As we near the top of the Hiphop Masterpieces of the 2000s list, a common thread begins to emerge: business. How to succeed in a cutthroat business environment has always been, to a surprising and largely unrecognized degree, one of hiphop's core lyrical themes. Inspired by films like The Godfather and Goodfellas, following the early lead of EMPD and Q-Tip (who advised that "record company people are shady"), rappers have aligned their egos with their management skills, taking pride in their abilities to compete and win in the rap game (which, Nas famously pointed out, has a lot in common with the crack game). Like the novels of Horatio Alger, modern hiphop offers inspirational stories about working hard, focusing on goals, avoiding traps and pitfalls, coming out on top.
But boasting about business skills offers too many openings to shallow pretenders with no real experience or staying power. This is why Cam'ron mocks a newbie rapper, flush with his first advance, on the track "Let Me Know":
Got thirty thou, now your action's begun?
Actin' all fun? After taxes, you're done.
It might surprise people who don't know much about hiphop to learn that the best artists rap about taxes. But nobody in the field has the authority of Dr. Dre, architect of N.W.A.'s seminal career in the early 1990s, arguably the most talented beat designer of all time, and the mastermind behind the careers of Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game. Dre would be a legend even if he weren't a powerful storyteller with a distinctive voice of his own and a whole lot of opinions and emotions to share. But he greeted the new millennium with an album so definitive that it may outrank everything else he's ever done. 2001, a massive achievement, is a comedy record and a collection of outrageously good club-bangers, but it's also an autobiography, taking us back to where it all started:
Back when Cube was rolling with Lorenzo in a Benzo
I was banging with a gang of instrumentals
Got out the pads and pencils, got down to business
but sometimes the business end of this shit can turn your friends against you
We hear him struggling with past opponents on one track after another, sometimes to come to terms with them and end the beef, sometimes to take the beef to a new level. An atmosphere of thoughtful reckoning and timeworn reflection pervades the work.
I got more class than most of 'em
ran with the best of 'em
forgave the less of 'em
and blazed at the rest of 'em
It's not completely clear what the fabulously wealthy Dr. Dre has to be angry about when he wrote these songs, but defiance is the album's top note, even though Dre usually laughs off his opponents and critics:
Ladies, they pay homage
but haters says Dre fell off
My last album was 'The Chronic'
This is a hilarious line because The Chronic (another masterpiece, to which 2001 is often seen as the sequel) came out in 1992. But that's Dre, clocking at his own pace, ignoring the world outside as much as he wants. The Chronic began with some premium beef tracks (directed at Eazy-E), but 2001 begins in dead seriousness with "The Watcher", a proclamation as sincere and personal as hiphop has ever heard:
I moved out of the hood for good, you blame me?
Niggas aim mainly at niggas they can't be
But niggas can't hit niggas they can't see
I'm out of sight, now I'm out of their damn reach
How would you feel if niggas wanted you killed?
You'd probably move to a new house on a new hill
And choose a new spot if niggas wanted you shot,
I ain't a thug, how much Tupac in you you got?
I ain't no bitch neither
It's either my life or your life, and I ain't leaving
I like breathing
Nigga, we can go round for round
Clip for clip, shit, pound for pound
If you really want to take it there we can
Just remember that you're fucking with a family man
I got a lot more to lose than you
remember that when you wanna come and fill these shoes
Dre walks us through the mistakes he's made, pausing to dwell on them to teach us a few lessons we might need:
I done learned a lot, seen a whole lot
Top notch nigga, I'm fiendin for that spot
Now peep game on what Six-Deuce told me
"These niggaz is after your paper, Dr. D.R.E."
"And these punk-ass hos is lookin for dough
You gotta watch your homeboys, cause a nigga never know
Oh, they'll be around, but when your paper get low
Just like Master P said, there they go, there they go"
But, again like a Horatio Alger story, Dre's words are meant to inspire. A peaceful mood of proud achievement lies beneath every smooth drumbeat and synthesized orchestra blast on this album, and no song is happier than the mellow single "Still D.R.E.", a sweet moment of satisfaction from a person doing exactly what he wants to do, nothing more and nothing less:
Still puffing my leaf
Still fuck with the beats
Still not loving police
2001 is a great album but not a perfect one. Some of the skits are funny, some pointless. I wish the album were less misogynistic, and I will never understand why a person as wise and people-smart as Dr. Dre appears to be would spew so much hateful invective towards women. This is hiphop's problem, not just Dre's, but 2001 would be a better work if it could be fully enjoyed by self-respecting women as well as by men. That's all I can say about this; hiphop's harsh sexism is a syndrome I just don't understand.
Dre may truly hate women. If he does, it's his problem rather than mine, and I can enjoy his brilliant work regardless. He certainly can collaborate with other men. Eminem and Snoop Dogg are all over 2001, along with countless local rappers and producers. Dre is generous: one of the record's best tracks is Some L. A. Niggaz, and you don't hear even Dre or Snoop or Eminem on it. MC Ren from N.W.A. makes an appearance, and the snappy beat is just infectious, even if you don't know who's rapping. It's just a voice from the street, just some guy who tells us:
Now in my younger days I used to sport a rag ...
Hiphop doesn't get much more epic than 2001. A couple of years ago a follow-up album called Detox was announced, but this was followed by the tragic news of Dre's 20-year-old son's death, and we haven't heard anything about the follow-up to The Chronic and 2001 since. Dre will put the record out when he's ready, and not till then. That's the way he works.
#2: Dr. Dre: 2001