N.W.A.’s debut album came out a couple of months before I turned 14. As a privileged but angry suburban teenager, I could basically either be into this or metal. I despise stupid genre battles, but I’ve honestly never heard of anybody who liked both metal and rap in the late 80’s (Anthrax and Public Enemy being the exceptions that prove the rule). Well, you know how this story goes: Queensrÿche’s Operation:mindcrime wins.
Of course, over the years hip-hop has proven its staying power, and it’s painfully obvious to me that I missed that critical period where I could get this stuff into my bones. But as I’ve slowly perused some of the monumental releases in the canon I have legitimately enjoyed quite a bit of it while gaining a feel for walking around the halls of the genre.
Straight Outta Compton is the biggest rap album I don’t know, and with last year’s movie, it’s long past time I tried to figure it out. Unfortunately, I went about it the wrong way. My normal method of introducing myself to records didn’t work here. When this would come up on shuffle, mixed up with other records in my distant to-be-reviewed queue, it clunked pretty hard. Part of that was because it was hip-hop amid a bunch of indie and metal. Another part of is that the 70’s samples and 80’s production feel dated, especially when put up against new releases of 2015. Things got much better when the record got into my now-being-reviewed queue where it got closer listens. It also helped that before then I nixed the bonus tracks from the 2002 re-release, as my phones really liked to play the ridiculously misogynist (and just plain stupid) “A Bitch Iz A Bitch.”
So four paragraphs in you think I can get to the review? Probably, but so much has been written about this album, and I’m not qualified to add to that conversation, so I’m going to try to keep it short.
What works is the confidence. And I don’t just mean the “nine inches of limp dick” type braggadocio typical of hip hop even thirty years later, though these guys do seem to wear that better than just about anybody else. No, I mean the rhymes and the way they fall confidently around the meter and even moreso the sampling and the way they rock harder than any rap group save Beastie Boys. “Straight Outta Compton” is a straight-up fire, inspiring the suburban vision of an urban nightmare far more effectively than Public Enemy’s overplayed siren ever did. After that you’ve got a series of vignettes of their lives done to varying degrees of success. The characters are the police (“Fuck Tha Police”), gangsters (“Gangsta Gangsta”), drugs (“Dopeman (Remix)”), alcohol (“8 Ball (Remix”), and girls (“I Ain’t Tha 1”). Then all the MC’s get a highlight track(e.g., “If It Ain’t Ruff” and “Parental Discretion Iz Advised”).
What doesn’t work is some of the DJ and sampling work, which are firmly rooted back in 1982 and sound anything but tough, severely undercutting the theme of this album. (Seriously, how scary is that album cover, especially to white parents in the 80’s?) Along those lines, some of these tracks’ lyrical content just seems silly and out of place. Until you realize it’s the last track on the album, maybe kind of a farewell mood lightener, “Something 2 Dance 2” is a head-scratcher. “Express Yourself,” with its bizarre empowering message, Madonna song title, and anti-drug message never does make sense in the context of the rest of these tracks. And then of course there’s the misogyny, racism, and glorification of drugs and violence.
This album and I got off to a rough start, and getting past those marks against it took a while. But if I don’t listen too closely to the lyrics, I can listen to this straight through from start to finish and enjoy myself thoroughly. I’m glad I took the time with it as I do think it makes pretty much all of hip hop that followed make more sense having this touchpoint in my brain.
Mix: “If It Ain’t Ruff’
Really Like: “Straight Outta Compton,” “Parental Discretion Iz Advised”
Like: “Fuck Tha Police,” “8 Ball (Remix),” “Something Like That,” “Quiet On Tha Set”
Meh: “Gangsta Gangsta,” “Express Yourself,” “Compton’s N The House (Remix),” “Something 2 Dance 2”
Dislike: “I Ain’t Tha 1,” “Dopeman (Remix)”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading