The famed N.W.A album “Straight Outta Compton” turned 30 on Wednesday.
And as the album celebrates a hard-won three decades of existence, it’s rightfully looked upon as a groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting hip-hop release — its emotions no less raw and its cultural commentary no less biting than they were in 1988.
N.W.A and the brilliant fury of Straight Outta Compton” would change rap forever, charting paths for former drug dealers and no-name kids from disenfranchised urban communities to turn their lived experiences into art and providing a foundational text for hip-hop’s growth into the protest music of the 21st century.
Released in an era when rap increasingly was being marketed to mainstream white audiences, N.W.A had no interest in charming advertisers or wooing Middle America with their storytelling on “Straight Outta Compton.” The band members — Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and the group’s other associated rappers — frequently described themselves at the time as journalists, reporting on their South Central Los Angeles communities and on the effects that poverty, gang violence and the crack epidemic had on their disenfranchised generation.
N.W.A threw profanities like grenades in their inflammatory lyrics, with a name — (Expletive) With Attitude — that dared white listeners to repeat its racial epithet.
While the album was assailed by critics for glorifying gang activity and using language deemed too profane for mainstream sensibilities, for N.W.A — which billed itself as the World’s Most Dangerous Group — their reputation just meant they were offending the right people.
“Our music’s not shocking to people who know that world,” Ice Cube told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “It’s reality. It’s shocking to people. Sometimes, the truth hurts.”
Less documentarians than savvy, fearless storytellers, the members of N.W.A amplified their versions of reality on “Straight Outta Compton” with lurid storytelling meant to provoke the certain demographic of listeners already prone to stereotyping black men as menacing thugs and shoving their fingers in the eyes of the morality police.
And for their fans, who could hear their own life stories illuminated on “Straight Outta Compton,” their music was life-affirming.
At its best, N.W.A’s punk sensibilities sounded like the album’s revelatory three-track opening run, a suite of explosive discontent consisting of the title track, “Gangsta Gangsta” and, perhaps the album’s most iconic track, “(Expletive) Tha Police,” which has endured as a rallying cry from the Rodney King protests through the Black Lives Matter movement and onward.
At its worst, the group’s embrace of shock value resulted in the misogyny and bloodlust found on “Straight Outta Compton.”
Yet as problematic as the uglier moments are on “Straight Outta Compton,” they come from the same strive toward truth-telling that made the album a classic. While critics smeared “Straight Outta Compton” as obscene, N.W.A challenged the supremacy of mainstream society, asking why their lived experiences would be deemed too shocking to produce valid art.
As “Straight Outta Compton” turns 30, following years of being feted for its influence, it’s worth asking why our current era of societal upheaval hasn’t seen more similarly anguished hip-hop that follows the album’s model.
Beyond the music of N.W.A’s most obvious descendant, fellow Compton son Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop has seen occasional politically motivated entries from stars like J. Cole and Jay-Z and more conceptual treatises on the struggles of being black in America via Solange Knowles’ “A Seat at the Table” and Common’s “Black America Again,” among other recent releases.
But our current era is still waiting for its “Straight Outta Compton,” evidence that, despite hip-hop’s status as America’s most-listened-to genre and its modern-day cultural dominance, N.W.A’s landmark album remains a rare achievement even three decades after its release.