50 Best Albums, by Brendan O’Malley, #2. Dr. Dre, 2001 (Instrumentals Only)

My talented brother Brendan O’Malley is an amazing writer and actor. He’s wonderful in the recent You & Me, directed by Alexander Baack. (I interviewed Baack about the film here.) His most recent gig was story editor/writer on the hit series Survivor’s Remorse. Brendan hasn’t blogged in years, but the “content” (dreaded word) is so good I asked if I could import some of it to my blog. He did series on books he loved, and albums he loved. I thought it would be fun to put up some of the stuff here. So we’ll start with his list of 50 Best Albums. I’ll put up one every Monday.

Brendan’s list of 50 Best Albums is part music-critique and part memoir and part cultural snapshot.

I have always loved these essays, because I love to hear my brother talk. I am happy to share them with you!

50 Best Albums, by Brendan O’Malley

2. Dr. Dre – 2001 (Instrumentals Only)

I got this one from cousin Timothy and while it doesn’t have the aorta-piercing emotional resonance, it more than makes up for it in the realm of sonic weight.

I’d loved this album when it came out with the vocals on it. Then Timothy moved out and I didn’t hear it for a while. Then Timothy moved to LA and he gave me the version without rapping. I can’t say it is better than the one with vocals because they are flip-sides of the same big money coin. But anyone who thinks that rap music is just an artless theft of grab-bag samples would do will to sit down with head phones on and listen to the sound of Dr. Dre’s brain.

There are two producers who loom large over the last part of the 20th century. One is Rick Rubin who started with ghetto rap and wound up at Johnny Cash’s bedside. The other is Dr. Dre. Rubin is more of a facilitator, a spirit guide, a shaman leading the artist through the wasteland of their own creativity. He has never felt the urge (or has hidden it quite well) to join in the spotlight, to throw his hat into the performance ring.

Dre came out of the gate doing both. On N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton it was always Dre’s voice that seemed to be the final word. He is without a doubt underestimated as a rapper/lyricist but that is like saying no one ever talks about how good a piano player Beethoven was.

To hear his work stripped of all literary infusion is to reduce it to an almost staggering power. Each snare is infinite, each keyboard plink becomes a bright jewel in a dark and endless void. It is like being enveloped in a finely tuned gleaming hotrod engine, slick oil keeping you from being crushed by the thrust of the pistons, keeping you cool amidst all the combustion.

I’m white and grew up sheltered from the terrible wrath racism and power imbalance wreaks on those who aren’t white and sheltered. This album, stripped of words, fills me with the deepest compassion for those who have endured random stops by crooked cops, violent eruptions puncturing everyday life, the overwhelming sense of futility when the odds are so clearly stacked against you.

The power that Dr. Dre wrings out of cold soulless technology is astonishing. This is not some kid making a collage. These compositions are at the cutting edge of both modern human technology and artistic expression. They are perfectly rendered, to the point that you can take the words away and the meaning remains. Try that with a Nirvana record, or a Neil Young record, or a Bob Dylan record. Great as those artists are, the work minus the words is a mere echo.

With Dr. Dre, there is no echo. He shows you the whole canyon. With these instrumental pieces he shows you that there is nothing to be shouted into the canyon. You cannot escape his vision. You may wish you could, but you can’t.

Put the headphones on. You will see danger on every corner. You will feel the simple joy of a drive in a convertible with the top down. You will feel that joy drain away in a flash when a power-hungry automaton tries to take you down a peg. You will turn to weed to numb the pain but it will only make you angrier. You will wish for the love of a good woman to help you cope with what you face on a daily basis. You will be disappointed when she turns out to have been just another crack in the dam. You will want to lash out in rage against anyone to restore your sense of power. You will feel remorse for the result of that power. You will see danger on every corner. You will feel the simple joy of a drive in a convertible with the top down…

So, yeah, fuck the police.

If they tried to step on Mozart’s toes I’d say the same thing.

— Brendan O’Malley

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