'Straight Outta Compton' and 'Hamilton' Speak to Modern Protests Through Hip-hop
Rap is sometimes seen as having gone soft, handed over to people singing of a kind of wish fulfillment more than their desire to have wishes fulfilled. But the return of highly serious work in a hip-hop context changes the game.
The N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” dominated the box office this weekend with its gritty West Coast story — and the hip-hop music that informs its sensibility and fills its soundtrack.
Rap is also driving another theatrical success this summer: the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”
Call it the season of “Compton” and “Hamilton,” a moment when two stories set in the past — Compton 25 years ago and Hamilton 225 years ago — use hip-hop to comment on the state of the nation, present by way of past, reason by way of rhyme.
In “Compton,” lyrics from the prolific Ice Cube rail against the harassment of minority communities by the 1980s’ Los Angeles Police Department. In “Hamilton,” the writings of the prolific Hamilton rail against the oppression of American colonists by the British in the 1700s.
“Compton,” a uniquely American story about the early days of hip-hop in South L.A., notched $60.2 million over its first weekend, twice its production budget and exceeding many projections. It is on pace to wind up its domestic run with $150 million — a relative rarity for August releases.
“Hamilton,” a uniquely hip-hop story about the early days of America, has become a major force on Broadway since opening Aug. 6 (it has reportedly sold out through the spring). President Barack Obama has attended, so has Jon Stewart. Not since “Book of Mormon” — and possibly much earlier — has a show entered the cultural mainstream in this way.
The revelation in the popularity of these new hip-hop entertainments is not that tens of millions of Americans enjoy rap music. It’s how these stories speak to what’s happening in it.
And just as the Korean War-set “MASH” was viewed as a commentary on the Vietnam War, a seemingly unrelated story of 1980s’ strife between blacks and the LAPD or of a political outsider struggling for the soul of a nation may have more to say about what’s happening now in America than many contemporary stories.
The dramatic arcs of the movie and the show are similar. Director F. Gary Gray’s “Compton” uses hip-hop as backdrop and driving force to tell its operatic stories of the seminal group N.W.A. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” uses hip-hop as backdrop and driving force to tell its operatic stories of the seminal group of Founding Fathers.
Though set and developed on opposite coasts, the two pieces have formed a tandem, showing how beats and rhymes have become a factor in our narrative entertainment in ways that go beyond music — and in ways they never have before.
“Hip-hop culture now is popular culture,” Miranda told The Times. “I don’t see it as a barrier to something being successful. I see it as a reason for something to be successful.”
Hip-hop’s clout can, of course, also be felt in “Empire,” Fox’s breakout TV drama set in the Chicago music world. Whatever the series’ sociological ambitions — and as the show is a soap opera about a patriarch and his legacy, they are up for debate — its popularity is undeniable. This spring the show became the top-rated network series among adults 18-49. Nearly 17 million people tuned in to the finale.
All of these stories rely on the built-in drama of the hip-hop world, or its aesthetic, or both. It is the coin of the realm in a land that mainstream corporate entertainment has only recently begun fully colonizing.
The point is more than just large swaths of Americans enjoy hip-hop; Billboard’s sales charts in the 1990s told us that. Nor is it that the culture is finally mature enough for these stories to unfurl in this manner. In fact, some wonder whether they’re long overdue — hip-hop has proved its box-office pull with such efforts as the 2002 Eminem movie “8 Mile,” but such stories haven’t been common.
“It’s kind of amazing that it’s taken Hollywood so long to get to this point,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, of stories set in the hip-hop world. “It’s certainly an untapped resource.”
But far from an entertainment industry discovering — belatedly, as entertainment industries tend to do — a form that any teenager with a pair of headphones has long known about, these rap stories suggest a new urgency.
A form known for social and racial protest is flourishing at this modern moment of Ferguson and angry police-community relations, and it may not be a coincidence. These are stories in which words were used to question the status quo, whether in the form of music or words. “Compton” and “Hamilton” both conjure up times in which the cry for justice was the closest some came to the real thing.
“What everyone got wrong about N.W.A is thinking that they were gangsters,” said Jonathan Herman, one of the “Compton” screenwriters. “They were just very good at painting pictures, at playing characters, at using words to report what was happening in the hope that it would change.”
Rap is sometimes seen as having gone soft, handed over to people singing of a kind of wish fulfillment more than their desire to have wishes fulfilled. But the return of highly serious work in a hip-hop context changes the game. “Compton” and “Hamilton” reflect the mainstreaming of what was once the sound of protests, but in a post-Ferguson America, they may also offer protest sounds against the mainstream.
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(Times staff writer Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report.)