Dr. Dre is still the best hip-hop producer this side of The RZA or Prince Paul and Dan the Automator; he's among the handful who could almost be called a composer because of his preference for live instrumentation over tried-and-tired Parliament-Funkadelic swipes. And Chronic 2001 should only bolster that reputation, with Dre's newfound adoption of operatic synths and hollowed-out piano loops, as well as his ability to make Eminem sound less irritating than usual (the slinky "What's the Difference" is the best example of both talents). If Chronic 2001 -- the long-awaited follow-up to 1992's groundbreaking, ass-shaking The Chronic -- were an instrumental disc, it might have been the best hip-hop record of the year. It's a bicoastal, bipolar disc, shooting the gap between East and West and old and new, Dre's trademark g-funk kicking it on a stoop in Shaolin Island a decade from now.
Unfortunately, Dre feels the almost obsessive need to remind himself and everyone else of his status whenever he's near a microphone. Too often, he loses the plot because he's too busy looking at the program, ticking off his career highlights while he becomes increasingly ticked off. Both times that he's returned to the mike since The Chronic (1995's "Keep Their Heads Ringin'" and 1996's "Been There, Done That"), he's come up with two of the most self-referential tracks in recent memory. Chronic 2001 continues the trend; the album's first single, "Still D.R.E.," is little more than a four-minute commercial explaining, sort of, what the former Andre Young has been up to in the past seven years. "Haters say Dre fell off," he grouses. "How nigga? My last album was The Chronic." Whatever you say, Dre. We forgot about 1996's Dr. Dre Presents... The Aftermath, too.
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If you missed it the first time, he's back again on "Forgot About Dre" to list his various accomplishments. "Who you think brought you the Eazy-E's, Ice Cubes, and D.O.C.'s?" he asks. "The Snoop D-O-double-G's, and the group that said, 'Motherfuck the police?'" And the rest of the album, at least lyrically, is full of weaker revisitations of The Chronic's guns-and-ganja territory, which he seemingly turned his back on several years ago. More than anything, Chronic 2001 is an attempt to convince himself that he's still the same Dre that "rocks his khakis with a cuff and a crease" and not the polished and polite reformed gangster who claimed he'd "Been There, Done That" and wasn't going back. It's a shame, because now that he's finally loosened up the clumsy delivery that tripped him up on almost every song on The Chronic, he doesn't have anything to say.