The context: On 1999's feverishly anticipated 2001, Dr. Dre largely eschewed the blood-soaked adolescent fantasy world of The Chronic and NWA's groundbreaking work glamorizing drugs and violence. Instead, he offered a mature, sobering analysis of his contradictory legacy as the man who "started this gangsta shit." The production follows suit: Long gone are the Bomb Squad-like sonic assault of NWA and the wide-open grooves and Sunday-afternoon-cookout vibes of The Chronic, in favor of a hauntingly spare, paranoid, unmistakably melancholy sound. By providing an invaluable showcase for protégés Eminem and Xzibit, plus pinch-hitters Devin The Dude and Scott Storch, 2001 helped create a new generation of stars while renewing Dre's fruitful partnership with Snoop Dogg, who never sounds hungrier or more focused than when rhyming over one of the good Doctor's beats.
The greatness: 2001 is haunted by the ghosts of Eazy-E, NWA, Death Row, and 2Pac. (Also survivor The D.O.C., whose near-fatal car crash transformed his once-booming voice into a wheezing rasp.) "Bang Bang," "Forgot About Dre," and "The Watcher" take a bird's-eye view of a rap world so infatuated with gunplay and the pop martyrdom of 2Pac (who never hid his hatred of Dre) that it scares even gangsta rap's revered godfather. It's a coming-of-age album from a man too old, rich, and weary to pretend to be a gangbanger or drug dealer any more. In the space of a little more than a decade, Dre evolved from white America's worst nightmare to a family man worried for his children's safety. Here, Dre embraces a radical new identity for a pop star and gangsta rapper: responsible adult.
Defining song: "What's the Difference" finds Dr. Dre resurrecting and exorcising demons from his past. In a voice raw with emotion, he makes peace with friend-turned-rival Eazy-E and The D.O.C.: "You my nigga, D.O.C. / And Eazy I'm still wit'chu / Fuck the beef nigga / Nigga I miss you, and that's just being real wit'chu." His palpable sadness brings a much-needed sense of closure to the insane melodrama that was NWA.