'Straight Outta Compton' is the lamest kind of gloss-over musical biopic
We might expect that a big-budget Hollywood biopic produced or guided by the surviving members of N.W.A would sidestep the most troubling aspects of the hip-hop giants’ legacy: the cynical celebrations of the violent gangster lifestyle and, most troublingly, the level of sheer hatred toward women that still stands as a record low in the annals of musical misogyny.
What we wouldn’t expect is an even bigger flaw in Straight Outta Compton, which opens this weekend and is expected to dominate the box office. At a bloated 147-minute running time, it often makes the explosive story of the self-professed “World’s Most Dangerous Group” downright bland and boring.
Some fawning reviews have compared the movie to another recent biopic of a West Coast musical legend, Love & Mercy. But a few strong performances aside, the more apt comparisons are to other yawningly mediocre big-budget films that erase the rough edges of their subjects and somehow douse the fire at the heart of some of the most incendiary music ever made. Think The Buddy Holly Story. Think La Bamba. Think any made-for-VH1 movie, or Lifetime’s recent Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B (whose star, Alexandra Shipp, appears here as Ice Cube’s wife Kim, one of a handful of women briefly and grudgingly given speaking roles).
Better yet, think about sparing yourself the nearly 2.5 hours (reportedly cut down from 3.5) in front of the big screen and wait for Netflix, if you must.
Like any music critic with a moral conscience who charted the group’s rise and wrestled with it in the three and a half decades since, N.W.A always has left me severely conflicted. The seductive production of its debut album Straight Outta Compton (1988) set the blueprint for the West Coast sound and everything Dr. Dre has done in its aftermath. And the undeniable rage of the epic Cube-driven “F--- tha Police” is so monumental that the disc’s occasional glorification of black-on-black crime and rampant misogyny can almost be overlooked. That is not the case with the Cube-less second and last release Niggaz4Life.
“This is an album of hate-filled songs that glorify gang rape and beating women to death, an album so nihilistic that its lyrics brag about making money from these topics,” I wrote upon its release in 1991. “It’s the most vile, rancid, festering pile of crap I’ve heard in my life. It is also one of the top-selling albums in America for the third week in a row.” (The full text of that review, which ran in the Minneapolis weekly City Pages, follows below.)
Hateful jams and skits such as “To Kill a Hooker,” “One Less Bitch,” “Findum, F---um & Flee,” “She Swallowed It,” and “I’d Rather F--- You” are conveniently sidestepped in the movie. You can’t include everything, one might argue. But there is no exploration of what prompted this hatred of women—not that anything could excuse it—even as the film strives in ridiculously exaggerated ways to lay the pre-Rodney King groundwork for the group’s disdain of the men in blue. (The Daily Beast has a useful fact-check on the realities of N.W.A’s interactions with the police, though it only scratches the surface of the film’s many distortions and pure fictions.)
Niggaz With Attitude’s attitude toward women was, disgustingly and infamously, not confined to the lyrics. But we don’t see Dre’s vicious 1991 attack on journalist Dee Barnes, or learn that Eazy-E fathered seven children with six different women. Nor is there any examination of how Eric Wright caught AIDS, which would claim his life at age 31, aside from a fleeting mention that you can contract it from heterosexual sex. (We don’t even see much of that with his character; in fact, Neil Brown Jr.’s DJ Yella is portrayed as the horndog of the crew in the many scenes with gratuitously naked and nameless groupies.)
Instead, Eazy (Jason Mitchell), Dre (Corey Hawkins), Cube (the real rapper’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr.), and Ren (Aldis Hodge of TV’s Leverage) emerge as relatively cute and cuddly, as well as utterly guileless as they are preyed upon by the film’s three cartoonish villains: manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), Priority Records chief Bryan Turner (Tate Ellington), and the notorious Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). The bounds of credulity are stretched past the breaking point when we’re asked to accept that these whip-smart and streetwise hustlers were so easily duped by bullying music-biz bad guys, whose caricatures are even more simplistic and one-dimensional than those in Spike Lee’s harshly criticized Mo’ Better Blues.
Nor is there a hint of the cold calculation at the heart of the group’s art. Its depictions of drug deals and gang killings are merely “reality rap,” as if the artists just walked down the street and told us what they saw. But it always was much harder to accept N.W.A as “the CNN of the streets” than it was Public Enemy. The West Coast rappers distorted, exaggerated, and championed the harshest realities of a small sliver of the black community to sell as violent comic books to a mass audience eagerly waiting to lap up the Nihilistic clichés and one-dimensional stereotypes. Like skilled pornographers, they knew what would sell and they enthusiastically sold it, moral qualms and any devotion to accuracy be damned.
And here they are selling it again, in an even shinier package aimed at an even bigger audience and designed to make it all seem safe and even noble.
N.W.A may or may not be planning to capitalize on this rewriting of history with a reunion tour that may or may not find Eminem filling the role of Eazy-E. Either way, that’s only the short-term scam, and these artists always have played the long game. In the end, despite a few merits—those performances by Jackson and Mitchell, a handful of hearty belly laughs, and a nice scene depicting the young Dre lost in a pile of vinyl that stands with the similar one in Almost Famous as a classic depiction of the ineffable seduction of music—Straight Outta Compton peddles a simplistic myth that has as much in common with complicated realities as Disneyland has with Compton.
FLASHBACK REVIEW: N.W.A, Niggaz4Life
City Pages, July 3, 1991
This is an album of hate-filled songs that glorify gang rape and beating women to death, an album so nihilistic that its lyrics brag about making money from these topics. It’s the most vile, rancid, festering pile of crap I’ve heard in my life. It is also one of the top-selling albums in America for the third week in a row.
That alone is enough to make me consider booking one-way passage on a freighter to New Zealand, but two weeks ago, I also heard rock critic and anti-censorship zealot Dave Marsh tell a crowd at the Hungry Mind bookstore in St. Paul that Niggaz4Life is “great vulgar art.” Marsh, the man who excluded the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” from The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made because he considers it racist and sexist, went on to compare Niggaz4Life to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, a great book mistaken for pornography.
The fact is Niggaz4Life is a pathetic con designed to cash in on its transparent controversy. The most sensible response would be to ignore it, but the fact is it’s impossible to avoid, sitting on top of the charts, flaunting its PARENTAL ADVISORY, EXPLICIT LYRICS sticker. Its debut at No. 2 was the highest since Michael Jackson’s Bad in 1987; it rose to No. 1 the next week and is now at No. 3. This success flies in the face of a complete lack of play on radio or MTV and comes in the midst of Billboard magazine’s much-ballyhooed revamping of the charts to reflect actual sales in the Musiclands and Kmarts of heartland America.
This means fifteen-year-old white kids in [Minneapolis suburbs] Edina and Eden Prairie, Chanhassen and Chaska are buying Niggaz4Life, and that’s why it’s the center of a renewed attack by the labeling and censorship crowd; last week, Florida attorney Jack Thompson announced plans to sue Musicland for selling the album, so the battle will be fought right in our backyard. No doubt kids are buying it simply because it’s the most vile shit available; as our culture gets more and more jaded in the wake of Freddie Krueger and the Terminator and American Psycho and the beautiful fireworks over Baghdad, it gets harder and harder to shock the folks. Thompson’s crew says kids need to be protected from this stuff, just like they need to be protected from the Anoka-Hennepin school district’s sex and AIDS curriculum. What they always fail to realize is that the kids are rejecting them.
Marsh and the other critics defending Niggaz4Life could see the war clouds on the horizon, and that may be why they’re so dogmatic: If you’re not for ’em, you’re agin ’em. They ask us to excuse N.W.A’s hate as fantasy and accept the group as the “underground reporters” they boast about being on their 1-900-2-COMPTON phone line (a dollar forty-nine per minute). But why can’t you be for the First Amendment and against misogyny? I despise any attempt to limit free expression in music and believe N.W.A had every right to make the album they wanted to make. But this is a record review, not an editorial, and I’d be betraying everything I believe is implicit in the reader-critic relationship if I didn’t say you’re a fool if you buy it and more than a little bit warped if you like it.
Musically the album is wack, all ultra-familiar grooves powered by whining, repetitive four- and five-note Casio rifts. It’s not half as effective as Public Enemy’s white-noise assaults or De La Soul’s psychedelic sampling. Of course it’s the words that set N.W.A apart.
The group struck a nerve even before Rodney King with “F--- Tha Police” on its platinum-selling debut, Straight Outta Compton. Since then, the Geto Boys and 2 Live Crew have upped the ante on outrageous rap lyrics, and like grammar school kids at a lunchroom table, N.W.A is determined to out-gross and gross-out all comers. They even own up to the scam: “Why do I call myself a nigger you ask me?/Because my mouth is so mother----ing nasty/Bitch this, bitch that, nigger this, nigger that/In the meanwhile my pockets are getting fat/I’m getting paid to say the s--- here/Making more in a week than a doctor makes in a year.”
To drive the point home the album concludes with the line, “Ha, another album. The joke’s on you, jack.” (I wonder if they meant Thompson or Musicland’s Jack Eugster?) The album’s first half offers more of N.W.A’s muddled politics (remember, Eazy-E’s the guy who paid to attend a Republican fundraiser). Between threats to f--- former collaborator-turned-rival Ice Cube up the ass with a broomstick and skits such as N.W.A gunning down picketers outside one of its shows, the songs “Real Niggaz Don’t Die,” “Niggaz 4 Life,” and “Real Niggaz” set a record for repetitive use of a word that’s still despised by much of the African-American community. N.W.A could almost be seen as adopting Lenny Bruce’s tactics on co-opting racial slurs: Claim the word as your own and it ceases to hurt (it’s hard not to laugh when the group croons jingle-style, “I’m a nigger/You’re a nigger/He’s a nigger/We’s some niggers/Wouldn’t you like to be a nigger, too?”).
If this was the intention it’s ruined when Eazy-E, M.C. Ren, D.J. Yella, and Dr. Dre trot out more racial stereotypes than you’d hear at a KKK rally. In their world, a “real nigger” is not a black human being but someone who lives by the trigger, prefers cocaine to wine or weed, and knows how to handle the bitches (“Hop in the pickup/And suck my d--- up ’til you hiccup”).
In their zeal to fight the good fight censorship’s foes are too quick to put aside N.W.A’s misogyny, which is overwhelming and sickening throughout the second half of the album. In the songs “To Kill a Hooker,” “One Less Bitch,” “Findum, F---um & Flee,” and “She Swallowed It,” the group makes its opinion of women clear: “To me all bitches are the same: money-hungry scammers, groupies, whores that’s always riding on a nigger’s d---, always in the nigger’s pocket, and when the nigger runs out of money the bitch is gone in the wind. To me all bitches ain’t shit.”
When N.W.A picks up a woman and beats her to death because she’s a prostitute it’s one of the most stomach-churning sound collages in the history of pop music. Marsh can dismiss this as fantasy and Cashbox can contend that “portrayal must not be confused with advocacy. “ But “To Kill a Hooker” ends with an evil laugh that’s too real for comfort. It makes me want to puke, while N.W.A is laughing all the way to the bank.
Straight Outta Compton (Universal/Legendary Pictures; 147 minutes, rated R)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 1 star.