Over the weekend, a new song from Dr Dre leaked. Called 2 Night and featuring Kendrick Lamar and Jeremih, it should have been a big deal. But the track – a breezy love tune that borrows from Erykah Badu’s hook on The Roots’ You Got Me – sounds so dated.
That’s probably because it is. Judging from Kendrick’s rapping style – his flow isn’t as dense as on To Pimp a Butterfly – the track was likely made three or four years ago. It may well have been intended for Dre’s album Detox, which has been anticipated for so long it’s the rap equivalent of Guns N Roses’ Chinese Democracy. Except that album actually came out, and Detox likely never will. In September, Dre’s collaborator Dawaun Parker revealed that it has been scrapped, adding that Dre was working on a different album. “I feel like one day, he’s gonna wake up and say, ‘Today’s the day,’ and put it out,” Parker told the Shots Fired! podcast. “The music’s been there.”
Let’s not get our hopes up though. Detox was supposed to feature a hall of fame’s worth of artists, including Eminem, Jay Z, Rakim, Snoop and Kendrick, but we will probably never get to hear it. So let’s stop asking when Dre’s going to release an album and start asking a different question: what the hell is going on with this guy?
Dr Dre used to be one of the most prolific artists in hip-hop. In 1988 and 1989 alone, he produced the bulk of five albums, from JJ Fad, NWA, Eazy-E, DOC and Michel’le. In the early 90s, perhaps his two most highly regarded works, The Chronic and Snoop’s Doggystyle (which are both essentially Dre/Snoop collaborations), came out within a year of each other.
The reason we used to get so much Dre music is pretty simple: money. He used to need it. While in his first group, electro song and dance act World Class Wreckin’ Cru, he often didn’t make enough to pay rent. Even during his time with Ruthless Records – home of NWA, where he was the in-house producer – he didn’t make what he should have. Again, upon leaving Death Row, the label he co-founded with Suge Knight, he was screwed out of the spoils. Only after establishing his own label Aftermath and signing Eminem did Dre get rich, and only after his headphone company Beats blew up did he get really rich.
But his obligations to his imprint and his headphones enterprise don’t explain why Dre hasn’t released an album since 1999. In fact, there’s no reason to think Dre’s studio schedule has slowed at all. “I’m going to record forever,” he told me shortly after he and Jimmy Iovine hatched a plan to donate $35m each to USC. He added that the beats he has been recording all these years remain locked up in a vault. “It’s not thrown away. I just love to record and it is there for whoever comes in, and if the music fits. I have tons of music stashed.”
So why can’t we hear it? Again, the reason is likely money. As he has become increasingly financially secure, he has also became more cautious, more concerned with his legacy. Dre may be a tough talker, but when it comes to what people think about him he is sensitive. Just listen to songs like Forgot About Dre; he pays close attention to his haters.
Detox’s first expected delivery date was 2003, and at the end of 2010 he was even on the XXL cover with the headline: “Yes, Detox Is Coming.” This was shortly after the release of Under Pressure, with Jay Z, which was supposed to be Detox’s lead single, but it was poorly received. Then came I Need a Doctor, which was a hit: it went double platinum and was the second-highest charting single of his career (No 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100). But critics gave it a hard time, as did people like Dre’s longtime close collaborator DOC: “I think the pattern of the drums is old,” he told me at the time, dismissing it. The song did reveal some insight into Dre’s psyche, however, as he rapped: “You can kiss my indecisive ass crack, maggots.”
But he seems less indecisive these days than filled with self-doubt. After all, if he never releases another album, he’ll remain the guy who went out on top: The Chronic is often called the best rap album of all time, and 2001 sold 6m copies. Anything less might tarnish his legacy.
One is reminded of Joseph Mitchell, the famous New Yorker writer who changed non-fiction forever during his early career, but published nothing of note during the final three decades of his life. Like Dre, he was working on a big project, a memoir, but took it to his grave. Dre could befall the same fate. Sure, the Compton native has lots of living left to do, but if we never get to hear his undoubtedly amazing unpublished catalogue while he’s alive, let’s just hope there’s a Max Brod in his life.
This article was written by Ben Westhoff, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th May 2015 14.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010