N.W.A. hits harder than a wrecking ball on Straight Outta Compton. The LP’s wide-ranging attacks grab the listener by the scruff of their neck, demanding their attention and respect. Like a mushroom cloud rising up from the underworld to loom over the Western world, Straight Outta Compton contains shock value and many things besides. Its inner contents are even more striking than the album’s impressive front cover.
The record appears both effortless and well-thought-out. Defying – despite its brilliance – many supposed ideals, on this album, N.W.A. carves out its own declaration of independence.
The twisted record blurs or demolishes distinctions between art-forms, musical genres and the roles of heroes and villains, questioning many other conventions as well. Legend becomes fact on this raw slab of hip-hop, while morality is relegated to mythology. The song cycle is a crystal-clear medium of profane ideas.
Possibly the most important ingredient in the poisonous concoction is the razor-sharp production by Dr Dre and DJ Yella. The masterful instrumentals excel in multiple ways on Straight Outta Compton.
Meanwhile, the memorably powerful personalities of Ice Cube and Eazy-E and certain not-so-celebrated members – such as the relatively underrated MC Ren – also jostle for recognition. Music and words engage in a no-holds-barred wrestling match to see how many casualties and souls can be claimed. The bandmates’ vocal assaults are good enough to almost upstage the instrumentals.
The album hits the ground running and gunning. Its grandest track Ignites the onslaught. Potentially the album’s premier soundbite, its spoken introduction – “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge” – sounds the doomsday trumpet.
Then follow the drums of Dre, initiating the first-class beat. On top of such skeletal-yet-strong heavy cavalry ride the lyrics of Cube, Eazy and Ren. Rarely, if ever, has the potency of any opening song come close to that of Straight Outta Compton.
However, the group’s most explosive spectacle arguably does not arrive until the second track, “F**k Tha Police“. On the explosive song – one of many in the group’s catalogue – the horns, like those of the devil himself, are part of a demonic chorus screaming out an anthem for disenfranchised, disillusioned rebels.
Its brutal socio-political commentary lays bare another set of evils. Still so relevant, it slams harder than the impact of an officer ruthlessly tackling a fleeing suspect.
“Gangsta Gangsta“, with its “funky-ass bassline” and an even groovier, back-to-basics guitar sound, is accompanied by typically hard-as-hell drums.
In this way, the group breaks neither its confident stride nor a sweat (despite surely breaking many a heart among the communion of policemen and conservatives). That third song is powerful. While its two immediate predecessors are even rougher, they are not necessarily stronger overall.
With one of the strongest opening triptychs of any genre, the group impactfully burns itself onto its audience’s memory. Rallying cries to the convertible and the irredeemable, they signal the emergence of a culture war. Numerous merits appear throughout the record, but many of Straight Outta Compton’s strongest highlights are found in this hat-trick of hard-to-swallow pills.
Moreover, the watertight axis of evil found before “If It Ain’t Ruff” provides a brew made of rugged and smooth funk-rock elements. The first three songs form an intoxicating bridge between Parliament’s P-Funk and its similarly promiscuous and even more mischievous cousin, the G-Funk of later Dre productions. This hip-hop potion could be called ‘C-Funk’ (where ‘C’ stands for Compton).
The raging fires of sinful fun do not stop there, though. “If It Ain’t Ruff”, primarily a showcase for Ren, would rank more highly in the context of the group’s catalogue were it not arguably something of a relative disappointment following the storming victories that are its immediate predecessors. However, if facing competition from most other hip-hop from that time, the song would win.
“Parental Discretion Iz Advised” raises its head on track five. A song almost as strong as “Gangsta Gangsta” and “Express Yourself“, its keys-laden, chilled beat proves an interesting bed for lyricists including The D.O.C., a promising guest contributor.
The Boyz-N-The-Hood-like grandstanding of Eazy on “8 Ball (Remix)” generates both a spiky feel and the effect of smoothness. Furthermore, additional humour and easy-going disregard for convention bleed into even the title of track seven, “Something Like That“.
Between the start of Straight Outta Compton’s fourth song and its seventh is found a compelling mix of fast and slow, rock-hard and fluid. In this way, a spicy serving of music, which could have been memorable enough simply for its initial trilogy of songs, demonstrates far greater consistency than it might have, plus a generous amount of fairly subtle skill in the way it shifts shapes.
Sampling a joyous funk song of the same name, the gem “Express Yourself” is an excellently enjoyable piece promoting creativity and individuality. This single possibly functions as the ‘gateway drug’ leading to the album’s harder substances. Containing generous helpings of style, depth and energy, the song is definitely in the album’s top five.
The solid “Compton’s N The House (Remix)“, located ninth in the running order, precedes “I Ain’t the 1“. On the most latterly song, Cube paints quite a compelling portrait. The rapper’s strengths are emphasised here in a different manner to that of his earlier presentations. His impressive voice and delivery are given more of the spotlight after he demonstrated better lyrical skills earlier in the album.
“Dopeman (Remix)“, the eleventh track, is the rawest of several reincarnations on Straight Outta Compton. Consolidating their apparently superhuman powers, its unusual sounds are met by especially meaty drums. The lyrics of the most outstanding piece from the record’s closing three compositions end with a menacingly catchy singsong, a twisted nursery rhyme.
That ending is almost bettered by the electro-like instrumental of “Something 2 Dance 2“. The title of the competent “Quiet On Tha Set” (which precedes the last track) is one of many apparent borrowings from the film world present on the album. This final twosome of songs should, like the contributions of some relatively minor figures who also helped preserve the full-length’s momentum, not be forgotten.
In summary, Straight Outta Compton is amazing, often inspiring awe. The album makes many supposed hip-hop classics look like mediocre failures in comparison. There is much to be appreciated – and, no doubt, many a provocation – within this diamond-studded Pandora’s Box. A soundtrack to neoconservatives’ nightmares, it nonchalantly swaggers into the cool Compton night.
Words by David J Lownds