NWA-Straight Outta Compton
Pros: Unbridled intensity.
Cons: Some filler, some dated bits, DEFINITELY NOT for everyone.
It’s easy to forget. But when NWA dropped the hip-hop game changer that was Straight Outta Compton in early 1989, the uproar was deafening.
On one hand, you had many social conservatives (and quite a few horrified liberals as well) arguing that this album by 5 men from that soon to be notorious city of Compton California was going to singlehandedly bring about the downfall of civilized society. Then there were some cops and FBI guys who were not happy about some of the anti law enforcement content on the album. Specifically one song we shall focus on in a little while. Then there was a segment of the rap community who felt that NWA was setting the progress of rap backwards after the likes of Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions had made strides in moving it from party music to music with true substance.
The four members of NWA countered that the album’s brutal subject matter and nihilistic tone were not a celebration of gangs, drugs, pimps and urban violence. But a firsthand report on what they had witnessed growing up in one of America’s most crime-ridden inner cities. Many people defended them on this and on free speech grounds.
Regardless of where one stood, it’s now inescapable that Straight Outta Compton is a historically important game changer in hip-hop. It’s also a pretty damn good album too, even if certain parts of it don’t hold up quite as well as they once did.
No the collective talents of Ice Cube, Dr, Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella did not invent gangsta rap. Fellow Los Angelino Ice-T and east coast rapper Schoolly D got the ball rolling, But it was the collective known as N****z With Attitude that scored the goals. In the process, they made gangsta rap viable and established the the West Coast hip-hop scene was just as vital as the east coast.
Dr. Dre produced the album giving it the intensity it needed and dialing back on occasion. Ice Cube was the chief lyricist and his rhymes were fever dream like depictions of an urban nightmare. While this album does not have quite the level of sociopolitical content Cube would bring to the forefront on his first two solo albums, it still does offer enough of it that the album can;t be totally accused of glamorizing inner city gangstas (unlike many subsequent albums by the likes of Lil Wayne).
Straight Outta Compton opens with the title track. First we hear Cube saying “You’re now about to witness the strength of street knowledge” before a pounding drum track kicks in. Then Cube begins to fire off his verse rapid fire.
Goin’ off on a motherfucker like that
With a gat that’s pointed at your ass
So give it up smooth
Ain’t no tellin’ when I’m down for a jack move
Here’s a murder rap to keep you dancin
with a crime record like Charles Manson
AK-47 is the tool
Don’t make me act the motherfuckin’ fool
Ren and Eazy also take turns on the mic, setting up the rest of the album:
But I don’t give a fuck, I’m a make my snaps
If not from the records, from jackin’ the crops
Just like burglary, the definition is jackin’
And when illegally armed it’s called packin’
Shoot a motherfucker in a minute
I find a good piece of pussy, I go up in it
Straight outta Compton
Is a brother that’ll smother yo’ mother
And make ya sister think I love her
Dangerous motherfucker raised in Hell
And if I ever get caught I make bail
See, I don’t give a fuck, that’s the problem
I see a motherfuckin’ cop, I don’t dodge him
Now as it should be obvious from those lyrics, this is definitely not an album for everyone, especially the easily offended and the puritanical. But if you can handle those, strap yourself in because its going to get even more intense.
Next up is the song that pissed off the cops: “Fuck Tha Police”. The song also pissed off the FBI who sent a letter to the group warning them they’d better watch their step. However, the controversy did not quite reach the fever pitch it did in 1992 over Ice-T’s song Cop Killer.
Anyway, “Fuck Tha Police” is strcutured as a trail “the case of NWA vs the police department. Judge Dre presiding”. There’s a slight mistake here: Cube, Ren and Eazy are called as witnesses but are referred to in the opening dialogue as prosecuting attorneys. But aisde form that little glitch, this song draws the listener in. In each of their verses, the MCs get in their rants against the LAPD.
Fuckin with me ’cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin my car, lookin for the product
Thinkin every nigga is sellin narcotics
Lights start ﬂashin behind me
But they’re scared of a nigga so they mace me to blind me
But that shit don’t work, I just laugh
Because it gives em a hint not to step in my path
To the police I’m sayin fuck you punk
Readin my rights and shit, it’s all junk
Pullin out a silly club, so you stand
With a fake ass badge and a gun in your
But take oﬀ the gun so you can see what’s
And we’ll go at it punk, I’ma fuck you up
The song ends with the following:
Dre: The jury has found you guilty of being a redneck wite bread chickenshit motherfucker!
Cop: That’s a lie! That’s a goddamn lie!
Dre: Get him outta here!
Cop: I want justice!
Dre: Get him outta here!
Cop: I want justice!
Dre: Out right now!
Cop: FUCK YOU YOU BLACK MOTHERFUCKER!!!!!
If you thought it might calm down now, guess again. Next up is “Gangsta Gangsta”, the song that introduced that word into the vernacular.
Since I was a youth, I smoked weed out
Now I’m the mutha fucka that ya read about
Takin’ a life or two that’s what the hell I do
You don’t like how I’m livin’, well fuck you
This is a gang and I’m in it
My man Dre’ll fuck you up in a minute
With a right, left, right, left, you’re toothless
And then you say, “Goddamn they ruthless!
But the overall point of the album comes home on the chorus:
Gangsta, gangsta, that’s what they’re yellin’
It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality
Hopin’ you sophisticated motherfuckers hear what I have to say
Not as widely known but just as essential to the album is “Dopeman” which featured prominently in the 1003 film Menace II Society.
Big lot of money, nothing less than a twenty
Yo, you want a five-oh, the Dopeman got plenty
To be a Dopeman, boy, you must qualify
Don’t get high, off your own supply!
Then there’s “Express Yourself” on which Dre samples the song of teh same name by Charles Wright. It contains this memorable lyric:
I still express, yo, I don’t smoke weed or sess
Cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage
And brain damage on the mic don’t manage, nothing
But making a sucker and you equal
Don’t be another sequel (Express yourself!)
That’s from Dre and of course he would later change his opinion of weed as proven by the title and subject matter of The Chronic. But here he’s against it.
Which isn’t to say that Straight Outta Compton is quite perfect. The first three songs I wrote about kick off the album and once that trio ends, the intensity starts to level off. There are a couple lesser cuts on here “Parental Discretion Iz Advised”) and the last song “Something 2 Dance 2” is a piece of filler that’s kind of a curious way to end the album.
A lot of reviewers have compared Straight Outta Compton to the Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks. The comparison is accurate as like the British punk band, the LA rappers were determined to tell it as they saw it, regardless of how much polite society vocally disapproved. Also like the British punk band, NWA fell victim to the same sort of nihilism. After this album, Ice Cube left in a dispute with management over finances. With his departure, the group lost their best lyricist. NWA would make an EP and another album before falling apart amidst much fighting. Once they split, Dre took gangsta rap into the mainstream with The Chronic while slamming the hell out of Eazy. Ice Cube released two classic solo albums and one pretty good one before focusing more on acting than on rap. Ren and Yella pretty much faded away. In 1995, Eazy-E would reveal that he was suffering form full-blown AIDS. Cube and Dre would reconcile with him before his death that year.
So Straight Outta Compton is a classic album from a historic standpoint and definitely essential to any understanding of hip-hop. It does have its flaws. But for the first three songs, “Dopeman” and “Express Yourself” it’s a must-own. I don’t listen to it as much as I used to or as much as I do The Chronic, Doggystyle or Ice Cube’s first three solo albums. But it’s definitely recommended for those who can handle the intensity and the profanity.
Lyrics quoted above © 1989 Ruthless Records