Before Dr. Dre was pushing Dr. Pepper and hawking headphones at Best Buy, before Ice Cube was making movies for tweens, N.W.A. were the most unabashedly angry, violent, sexist, and hedonistic artists on the planet.
Their contemporaries Ice T and Public Enemy were proving rap’s legitimacy to the world by making social commentary and provoking intellectual revolution (respectively), but N.W.A. was all about pointless and nihilistic violence, much of which is directed into the crowd and somewhat at the listener. In this respect, Straight Outta Compton‘s album cover is perfectly suited for its content, with the group of thugs looking down at you like you’ve just been jumped and mugged. There’s a gun barrel pointed right at your face as if you’re about to become another meaningless human sacrifice to the concrete gods.
Pure unbridled rage is the name of the game here, and we get a full view of this right from the get go. The first sample track is the title track and the album opener, and there are few that do such stunning work of introduction. Turn by turn, each member of N.W.A. holds the mic and spits obscenities in the form of violent threats. The energy of the lurching primitive beat bounces the energy of the track back into itself, keeping a harrowing pace. The track roars and rattles and buzzes with raucous energy – it’s not that it never loses its cool, it’s that it never gains its cool in the first place. Bookended by the fraternal twin statements of “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.” and “Damn, that shit was dope!”, this is a track of postured first impressions, just as effective as the gun pointed down on the cover.
At the risk of outcry from more hardcore N.W.A. purists, I’ve skipped over “Fuck Tha Police” for a track that I find to be a fairly complete portrayal of all the themes covered in the album. “Gangsta Gangsta” is Ice Cube’s Shakespearean monologue adapted for the Golden Age of hardcore rap. Still full of violent threats, there are also elements of pure misanthropy, sexism, and ex-convict status – a major element in the lyrics of later rappers like Tupac and Biggie. (Bonus points for the line, “Do I look like a motherfucking role model?” from the father of four and executive producer of Are We There Yet?) It’s a snapshot of the glamorized gangsta life much like the snapshot of the album cover. And much like the cover photo, the picture painted ends up with N.W.A. on top and everyone else on the bottom.
Overall, the simplicity of Straight Outta Compton‘s album cover is its strength – because is there every anything as simple as pure physical dominance? The album is a solid hour of posturing and muscle flexing, but it’s also a super-effective statement coming from a group based in one of the roughest neighborhoods on the West Coast. This slice of life has inspired countless others to pursue similar energy and lifestyles – for better or for worse.
Album: Straight Outta Compton
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)