‘Straight Outta Compton’ Is the Most American Album of the 20th Century

After the smoke cleared—after the threatening letters from the FBI, after the police skirmishes at tour dates, after the millions of dollars were cashed and after MTV buckled under the weight of street knowledge—the principals were at each other’s throats. N.W.A, one of the most creatively and commercially important groups in all of rap’s history, couldn’t stay together to properly follow up their masterpiece. And so Straight Outta Compton, the LP that shifted the balance of power West, away from New York, and Trojan Horsed gangsta rap into suburban homes around the country, stands as the only dispatch from the full group at the height of its powers. The album has been studied and dissected and formatted for cinema screens; it’s been sampled and rehashed and stripped for parts—even becoming fodder for later feuds between group members.

.e 80s), it’s never been properly understood as an inflection point in the musical history of Los Angeles County. When one of those intrasquad feuds reached a fever pitch—with “Real Muthaphuckkin G’s,” Eazy-E’s scorched-Earth Dr. Dre diss from 1993 –– the group’s founder was mocking its producer for having adopted N.W.A’s ruthless, relentless street image relatively late in life. What Eazy was forgetting (or conveniently omitting) is that that had always been the group’s strength: N.W.A wasn’t just the product of America’s malignant racism and California’s craven justice system. It was also the product of bold, brazen boardroom maneuvering, and of glossy, decidedly grown-up disco clubs. Straight Outta Compton is easily reduced into a couple of key mission statements, sure—fuck the police jumps to mind. But it’s just as fascinating when read as an act of synthesis.

Today, the mere mention of Compton carries staggering moral and narrative weight in hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar, the most critically celebrated artist of this decade, was able to use the city’s name as shorthand for an entire lineage that rap fans have internalized. In the 50s and early ‘60s, Compton was a desirable suburb for black Angelenos; by the ‘80s, when Dre, Eazy, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella (and founding member Arabian Prince) were coming of age, it was decaying and over-policed.