. The reconciliation isn’t necessary. Dre is a shock-rocker, and The Chronic is his best album.