When last we saw Dr. Dre, the producer who helped to invent gangsta rap with N.W.A back in the '80s, he'd become a kinder, gentler rapper. His eclectic, adventurous 1996 CD "Dr. Dre Presents the Aftermath" featured strings, Supremes-like vocals and appearances by obscure aspiring rappers; on the video for the single "Been There, Done That," a tuxedoed Dre did a slinky tango. And guess what: the CD sold only a fourth as much as Dre's hard-edged 1992 "The Chronic," the rap album of the decade. "It just didn't work out the way I planned," says Dre, a.k.a. Andre Young. "I had people my mom's age coming up to me saying, 'Oh, I really liked that tango dance song.' That was cool, but that's not who my peeps are. That's not who made me successful. So I knew I had to come back to where it all began."
This week Dre's peeps will get the album they've been waiting for. "The Chronic 2001" has irresistible grooves, the old lowrider funk, the b----es-and-hos rhetoric (exhibit A: "You Can't Make a Ho Into a Housewife"), the sex and dope smoking. Dre's old N.W.A comrade M.C. Ren is back, along with Snoop Dogg, the guest star of "The Chronic," and--the big surprise--the young white rapper Eminem. "I grew up wanting to work with Dre," Eminem says. "And I take pride in helping him get back his killer instinct. He'd mellowed out, and I was there to bring him right back." Well, that's one theory. But Dre himself gives some of the credit to his wife. "I was in a different space," he says. "I'm 34, married with daughters, and I wanted to show respect for the women in my life. But she encouraged me to go back to the 'b----es and hos.' She was like, 'That's the real Dre'."
The fact is, they're all the real Dre. There's the perfectionist with the million-dollar ear, who can tell you about the microphone static on Marvin Gaye's '70s classic "Distant Lover." There's the politically aware entrepreneur who still mourns the demise of Death Row Records, from which he departed in 1996 because of differences with partner Suge Knight: "If Death Row had just stayed on course, it could've been the biggest s--t black people had." And, inevitably, there's Dre the controversialist. "Listening to the stuff on the radio today, you'd think rap is one big sample. That's an insult to all of us who've been here from the beginning." Hmm. Sounds almost like he's talking about Sean (Puffy) Combs. "I respect Puffy as a businessman," says Dre. "I can't front on that. But as a musician, he's really hurt the art form. Be creative--learn the craft. Don't just throw something out there over somebody else's beat. Some of us work hard to make the art form something people can respect."
And we can't front on that. Whatever you think about the words, musically "The Chronic 2001" is a thing of beauty, and its hardest-kicking track, "Forgot About Dre," serves notice--as Dre himself explains--on "all those people who thought I'd lost my way." And now that he's back in the world of hardcore rap, he plans to produce new CDs for Snoop and Eminem, and an N.W.A reunion. "Then I'm going to sit back and see what happens next." Something kinder and gentler? More tangos? Since Dr. Dre has us expecting the unexpected, he may surprise us with more of the same.