The psychology of perfectionism may explain why he and other musicians struggle for years to release new material
In April 2010, Dr. Dre traded in his White Sox cap for a Red Sox jersey during a public appearance at Fenway Park before the MLB season opening game. The reclusive hip-hop icon's normally stoic grimace turned to a childlike grin as he took batting practice, participating in the spectacle in the name of promoting the "Red Sox Edition" of his Beats By Dr. Dre headphones, and not—as many fans had hoped—his decade-or-so-in-the-making third record, Detox.
At a press conference during the event, Dre finally did mete out a couple of details about the project—that its lead single, "Under Pressure" featuring Jay-Z, could be released in two weeks, and that the entire album would "definitely" drop in 2010. Both assertions turned out to be false. After weeks turned to months, the Internet decided to put out "Under Pressure" for Dre in June by leaking it, prompting him to issue this statement: "The song that's on the Internet is an incomplete song that I'm still working on. When it's ready, you'll be hearing it from me."
Rapper Soopafly called Dre a "perfectionist" this week, echoing what 50 Cent said about him in 2007.
This summer, Dre released the first two singles from Detox, "Kush" featuring Snoop Dogg and Akon, and the Eminem collaboration "I Need a Doctor." But a year and a half after his Fenway stunt, a release date for the record has yet to materialize. Posting under the "Kush" video, a YouTube commenter said it best: "i used to say 'when pigs fly' now i say 'when detox comes out [sic].'"
Dr. Dre is part of a lineage of great artists who've had trouble producing the follow-up to a notable album. Notoriously, Guns N Roses' 2008 record, Chinese Democracy, was a critical and commercial failure that took 15 years and more than $13 million to produce (Detox has become known as the "Chinese Democracy of hip-hop"). An article in Psychology Today called "Axl Rose: Obsessive Monomaniac Perfectionist," speaks of the album in terms of "the latest act of a tortured genius in the great tradition of other tortured geniuses."
Uncomfortable with the superstardom wrought by the runaway success of her only studio album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill retreated sanctimoniously into obscurity. Despite her husband Rohan Marley's claims about the singer's prolific songwriting around the house—she writes "in the bathroom, on toilet paper, on the wall," he told People in 2008—by now, those who once held their breath for a Hill comeback have either exhaled or expired.
The list continues: After putting out great records, My Bloody Valentine, The Avalanches, Neutral Milk Hotel, and D'Angelo have all seemingly ground to a creative halt. Amy Winehouse passed away as the fifth anniversary of Back to Black, her breakthrough last album, approached.
A few factors are at play, usually. Artists who become known as musical geniuses are often rewarded with an autonomy that does away with the usual record label strictures—deadlines and checks and balances—that ensured that their previous records actually saw the light of day. Issues like addiction, alcoholism and legal troubles can also play a part in delaying an artist's work, as was the case with Winehouse, and D'Angelo, who started making his third album, James River, in 2002.
Dre, himself, has already faced this challenge. His previous, critically acclaimed, multi-platinum album, 2001, came seven years after his equally successful solo debut, The Chronic. Compare this low productivity rate with that of his fellow hip-hop artist/producer/studio-mad-scientist Kanye West, who has managed to release six popular, critically lauded albums during Dre's time away from the spotlight.
It's likely that the most frequent cause for creative paralysis in the wake of landmark albums is the pressure put upon musicians by their own work—that they look back at their last effort and think, how did I do that?
It's a reasonable thing to wonder, says Dr. Simon Sherry, an assistant psychology professor at Dalhousie University. Mathematically, most talented people don't live up to their own past achievements.
"In the statistical sense, it's far more likely that following an exceptional, well-above-average performance, the performance drops," he says. "You see that all the time in the world of sports, where an athlete has an exceptional year... hitting 50 home runs in baseball. That's their peak performance, and it's much more likely that they're going to then regress towards a more average one."
But for Dre, "average" is not an option—possibly to his detriment.
Speaking about Detox to HipHoxDX.com this week, rapper Soopafly called Dre a "perfectionist" who "takes his time." It sounded a lot like what 50 Cent, in 2007, said of his label boss in an interview with the same website: "He's such a perfectionist. But sometimes that can be a bad thing. You create new pressure when you wait that long."
Sherry, a registered clinical psychologist who assesses and treats perfectionists, says that there are two main forms of perfectionism. One, known as "perfectionistic striving," whereby a creative person can't relax until they've lived up their own standard of excellence, can be motivational. The other is a more destructive form of perfectionism, referred to as "perfectionistic concerns."
The destructive form "involves things like a tendency to be harshly critical of yourself," Sherry says. "To doubt your actions and your performance abilities. To have an extreme, exaggerated concern over mistakes. And to often perceive or misperceive that other people around you require you to be perfect."
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"That aspect of perfectionism is more clearly related to a range of work-related difficulties, including procrastination."