I really wouldn’t have understood this album at the time of its release.
In fact, I actively avoided rap back in 1988, when N.W.A. unleashed Straight Outta Compton on an unprepared world. The cool kids in high school listened to rap, and with my Kronos Quartet tapes playing in my Walkman, I was not a cool kid.
But what would have happened had I been subjected to the unabashed rage of Straight Outta Compton?
Would it have spoken to my teen-aged need for rebellion? Would I have been drawn to it unwittingly, not fully comprehending the bigger socio-political underpinnings inherent in its content?
Most likely not.
So it’s at the age of 3x when Straight Outta Compton not only makes sense but downright reels me in.
This shit is fucking rock ‘n’ roll.
It taps into the soul of discontent. It speaks plainly and brutally. It’s loud, obnoxious and everything your mother told you stay away from.
No wonder it sold big.
But this kind of high praise would never have come from me back in 1988. Hell, it wouldn’t have come from me in 1998. It took a little bit of my own life experience to understand the anger directed at the racial divide described in detail on the album.
No, I didn’t grow up in a gang neighborhood (although I have to say my old stead has really turned into a slum), and no, I have no immediate family getting harrassed by police, dealing drugs or causing shit.
If anything, it’s something of a big stretch to link Ice Cube’s indignation toward civil authority and my own anger at the racism internalized by gay Asian men, devaluing their own masculinity.
(I don’t need no fucking white boyfriend, bitch.)
But the rage speaks to me. The vitriol speaks to me.
Never mind the fact that as a studio work, Straight Outta Comptom stands up, it still sounds imaginative more than 15 years later.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how the aforementioned unprepared world couldn’t see the forest for the proverbial trees.
The lyrics of “Gangsta Gangsta” are indeed violent and perhaps gratuitous. Thing is, I didn’t notice until I actually tried to visualize Ice Cube’s words in my head.
To someone who has never had cause to express the kind of discontent (perhaps malcontent?) depicted in “Gangsta Gangsta”, N.W.A. would certainly come across as a menace to society.
And that may be Straight Outta Compton’s mixed legacy.
In their own way, the members of N.W.A. were journalists. They spoke to the reality of their surroundings.
But like all messages, the audience took from it what they wanted.
I have never had to live in the kind of urban environment that fueled the creation of Straight Outta Compton, but for some reason, I still feel it said something to me.
And that’s an important achievement to accomplish regardless of when it happens.