There are many reasons why you shouldn’t listen to N.W.A’s ‘Straight Outta Compton.’
First and foremost is that it’s blatantly misogynistic, if not a veritable endorsement of all manner of violence against women — or violence to anyone in general who wasn’t part of their posse, come to think of it. It’s also quite stupid and signals an atavistic step back in a genre that was progressing from its seemingly shallow roots as party filler and novelty and was just then forming an “Afrocentric” and militant black pride worldview via the works of more intelligent purveyors like De La Soul and the equally incendiary but more politically astute words of Chuck D. from Public Enemy. As one critic quipped about “gangsta rap” — the genre this album invented — it is “essentially black persons… pretending to be subhuman for the entertainment of white people” (referring to the fact that its three million copies sold mostly got bought up by teenagers from the suburbs rather than the ghettoes) and about the lyrical content of this album in particular, that had “white supremacists ghostwritten their stuff for them, who’d have been able to tell the difference?” It’s also worth mentioning that, musically, as whole album, it’s quite often redundant to the point of tedium and its reputation mainly rests on the triple threat of its first three numbers.
But with that said there’s no denying its power. The noise that blared from the speakers of my stereo when I first heard it in my early teens still resonates with me today, giving a Proustian rush that evokes not the urban hell of Los Angeles but the admittedly more benign environs of the Opus Dei run campus where I was studying. Damnation there didn’t come with life sentence in a state-run penitentiary or death on a street corner at the hands of gang-bangers but a failing grade and the threat of expulsion. It certainly wasn’t Do The Right Thing as much as it was Dead Poet’s Society. But in Straight Outta Compton’s barrage of frustration, rage and recklessness mainly via Ice Cube’s indignant tone of voice and Dr. Dre’s relentless juxtaposing of samples there is a startling universality that echoes with anybody who’s felt similar even if borne under less severe circumstances. It goes a long way to explain why it is still held up as one of the greatest LP’s ever made almost three decades later and the group that made it acquire a mystique that is the subject of a movie that’s currently both a critical and commercial hit in America. (Or AmeriKKKa, as Ice Cube would’ve preferred once to call it.)
For all the reasons given why you shouldn’t listen to it (and there are undoubtedly many more than those stated above) one listen to the title track, “Fuck Tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta” will most likely short circuit all resistance and make all debate moot. The best one can hope is that triggers memories rather than guns.