Thursday, September 6, 2007

No. 137: The Chronic


Band: Dr. Dre
Album: The Chronic
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of the most important hip hop albums ever, "The Chronic" brought the G-Funk to the forefront. Dre's production sampled tons of Parliament/Funkadelic records and started the careers of Snoop Dogg (then known as Snoop Doggy Dogg), Nate Dogg and (not on this album, but later) his step-brother Warren G.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: This is probably the record that made rap what it is today. Other than "Nevermind," "The Chronic" is probably the most important album of the 1990s. It should be higher.
Best song: Building off that theme, save for "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Nuthin' but a "G" Thang" was probably the most important song from that decade.
Worst song: "Lyrical Gangbang" isn't great.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

I love this album. Let's get that out of the way first. I'm a free speech absolutist. I'm also someone who is quick to dismiss lyrics -- though you can't really do that with hip hop records as much. G-Funk was the one of the first times in hip hop where flow and rhymes were almost (but certainly not) secondary to the production. The grooves and rhythms became the stars of the records.

That's where "The Chronic" came into it. Sampling loads of Parliament/Funkadelic, Bill Withers and other old funk records, Dr. Dre slowed down the speed of hip hop.

This new pace of hip hop couldn't have asked for a better voice than Snoop Doggy Dogg (now just Snoop Dogg). Snoop's languid voice reflects his stature; Thin, slow, smooth and long. Don't listen to his words; They're violent and misogynist. Listen to his voice. In the spirit of Ozzy, Johnny Rotten and Kurt Cobain, Snoop's voice is flat perfect for the style he is most identified with.

(Compare it to Dre's voice. Dre is lower and harder. Listening to his raps over the slower "Chronic" records -- "Nuthin' but a "G" Thang," specifically -- as compared to Snoop's... There's no contest. Snoop is made for this music.)

Part of the draw of "Nuthin' but a "G" Thang" is the zeitgeist video. While the lyrics were violent ("pimpin' hoes and clockin' a grip like I was Dolemite"), the video just showed a bunch of people hanging out at a picnic. Eating barbecue, playing volleyball, rolling in drop-top low-riders, the infant dancing, etc. The party moves t someone's house where there's a whole fridge dedicated to malt liquor. People dancing. Lots of people dancing.

Outside of the lyrics, there's the constant strain of misogyny in the video. The woman soaked by men pouring malt liquor on her and the woman playing volleyball getting her bikini top ripped down. Playful fun in another context, sure, but with a record that says "hoes" as much as it says "motherfucker," it's not playful anymore.

Still, there's no way to deny these beats. Snoop, Warren G and Dre could be reading from "Mein Kampf" and I'd probably still think the record was decent. That's how great the production is with the sampling here. It's Dre's opus, it's the first G-Funk record and it's a classic.

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In 1994, about a year and a half after "The Chronic" came out, Chicago rapper Common released a song called "I Used To Love H.E.R." The song is about a love affair with a girl, a metaphor for hip hop. The plot revolves around the girl's afrocentric start, her move towards social consciousness and eventually, Common's eventual disenchantment towards her when "she broke to the West coast."

Common eventually drops this little nugget:

Now she be in the burbs lookin' rock and dressin' hip
And on some dumb shit, when she comes to the city
Talkin' about poppin' glocks, servin' rocks, and hittin' switches
Now she's a gangsta rollin' with gangsta bitches
Always smokin' blunts and gettin' drunk


Common is considered "conscious" hip hop largely because he is a bit of a throwback. He dresses like a GQ model and raps about the inner city life in places like Chicago's South Side (where he grew up).

It's a strange dichotomy. The socially conscious rappers tend to be more peaceful and make records that call for action. Gangster rappers document those things in less of an elegant way. This harder way is certainly more striking; Hearing about bitches and hoes always gets people upset (understandably).

Put it this way: The mainstream didn't give a crap when "The Message" came out. People started giving a crap when N.W.A.'s first records came out. Part of that is fear; People were clearly afraid of N.W.A. No one was really afraid of Grandmaster Flash and certainly no one is afraid Common.

People aren't afraid of Snoop Dogg anymore, but they were in the early 1990s. People were afraid of Dr. Dre in the early 1990s and I imagine some are still afraid of him now.

Which is more effective? I don't know. The mainstream still doesn't really care about the plight of the inner city, if test scores and poverty rates are any indication. Maybe it would've gotten worse if either rap style hadn't come around. I don't know.

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As much as I like these records -- and I do -- I do want to make it clear that I'm ideologically opposed to a lot of the ideas on the record. I consider myself a feminist and I find the misogyny to be appalling. I also abhor violence.

For example, that the word "pimp" has come to mean something good just appalls me ("Pimp My Ride," for example). Language is an extremely powerful thing and a lot of gangster rap has changed language, mostly for the worse.

That doesn't change the fact that the records are great. Snoop's voice, as an instrument, is great. Dre's production is unparalleled. The lyrics are tough, though. No doubt about that. It changed music, it brought gangster rap into the mainstream more than ever and arguably made hip hop the dominant music form to this day. It's one of the most important records of the past twenty years.

2 comments:

pat said...

waren g does not rap on this record, his first verse in the death row catalog was on Doggy Style

Anonymous said...

I'm glad YOU can live with the violence and misogony. I can't.