With the N.W.A. biopic’s trailer released and the fact that plenty of new popular rappers have been re-emerging from the Compton area, it’s the ideal time to look back at the 1988 gangsta rap classic that started it all: Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A. Released in 1988, the album seemingly made the group both an overnight success, as well as the most controversial group in the music industry (most likely vicariously). It would go on to popularize gangsta rap, a genre that music executives still consider a major motivator for record sales in hip-hop music, and its violent and profane lyrics would inspire legions of imitators. Frankly, it isn’t an overstatement to refer to Straight Outta Compton as the most influential West Coast hip-hop album, but it would be a dishonor to judge this album solely on the fact that it was seminal.
Straight Outta Compton is often considered one of the first records to really make use of the “Parental Advisory” sticker. For similar reasons as to why Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction would climb the charts that same year, N.W.A. found great profit in how they made good music that happened to contain angry four-letter words. Inner-City minorities related to it, suburbanite kids possibly loved it even more, and public officials were outraged by it, but listening to Straight Outta Compton 28 years later finds an album that is surprisingly convivial. In the decades since Straight Outta Compton was released, there have certainly been hip-hop albums more vulgar and gritty, but even for its time, the album carried a party vibe to it, and it may shock even long-time fans to realize that there are five tracks on the album that don’t include profanity.
Take for example, the single, “Express Yourself,” an endlessly catchy tune that samples Charles Wright and the Watts. The song features one of the few rapped verses from Dr. Dre on the album, and it happens to be a highly inspirational one about finding your individuality through music and avoiding the numerous pitfalls business will throw at you (it’s a little hard to swallow now when Dre says he doesn’t “smoke pot”, but it’s intriguing to see how much his rap persona has changed since then). Or take “If It Ain’t Rough,” a solo track from MC Ren, easily the group’s most underrated rapper, which is fully playful and wouldn’t seem out of place on a Biz Markie record. The record even ends with “Something 2 Dance 2,” which is exactly what the title suggests it is. Sure, N.W.A. may not have broken the bank without less-PC songs like “F*** the Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta,” but it also shows that the group didn’t necessarily need such content in order to make good rap songs.
That said, this is an album from a group whose name is an acronym for N****z Wit Attitudes, and they have that, if nothing else. Starting off with the explosive title track, Ice Cube’s intro verse perfectly sets the tone: “Straight outta Compton, crazy mother****er named Ice Cube/From the gang called N****z With Attitudes/ When I’m called off, I got a sawed off/ Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off.” Clearly the lyrical backbone for the group, Cube wasn’t even 20-years old during the making of the album, but he was ostensibly the best rapper in N.W.A. and wrote a good amount of the lyrics for his cohorts. Quite miraculously, though, all the members have their own distinct flows and characteristics, and all the rapping still coincides with the album’s B-boy status, while never feeling repetitive or overtly hedonistic.
Speaking of hedonism, hip-hop fans that have grown tired of talk of materialism in contemporary “cell-phone” rap, can find a lot to relish in Straight Outta Compton. There’s hardly any mention of such nonsense like boasting about owning big cars or showing off expensive jewelry (nor condescending towards it either). The group mainly sticks to the topics of rapping, and the harrowing conditions they grew up with living in South Central Los Angeles. Sure, the group members do use degrading terms towards women and homosexuals, but such language is commonplace for low socio-economic areas, a world N.W.A. knows better than most. In fact, the album actually has some interesting turnarounds regarding misogyny in rap music such as the Ice-Cube solo track, “I Ain’t Tha 1.” It’s is a tirade against gold-digging females, but it mostly avoids being sexually crude, and Cube is far more convincing in his views on monetary-derived relationships than Kanye West ever has been.
So removed from its position as a highly influential watermark in rap music, does Straight Outta Compton still register as a classic today? The answer is an absolute yes! N.W.A. may not have been the first gangsta rappers as Ice-T, Schooly D, and BDP preceded them (the latter of which is even sampled on “Gangsta Gangsta”), but they did it in a lucrative way that made them as appealing as they were fearsome. While Dr. Dre would go on to continue to redefine hip-hop production, and Ice Cube became one of the most venerable emcees of the 90s, Straight Outta Compton remains the one great N.W.A. album, right before studio executives encouraged them to become even more mean-spirited and cartoonish for their subsequent releases. It’s a shame, really, as the key to their breakthrough success was that the group made rebellious and fun music that was more concerned with educating, rather than becoming a product. It’s one of the best hip-hop records ever made.