Still D.R.E.

Webster‘s Unabridged defines the all-American midlife crisis as “a period of psychological stress occurring in middle age, thought to be triggered by a physical, occupational or domestic event, as menopause, diminution of physical prowess, job loss or departure of children from the home.” The average life expectancy of an African-American male is 67.2 years. Dr. Dre -- stalwart pioneer of the West Coast hip-hop sound, continually noted as hip-hop’s finest producer -- has just released 2001, his first full-fledged effort at reclaiming the glory of his epochal 1992 debut, The Chronic. Dr. Dre is 34. Get the picture?

Growing older within the “here today, gone today” milieu of hip-hop culture is virginal territory. Forefathers Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash have maneuvered their roles as hip-hop elder statesmen quite nicely, but, all respect due, they never had any multiplatinum, genre-shifting hit records. “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” would never bang omnipresently from lolos and 4x4s nationwide, or spark sales of over 4 million records, in the way that “Nuthin‘ but a ’G‘ Thang” did for Dre’s Chronic. By the time Chuck D hit his mid-30s, Public Enemy‘s output was becoming unnervingly wack. KRS-One, also 34, has aged gracefully, but he never, like, talks about it. Which is to say that the story of 2001 is largely the story of Dr. Dre’s midlife crisis, perhaps the first in hip-hop to be documented on wax.

If such crises are set off by physical events, perhaps the 1995 AIDS-related death of Dre‘s former N.W.A partner Eric “Eazy-E” Wright was a catalyst. On “What’s the Difference,” Dre laments, “Eazy, I‘m still with youFuck the beef, niggaI miss youAnd that’s just being real with you.” Or maybe it was the passing of Dre‘s brother, Tyree. Closing 2001 with “The Message,” an elegiac “message to God” produced by Lord Finnesse and featuring Mary J. Blige, Dre rhymes: “From anxious to believing real G’s don‘t cryIf that’s the truth, then I‘m realizing I ain’t no gangstaIt‘s just not me . . .”

If occupational upheaval is known to set off midlife introspection, Dre’s had a career infamously more tumultuous than even Michael Ovitz‘s. Partnering with the now-incarcerated Marion “Suge” Knight in 1992 to launch Death Row Records, Dre abandoned the multimillion-dollar rap label four years later without taking a dime in severance. Why? Dre never says. You’re better off asking who killed Death Row‘s superstar MC, the late Tupac Shakur, or his perceived rival, Bad Boy Entertainment’s Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. Dre soon launched his own Aftermath Entertainment with a substandard compilation record, Dr. Dre Presents . . . The Aftermath. Now, on 2001‘s Timbaland-influenced “Forget About Dre” (featuring multiplatinum Aftermath find Eminem), he claims to “get hate mail all day saying Dre fell offWhat, ’cause I been in the lab with a pen and a padTrying to get this damn label off?”

But maybe it‘s the domestic front. Then again, maybe not. Dr. Dre has children, and happily married his wife, Nicole, three years ago. Where an unsuspecting listener would “see his big dick fucking somebody” with orgasmic sounds in the background of “The Doctor’s Office” (an interlude from The Chronic), 2001‘s “Pause 4 Porno” eavesdrops on the orgy of one Jake Steed. But elsewhere on the album, Dre does admit to a little fellatiocunnilingus side action.

Diagnosing the cause of Dr. Dre’s midlife crisis isn‘t as easy as finding evidence of the crisis itself, all through the exquisitely produced 2001: “All you savage cats know thatI was strapped with gats when you were cuddlin’ a Cabbage Patch”; “Now we got a new era of gangsters, hustlers and youngstersLiving amongst usCalling us busters”; “Niggas got AKsNiggas is way crazier than Dre was back in the N.W.A days.” Get the picture? Dre‘s middle-aged, new kids are creepin’ on a come-up, and we might not even be having this conversation, evaluating 2001, if Dre weren‘t still the roughest producer in hip-hop.

Which he still is. It’s hard to envision producer Rick Rubin bringing it back home with L.L. Cool J to reprise the radio days, or Marley Marl bangin‘ again with Biz Markie (though I keep hope alive, myself). But Dre and Snoop Dogg fulfill fan expectations on “Bitch Niggaz,” “The Next Episode,” “Fuck You” and “Still D.R.E.” (where Jay-Z pens Dre’s lyrics!). During Dre‘s sabbatical, his inimitable chronic sonics -- the keyboard noodling, low-end bass and 3-D P-Funk atmospherics -- came to seem antiquated in the wake of youngsters like the Ruff Ryders’ Swizz Beatz. But back before the infrared scope of the hip-hop community with 2001, Dre is squarely on some dope 21st-century shit. Even if he is pimping his lolo like the proverbial bright-red sports car of the chronically midlife-crisis afflicted.

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