A couple of weeks ago, I finally watched F. Gary Gray‘s Straight Outta Compton, the cinematic biography of N.W. A. (More accurately, I saw the ‘Unrated Director’s Cut,’ which features an additional twenty minutes not found in the theatrical release.) Since then, many tracks from the N. W. A, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy E oeuvre on my Spotify playlist have received extended playtime; the music is as astonishing as it ever was. And yet, as I listen to these tracks I’m reminded again about my deep and abiding ambivalence about gangsta rap, and the unease it perennially stirs in me.
Tracks like ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ ‘Fuck tha Police,’ ‘No Vaseline‘ ‘Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang,’ ‘Real Compton City Gs‘ are exhilarating. There is defiance and unbridled energy, mordant social commentary (no one is better on police brutality), some exquisite verbal styling and delivery of lyrics, a dazzling fusion of varied musical styles–the whole package. These tracks–and many others like them–are irresistible in many dimensions. (If you feel like getting charged up for a tough day at work, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ or ‘Fuck the Police’ are great tracks to play as you get dressed and head out the door; woe betide that annoying co-worker who tries to get under your skin that day. Lyrics like “Boy you can’t fuck with me/So when I’m in your neighborhood, you better duck/Cause Ice Cube is crazy as fuck” will do that to you.) It is small wonder they found so much playtime on radio stations and television channels–even if in some venues they had to be sanitized. Which brings us to an enduring problem with them.
Quite simply, there is little room to maneuever, to offer exculpation, when confronted with lyrics like these:
Now I think you a snitch,
throw a house nigga in a ditch.
Half-pint bitch, fuckin’ your homeboys.
You little maggot; Eazy E turned faggot.
With your manager, fella,
fuckin’ MC Ren, Dr. Dre, and Yella.
But if they were smart as me,
Eazy E would be hangin’ from a tree.
With no vaseline, just a match and a little bit of gasoline.
Light ’em up, burn ’em up, flame on…
I find a good piece o’ pussy, I go up in it
So if you’re at a show in the front row
I’m a call you a bitch or dirty-ass ho
You’ll probably get mad like a bitch is supposed to
But that shows me, slut, you’re composed to
A crazy muthafucker from tha street
Such examples can be multiplied effortlessly. There is misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, violent death threats–another comprehensive package of sorts. The defense of these lyrics is a familiar one: these tracks are not promotions or endorsements of the lifestyles and attitudes noted in them; rather, they are reports of an existent state of affairs, a grim reality, in precincts unknown to most Americans. The contestation of this defense has resulted in an enduring debate, one facet of which was visible in the the sharp accusations of misogyny that made the rounds once again during Straight Outta Compton’s theatrical release. That case is damning, and rightly so.
And so, I find myself perplexed once again: the musical qualities attract, but many ‘messages’ within it repels; there is no way to listen to this music without that tension present.