This past August, NWA’s legendary album celebrated its 30th anniversary.
For the most part, rap music in the mid ‘80s was simply innocent, dancy, and fun. Run DMC rapped about how king-like they were, Grandmaster Flash preached his “Message”, it was a simple genre anyone could enjoy. Then a bunch a dudes from the hood of Compton, California changed all that. Mere seconds into their first official album, NWA (not gonna say what the “N” stands for) showed us the strength of street knowledge, pulling no punches alongside more N or F bombs than every other artist in the genre combined had spit on record at the time. Accompanying Ice Cube’s furious opening verse, background police sirens add to the rough and tumble lifestyle the group brought with their lyrics. Straight Outta Compton ushered in a new era of “gangsta rap” music. Locked and loaded with swearing, shock, and sexual antics, the 1988 debut is certainly not for virgin ears. The titular opening track yanks the listener right into NWA’s world of crime, cops, and mayhem. Through the first song, Ice Cube compares his crime record to Charles Manson, MC Ren boasts about the “good piece of p*ssy” he gets, and Eazy-muthaf**king-E makes it clear he doesn’t “give a damn about a b*tch”.
However, that was all just a pre-game warmup for track number 2…
The stage is set: a courtroom, Dr. Dre is the judge, MC Ren, Ice Cube, and Eazy-E are the prosecuting attorneys, and the man on trial is a police officer. The rappers paint the picture of oppression at the hands of racist police officers with scenario depictions of corrupt cops, with a roaring chant of “F*ck tha Police” repeated in the chorus. Vitriolic vulgarity hangs behind every word on this monumental rap song, as the group brings the war between their black neighborhood and the LAPD to centerstage in undeniably the most controversial song on the album. The harsh six-minute piece memorably resembles a world of police brutality still prevalent 30 years later. The banger ruffled so many feathers, the FBI even sent them an official letter warning of the song’s promotion of disrespect towards law enforcement: a letter now on display at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It makes you think: if Tipper Gore lost her mind over Prince’s scandalous “Darling Nikki”, she must’ve dropped dead when she heard this.
Ironically, one of the gang’s biggest hits was Dre’s moment in the sun without a swear word. Perhaps even more ironic is that Dre denounces marijuana use in the opening verse, citing “it’s known to give a brother brain damage”. Merely 4 years later he released his solo debut, titled The Chronic. “Express Yourself” samples Charles Wright’s song, and Dre carries most of it aside from a short intro with Ice Cube. He otherwise doesn’t have much lyrics on the album, since he served primarily as a producer.
Elsewhere, the hysterical start to “Gangsta Gangsta” portrays a guy hearing police sirens, a tire screech from nearby, then a barrage of gunshots right before Ice Cube declares “Here’s a little somethin ‘bout a ni**a like me, never shoulda been let out the penitentiary”, just one of the LP’s many fascinating quips. Another track good at cooking up some laughs is “I Ain’t tha 1”, where Ice Cube expresses his dissatisfaction with money-hungry girls long before Kanye’s “Gold Digger”.
Amongst all the violence and debauchery, it’s easy to have forgotten the final track, a complete 180° from the rest of the songs. “Something 2 Dance 2” starts with the most genuinely ‘80s bassline on the entire record and a verse by Arabian Prince, the group’s sixth man who departed before Straight Outta Compton’s release. Nevertheless, the funky bopper is still a jumpy conclusion, if albeit an unusual change of pace from everything else. I’m not exactly sure why Arabian Prince left the band, but I imagine it’s probably because he was more interested in making ‘80s beats than rapping about murdering cops and banging hookers.
After the group’s disbandment, the guys went in completely separate directions: Dre dipped more into producing, discovering stars like Eminem and 50 Cent. Eazy-E died of AIDS in 1995, and Ice Cube starred in “Are We There Yet?” (seriously). The nasty breakup was highlighted in NWA’s 2015 biopic sharing the name of the album. Unfortunately, the band’s success was short-lived: there were more diss tracks the members made about each other than actual albums produced while they were together. Straight Outta Compton is the only official NWA album made with the core five, along with one more LP after Ice Cube left, but remains a hip-hop classic that changed the course of music.
SCAD Radio gives it a 9.4/10