This is the third copy of this record I’ve owned in the space of just a decade. I had the initial CD pressing, and purchased the 2002 remastered version as well. The second edition did a good job of fattening-out the occasionally tinny early CD sound, and added a handful of superfluous but attractive bonus tracks. The extras were “Extended” mixes of “Express Yourself” and the title track which added a whopping (!) 20-30 seconds to the running length of each track, a nice three-minute “Bonus Beats” from the original vinyl release, and “A Bitch Iz a Bitch”, from N.W.A.‘s “first” album, the aptly titled N.W.A. and the Posse compilation. It was, in short, the last copy of Straight Outta Compton anyone should have had to buy.
But here were are, five years later, celebrating another release of the same album. The excuse this time is the album’s 20th Anniversary (although, truth be told, they’re almost a year early, seeing as how it was originally released in August of 1988). In lieu of the few bonus tracks added to the modest 2002 release, they have instead included four covers of N.W.A. songs, and a live recording of “Compton’s ‘N The House”. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s version of “Fuck the Police” is pretty fun, but Snoop Dogg and C-Murder’s “Gangsta Gangsta” is the definition of unnecessary. The less said about Mac 10 and WC’s versions of “Dopeman” and “If It Ain’t Ruff” the better. I don’t really know why these were added to the re-release, they add nothing in the way of intrinsic value.
Or wait, I guess I do know. The fact is that there are two types of re-releases in the music world. On the one hand you’ve got albums that have fallen out of print, are hard to find, or were never been adequately remastered and will benefit from updated sound and on the other, you’ve got blatant cash grabs. N.W.A. were never ones to mince words, so I won’t either. This re-release is definitely the latter.
Obviously, that fact is moot when considering the quality of the music itself. Straight Outta Compton is one of the single most important albums of the last 25 years. Its influence cannot readily be overstated, and that’s something that even the compilers of this fatuous anniversary edition can’t tarnish. If you don’t have it and you are at all a hip-hop fan or an aficionado of 20th century songcraft, you should not wait to purchase a copy at your earliest opportunity. But don’t get tricked into thinking it’s anything other than just another lucrative iteration of a disc that’s been reprinted time and time again.
The album itself holds up well, or fairly well, all things considered. Straight Outta Compton suffers a bit in hindsight for its primitive single-mindedness. I am reminded more than a little, in listening to this album for the umpteenth time, of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bullocks, another incredibly important and influential album by a group of self-destructive pioneers which, unfortunately, hasn’t held up as well as it could have. Like Never Mind the Bullocks, Straight Outta Compton has a handful of truly classic tracks, and then… well, some not-so-classic tracks. The album leads off with the title track and “Fuck the Police”, one of the strongest opening statements in the history of the LP.
Here’s the heart of darkness that lay behind the façade of race and class relations in the Reagan ‘80s, a world of police brutality and outlaw glamour. There’s a reason why it hit the mainstream like a brick, despite being banned and investigated and loathed, they weren’t just conjuring these feelings of anger and righteous indignation out of thin air. There were millions of people across the country, and later, across the world, who would realize they felt exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons. Public Enemy may have represented a silent “nation of millions” held back by the metaphorical incarceration of hypocritical American society, but N.W.A. was the actual incarnate voice of that society: hard, uncompromising, and shorn of sentiment or affectation, even brutish. But for all that, the voice was undeniably real.
For all that realness, sometimes it’s less uncompromising than merely unpalatable. “Dopeman” remains a pungent track on account of the harsh truth in its profane examination of the drug dealer / addict relationship. But then “I Ain’t the 1” takes the same misogyny that we see used in “Dopeman” to devastating effect and strips it of any meaningful context, turning it from something that could be feasibly (but problematically) defended as social realism into personality-driven indefensible invective. You don’t get any easy answers when trying to defend music this prickly. Seeing just how speedily and unreservedly hip-hop and pop culture as a whole assimilated these violent attitudes, it’s hard to forgive the group their youthful transgressions.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that N.W.A. didn’t really appreciate their own strength. They were angry men, and without any real focus the anger they directed outward at society would come to be aimed at each other. They self-destructed soon after the release of this album. Ice Cube was the first to go, alienated by Eazy-E and Ruthless co-owner Jerry Heller’s, um, ruthless business practices. Undeniably the group’s major songwriting talent, Cube went on in the early ‘90s to record the most powerful and enduring examples of gangster-rap-as-agitprop that we have yet seen. Beginning with 1990’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and ending with 1993’s Lethal Injection, for the space of these four years he was essentially unstoppable; angry, articulate, wrathful and devastatingly funny. The four albums he recorded in this time remain essential listening.
But if Ice Cube understood the deeper realities of race in America, and used his own solo career as a means of exploring the complex and frightening emotional terrain N.W.A. first charted, the rest of the group was not so eager. Eazy-E was a caricature from the first moment he ever stepped in front of the microphone, a squeaky-voiced tyrant with a dirty mind. The transformation of gangsta rap from authentic protest music to self-parodying minstrelry was not a particularly long or elaborate change, and it can be charted across the course of this single album, in the two figures of Ice Cube and Eazy-E. Eazy was a hustler who had parlayed a small fortune made selling crack into Ruthless Records, and he had few goals above glorifying the amoral lifestyle that had made him rich. As a rapper, he made a good drug-dealer. You can’t blame all the group’s excesses on Eazy-E, after all, the misogyny and homophobia in Eazy’s raps were mostly written by Ice Cube, but after Ice Cube split and Eazy was left to his own devices, his subsequent solo material proved toxically unredeemable. He was selling a fantasy life of endless transgression without consequences. This was the fantasy that made gangsta rap the music of choice for disaffected white suburban youth throughout the subsequent decades.
We see in Straight Outta Compton both of these warring impulses in full bloom: angry social criticism and decadent amoral voyeurism. Eazy-E was a businessman and he knew what sold. He also knew how to alienate everyone he ever worked with, as Ice Cube was subsequently followed by Dr. Dre and a host of secondary Ruthless Records talents in jumping ship. By the time Eazy died of AIDS in 1996, after feuding with the almost every other former member of N.W.A. for the better part of a decade, he was a comically paranoid figure (although he was reportedly able to make amends with Cube and Dre on his deathbed). Dr. Dre, meanwhile, was able to maintain the tension between social realism and fantasy at least a little bit longer. Although his debut solo album, 1993’s The Chronic, went a long ways towards crystallizing the dangerous cultural image of the gangsta as fun-loving romantic outlaw, there was also enough of Ice Cube’s old-school social commentary, for those who knew where to look. Tracks like “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” and “Little Ghetto Boy” almost made the listener overlook the casual misogyny that had curdled into something dark and unredeemable in the space between “A Bitch Iz a Bitch” and “Bitches Ain’t Shit”.
And from these dialectics we can see the whole neurosis of modern hip-hop writ large. The dichotomy between the truth-telling storyteller and the anarchic sybarite is alive and well. Who do you prefer, Kanye or 50 Cent? It’s never cut and dried, and it never was. Jay-Z can vacillate between guilt and pride in the space of a single verse, and one suspects that the warring impulses of thug and teacher will never be truly reconciled. This is the conflict that fuels the motor at the heart of the music. If you listen to Straight Outta Compton now, even if it doesn’t hold up entirely, it’s still a thrilling piece of music because it makes absolutely no attempt to apologize for or contextualize this conflict. It’s the id and the ego, wreaking havoc across the fabric of modern society.