A savage piece of social commentary
Straight Outta Compton
This is the album that unleashed the most murderous genre in musical history - the first seminal gangsta rap record. And yet, for all its guns, profanity and braggadocio, the perennial contention about gangsta artists - that they are merely documenting an ugly social reality rather than glorifying it - never rang so true as it does here.
Straight Outta Compton is one of just two studio releases from influential west coast hip hop group N.W.A, and the album that kickstarted the careers of, among others, Dr Dre and Ice Cube. It's the only N.W.A album to feature Ice Cube's unique lyrical wit and narrative skills, and was released during an era of epoch-making hip hop albums - a few months after Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and a few months before De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising. It was a time before the bling-worshipping, misogynist edifice of gangsta rap had fully developed, and came across more as an excoriating slice of social documentary.
Ironic, then, that it prompted the original hip hop-related moral panic. The focus was the single F*** tha Police, in reality an articulate howl of political protest against racial profiling, but accused of glorifying anti-police violence. That "police think they have the authority to kill a minority" was legitimate comment was dramatically illustrated in N.W.A's native Los Angeles three years later, when racial profiling by police sparked the Rodney King incident and ultimately the LA riots. Like Public Enemy, but less obviously, NWA were scary primarily because they were political.
Likewise, the track Gangsta Gangsta sounds like prototypical gangsta boasting, but is equally an authentic depiction of the dangers and horrors of a lifestyle that, if you happen to be born in a certain place, is less a choice than a necessity. Express Yourself, the only radio-friendly single on the album, free from violence and sexual content, is explicitly critical of both censorship and self-censorship, but makes the point that the violence and profanity are central to making N.W.A authentic - to keeping it real, if you like. But the gangster lifestyle is unambiguously condemned in songs such as Dopeman, detailing the deprivation of the addict's lifestyle and blaming both the addict and the dealer.
Moreover, Straight Outta Compton is graced with Dr Dre's astonishing production - crisp, raw and claustrophobic on numbers such as the title track, but also at times surprisingly funky, light and danceable, driven by the producer's brilliant magpie mind and ever-perfect ear for a sample, including a startling range of funk, soul, rock, pop and hip hop.
The album managed to go double platinum in the United States despite never being played on the radio and N.W.A not even being able to tour in support of it, largely because angry police refused to provide security. From the perspective of an era when popular hip hop frightens absolutely no one, it all feels like a very long time ago.