This is an installment of a series of blogs where I revisit some classic albums that I love, used to love or has made an impact on pop culture whether I am familiar with it or not. You can also make suggestions on a classic album, and I may give a whirl and review it. Email me at jfroemming(at)bemidjipioneer.com or comment below.
When N.W.A. came out, the world heard it. Even 7-year-old me at the time, whose older brother’s musical tastes changed from hair metal, U2 and Michael Jackson to the rise of hip-hop and gangsta rap overnight. And he wasn’t the only one. A lot of people from all walks of life found this new(ish) musical phenomenon fascinating. And the one thing that sticks out of my perception of the group at that time was these guys were frightening.
Of course, as I got older, I realized a lot of it was show to sell records. Not all of it, founding member Eazy-E was a drug dealer and gang banger in his time before the band rose to fame, but it was an exaggerated group image to scare parents and get kids to buy the records. Because nothing will make a kid/teenager want something more than to make it taboo. A brilliant ploy, but they did have a message too: I’m pissed off and I’m not going to take it anymore! It’s a message as old as time, and kids will always related to it. I know as a teenager I sure did.
With the release of their bio-pic “Straight Outta Compton,” I decided to revisit this album that I have, over the years, gone back to and have had mixed feelings about.
I will say this, I love this album, but it has elements that have not aged well for me. Those elements are the typical misogyny and homophobic lyrics that are used throughout the album. Like old people saying insanely racist stuff in the past, I view parts of the album’s content as a part of the times back then. I don’t agree with it, I don’t like it, but it was there. On record. I don’t have to like every element of something to enjoy it as a whole.
To me what has endured the best of this album the production and how it flows. Dr. Dre is a fantastic producer (their follow-up album even has hints of what Dre would do later with “The Chronic” on it) and Ice Cube had some fantastic flow to his rhymes. Eazy-E’s voice is still, to this day, one of the most unique and interesting ones ever in hip-hop. And it’s amazing that these guys were once part of a single group — besides DJ Yella and MC Ren, they have had amazing post-N.W.A. careers.
They also rapped about topics bluntly. There is no hidden metaphors or other meanings to a song like “F— Tha Police,” it stands as it is — anger and frustration at the LAPD at the time. It also offers no solutions to what they were experiencing. It stands alone as a giant middle-finger of resentment and makes no apologies about it. Same with the title track, this is who they are and what they are about. There was no gray area in their music, it’s as raw and angry as any Black Flag or punk rock album.
A group like this was not going to last forever. Egos, believing their own myth, blurring the lines between what they projected and reality mashing into one another, N.W.A. pretty much fell apart as quickly as they rose to popularity. Ice Cube left, which is painfully evident on their follow-up album much because he was a such a huge presence on “Straight Outta Compton.” Then Dre left and that was it. The fallout was pretty bitter and they would continue to bash one another on their albums, with Cube bashing all of them on his “Death Certificate” album, Dre ripped into Eazy-E on “The Chronic” and E ripped on Dre on “It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa.” They apparently reconciled their issues before Eazy-E died in 1995. So at least there was a silver lining amid all the muck surrounding these guys. A muck that would follow them up to the making of their bio-pic, when Dre’s former business associate Suge Knight was allegedly involved with an incident near the set that resulted in a death.
“Straight Outta Compton” isn’t the greatest hip-hop album ever, but it is one of the most important ones of all time. It defined a genre of hip-hop that is still around. It came out at the right time with the right content, and made an impact that is still felt. From Kendrick Lamar to Jay-Z to Kanye West, N.W.A.’s influence is still heard in the music world to this day. I say the album, despite its flaws, has stood the test of time.