‘Straight Outta Compton’: Why NWA’s Debut Album Still Blows You Away

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Straight Outta Compton arrived, on August 8, 1988, like a road crash: you couldn’t ignore it. It made the West Coast matter in hip-hop. This relatively unknown group was suddenly at hip-hop’s pinnacle, both underground and simultaneously highly visible, thanks to an album that could blow you away – its cover is designed to look like Eazy-E’s gun is the last thing you’ll ever see.

Listen to Straight Outta Compton now.

It was more complicated than that, though: if you hadn’t noticed NWA, that was your fault. They had pedigree; Dr Dre and Yella were part of World Class Wreckin’ Cru, who fused R&B and rap with some success. Ice Cube had been in CIA, better known to UK B-boys than their US brethren thanks to an appearance on the popular Street Sounds Hip-Hop compilations. Eazy-E had earned acclaim for his single “The Boyz-N-The-Hood,” penned by Cube with a title to conjure with. MC Ren joined in 1987, just as NWA were ready to drop bombs that included tracks on the album NWA And The Posse. Arabian Prince and The DOC were also on hand, though only the former made the Straight Outta Compton cover. NWA’s crew hadn’t been invisible. Soon, they’d be unavoidable.

Ice Cube’s glorious writing and heavyweight mic style; Eazy-E’s outlaw charisma; Dre’s production allied to Yella’s steely turntablism; Ren’s rhyme style: individually all were strong; collectively, it was five-way dynamite. Above all, it was about uncompromising attitude: you were with it or you weren’t. The liberal use of the N-word broke a taboo; it wasn’t unheard of in rap, but never so freely scattered. The group said they were simply reporting on life in a hitherto disregarded LA suburb. They were saying it like they felt it, like it or loathe it. The album’s most notorious offering, “F__ck Tha Police,” may have shaken tender sensibilities and drawn condemnation from the FBI, but NWA reckoned it was the voice of their hood. The song’s set-up mimics a court case, Cube, Ren, and Eazy-E called as witnesses to police brutality. In terms of verbal assassination of the law, it went where nobody dared go before: “They have the authority to kill a minority,” spat the teenage Ice Cube.

“Straight Outta Compton” introduces the group as a gang: sawn-off shotgun, mutha-smothering and all. “Gangsta Gangsta” kicks off like a crime movie, with Eazy-E sounding exactly like the hustler he was before NWA hit. An underrated member purely because he was surrounded by such huge personalities, MC Ren’s skills hit the mark on “If It Ain’t Ruff,” downbeat relief from the noise of its predecessors and a diversion into standard hip-hop throwdowns. “Parental Discretion Iz Advised” is planned provocation, with The DOC’s opening stanza mostly within the bounds of the acceptable before Dre, Ren and Cube up the ante for Eazy-E’s climactic demand of money for sex in an outrageous final verse.

Then comes another bomb: “Express Yourself,” erected on Charles Wright’s tune of the same title but taking it somewhere else altogether. It launched a rumor that Eazy-E (Eric Wright) was Wright Sr’s nephew, which the old-school funkateer flatly denied. Dr. Dre’s showcase, the tune was as funky as can be, and Dre explains his lifestyle and thoughts – including a denial of dope in contrast to his classic The Chronic. “Compton’s N The House (Remix)” is a remix of a cassette-only track with a raw machine break supporting Ren, Dre, and Eazy-E’s assertion of hometown supremacy. Yella and Dre set up “I Ain’t Tha 1” with a witty yet still hardcore loop from Brass Construction, as Cube moans about women while they come in for his cash. The language may be rough, but the tale could be vaudeville – or date back to Salome. The talk grows even darker on “Dopeman (Remix),” an advisory to avoid crack that manages to insert grim sex into its scenario: Just Say No it ain’t. “Quiet On the Set,” chiefly a showcase for Ren, deserves attention; this is pure hip-hop, rolling on the intro to The Blackbyrds’ “Rock Creek Park” with a juicy, punchy feel to the vocal mix.

The album was a runaway success, though the group was really only working out its direction as they were assembling it; it hadn’t been that long since they’d been building electro-dance tunes. Nevertheless, they unleashed a fully realized hardcore album that represents its era perfectly. After this record, hip-hop had two epicenters nearly 2,500 miles from each other. Straight Outta Compton remains loud, proud, and unbowed.

Listen to Straight Outta Compton now.

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In celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, uDiscover Music is publishing 50 album reviews throughout 2023 that highlight the breadth and depth of the genre. The Hip-Hop 50 logo was designed by Eric Haze, the mind behind iconic graphics for EPMD and LL Cool J.

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