On the surface, it’s all good vibrations — Dre and his crew surfing concrete boulevards in drop-top Impalas, coasting between swap meets and backyard BBQs in search of weed and women. However, as shiny and polished as the album’s hit singles are — ” ‘G’ Thing,” “Let Me Ride,” “F–k Wit Dre Day” — The Chronic never strays far from the edge of darkness. “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” offers a claustrophobic, paranoid take on the riots, “A Nigga Witta Gun” revels in firearm diplomacy and “B–ches Ain’t S–t” handily wears its misogyny on its sleeve.
It’s not hard to imagine why The Chronic appealed so intensely to suburban youths who bought up the album by the millions: It offers up a seductively lurid lifestyle portrait of sunshine and noir, South Central style. (As an aside, it’s interesting to compare The Chronic with the other major L.A. album of that year, Bizarre Ride 2: The Pharcyde, which revels in the insecure, awkward underbelly to the unflappable bravado of albums like The Chronic.)
The most immediate impact of The Chronic could be heard in hip-hop production in the years to follow, as seemingly and suddenly, everyone wanted to work snaking synthesizers into their songs, too. The ubiquity of the “G-funk sound” — however shamelessly or ineptly copied — was just one reason the album sparked a backlash among hip-hop fans aligned with a more “East Coast” aesthetic.
The Chronic wasn’t even that inflammatory toward the East, though Snoop does bark back on Bronx rapper Tim Dog for his “F–k Compton” single from the previous year. Mostly, its contribution to the overbaked coastal rivalry was in how it swayed labels and radio stations out West, thus symbolically challenging the East’s presumed claim to define all things hip-hop (by decade’s end, it was really the South that proved most insurgent in any case).
A longer-term impact was how The Chronic elevated Dr. Dre from producer to kingmaker, especially once he supervised even more successful Death Row albums for Snoop and Tupac. Dre’s imprimatur is arguably unique in hip-hop; no one’s co-sign is seen as more influential, and the names of Eminem, 50 Cent, the Game and, most recently, Kendrick Lamar are always offered up as evidence. Of course, that conveniently overlooks the many failures connected to Dre’s Aftermath imprint, including projects from King Tee, Busta Rhymes, Rakim and Eve that all fell apart, not to mention Dre’s Detox album, for which “long-awaited” seems too tame a term.
None of this particularly matters. The Chronic was an album first steeped in fantasy that ascended into mythology, empowering Dre to craft a self-image that’s almost unassailable. It didn’t matter that most of his verses on the album were clearly ghostwritten for him, nor that many uncredited co-producers and musicians went into crafting that signature sound. That’s the power of an album like The Chronic: It provides a gravity so irresistible as to bend reality around it, and even 20 years later, its pull still remains potent.
Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He contributes to NPR, the Los Angeles Times and KCET’s ArtBound and writes the audioblog Soul-Sides.com.