It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the way we absorb music in 2020 that albums not available on the array of digital streaming platforms can feel almost like they’ve been erased from history. A notable exception is Dr. Dre’s 1992 masterwork The Chronic, which, despite streaming only on Apple Music until April 19, when it hit TIDAL, has left behind a legacy so enduring it has transcended our shifts in music consumption.
To say it again, the impact of this groundbreaking release has not been subtle. Beyond the fact that singles like “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” and “Let Me Ride” remain staples of DJs’ obligatory throwback playlists, The Chronic’s influence is felt in every rap song defined by an irresistible lead melody, and in every rap album touting X-rated comedy appeal. You notice its imprint whenever you see or hear Snoop Dogg in the sprawl of pop culture. It’s present whenever you listen to the music of YG, the Game, Kendrick Lamar or any other contemporary West Coast rapper of prominence. It’s inescapable.
Still, 28 years of continued relevance later, it’s hard to overstate just how effectively The Chronic captured lightning in a bottle at the time it dropped. Prior to its breakthrough, everyone involved with the project was fiercely in need of a win. To start, Dr. Dre was an unproven solo act, and Suge Knight was struggling to prove the creative and commercial worth of his fledgling but already notorious record label, Death Row.
The album’s supporting cast, including emcees like Snoop, Kurupt and the Lady of Rage, were similarly green, and treated every appearance on the record as a referendum on their future career prospects. The D.O.C., who made vital and numerous writing contributions, was still recovering from a car crash that ravaged his voice, and he was eager to showcase how he still had something to say. Even the city the album was inspired by, Los Angeles, needed to heal after the 1992 riots that left it in shambles, following the inexplicable acquittal of the racist police caught on tape brutalizing Rodney King.
And so, all of this culminated in a record that felt — and continues to feel — urgent. Dre perfected G-funk out of necessity, in search of a more immediate soundscape that would leave nothing, especially success, to chance. A diss song like “Fuck Wit Dre Day (And Everybody’s Celebratin’)” feels particularly scathing, knowing the depth of Dre’s beef with his former N.W.A comrade Eazy-E (and their onetime manager Jerry Heller). An otherwise standard posse cut like “Lyrical Gangbang” continues to feel hefty because of the palpable hunger of the emcees (among them the Lady of Rage, Kurupt and RBX) who rap on it. The sentiments of anger and sadness that underpin “The Day the N---z Took Over” feel visceral, not just because of the sociopolitical landscape of L.A. at the time, but because, tragically, the issue of racially motivated police brutality persists.