Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Immortals #83 - N.W.A.

Might as well have single-handedly invented the parental advisory sticker. And hey, God bless 'em for it.

Let's start with the obvious good: Eazy is one of the most compelling and charismatic performers of his generation. Ren, Yella and Dre, though seemingly relegated to near side-men status at times, nonetheless make their presence abundantly known in some of the groups most durable and beloved tracks. And here a baby-faced Ice Cube immediately announces himself as a force of nature, absolutely dominating his way through arguably one of the most influential A-sides in hip-hop history (a streak he'd soon continue in his indispensable early solo work).

Still, I'm not positive why Straight Outta Compton is looked-upon as an album quite as highly as it is, though I do have a pet theory that might explain its current status. See, as a child of the 90s (started high school in the fall of '96, class of '00), I remember the decade for being the times when everything updated. With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the fall of the me-me-me! 80s, and a new world order was soon established. Gen X was to become as prominent in the culture as the Boomers had been, and the artistic underground of any number of media was about to define the mainstream, with all the commercial and cache privileges that implied. Yet for all its significance, the 90s had precious few definitive musical texts to represent it. By the time 1996 rolled around, the decade was ready to coast out on an endless parade of faux-grunge, pre-packaged pop, and gangsta-gangsta wannabe redundancy (and sometimes all at the same time!)

Yella and Dre's production isn't really all that flashy, but its proto-West Coast G-thing vibe is enduring, and its high points propel the album's most memorable tracks, but for the most part this is a stepping stone to Dre's more celebrated future efforts. Yet we remember these songs as being elementarily powerful, mostly because we can't seem to disassociate them from images of the larger-than-life place so proudly 'repped in the title that came just a few years later. When the riots rocked South Central in the wake of... well, pretty much everything that N.W.A said was going on in their neighborhood, culminating with the verdict of the Rodney King trial and subsequent boiling-over of the populace into civil unrest, many in the media (as does now, it seems, the gaze of history) looked to the biggest voices in the rap world as prophets who portended it all in their lyrics. We had the troubled times, but lacked a natural soundtrack, until we picked this one.

But even though Straight Outta Compton is maybe best-remembered for it's opening one-two punch and a whole lot of f-bombs, it's hardly that straightforward or politically focused a record.
Public Enemy was called "The Black CNN" because Chuck D's brought the "informed and angry about it" gravitas of a grown-ass man, but the members of N.W.A. exploded into public life at a tender age in their early adulthood. Eazy was 25, but the rest of the group were barely out of their teens- hell, Cube hadn't yet crossed that threshold. Compared to the more legitimately conscious hip-hop in that period, "Straight Outta Compton" and "Fuck tha Police" are less social commentary than an adolescent lashing-out, just raw, juvenile anger. It's the kind of emotion that's hard to muster as an adult with responsibilities like a job to get up for in the morning. Elsewhere, "I Ain't tha 1" and, um, basically everything that comes out of Eazy-E's mouth display sexual politics of a sophistication on par with your average horny 15-year-old boy.

Most of the tracks are slice-of-life grooves about partying, getting laid, and waking up the next day hoping not to get hassled by cops or lesser MCs, liberally coated with lyrical posturing on how much they get laid, party, and fuck up other MCs. In that light, Straight Outta Compton is really sort of underrated as one of the better coming of age albums of its era. And when Cube left the group after its release, it might as well have been the last scene of Stand By Me, with Richard Dreyfuss narrating about how now Ren drives a forklift and Eazy died just six years after that fateful day (and River Phoenix fades away...)

When the PMRC inquisition the music industry to adopt the so-called "Tipper Sticker", it was really only a matter of time before that little black and white warning symbol became the prized badge of entry to new worlds of badass-ness for kids all over America. And the irony of N.W.A now is that in our fervor to indulge the legacy of Straight Outta Compton, we've all become little Tipper Gores ourselves. This music validates our own inner-teenagers, the part of ourselves that needs to remember that time and place as feels most fitting to us now. And so we remember the people who remind us of then in the same way. That's why Straight Outta Compton still feels mostly scary and cool and vital today, even if the 90s as a whole weren't quite as much those things as we might remember them.

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