Movie Review: "Straight Outta Compton" Offers Rap Genius, Race Discussion & Revolution in the Music Industry

(Universal Pictures)

When Kendrick Lamar is the interviewer, you know whoever is sitting across from him at the table must be good. Lamar recently sat down for a Billboard cover story with all the living members of the iconic hip-hop/rap group, N.W.A. (N***as Wit Attitude), in wake of the release of Straight Out of Compton, a movie based on N.W.A.’s development and influence in music in the 80s and 90s. Lamar perfectly compliments N.W.A. as both sensations originated from Compton, California. The Hollywood blockbuster is smashing through theaters in its opening weekend. The story is a rare outlier from the historical dramas usually seen rolling through the big screen.

The group was comprised of five main members: Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren. Its message delved from a raw power growing out of the Compton ghetto, from angst-filled teenagers who passionately threw themselves into a music career without comprehending the enormity of the outcome. Hits off of their first studio album, Straight Out of Compton, included “F**k tha Police.” This song in particular carried harsh words towards the treatment of the black man against some of the madly authoritative, racist policeman. N.W.A never seemed to shy away from crossing the line. Though the group did fall apart as Cube and Dre pursued successful solo careers, N.W.A. seared the image of gangster rap and West Coast hip-hop into mainstream’s memory. Many of their songs were banned from the radio due to the violent content. Dre’s recent and final album, the simply titled Compton, is an ode to not only the movie and N.W.A.’s first album but to the place where the outlier tale began.

You’ve seen Eminem’s relentless pursuit of success in 8 Mile. You’ve seen white brutality and minority suffrage historically unfold in Selma. Straight Out of Compton is a delicate mix of two extremely harsh but intertwined worlds of race and rap. While the plot unfolds in layers of tension revolving around governmental threats, shallow management, and shady entourages, the film also incorporates historical grounding in relation to events that shaped N.W.A and its members. The “not guilty” verdict in the trial of police officers filmed violently beating Rodney King sparked the intense L.A. Riots in 1992. This huge national event attracted the attention of N.W.A. members as the viewer witnesses its impact on their lives. In addition, the AIDs crisis hovering over homophobia makes a noteworthy statement in the film; Eazy-E passed away from the disease at age thirty-one in the mid 90s. His diagnosis depicted onscreen emotionally reconnects the former members of N.W.A. and also demonstrates a soft side to the otherwise fierce reality of gangster rap culture.

In addition to Eazy-E’s character development, Dre and Cube intensify as both artists and individuals throughout the plot line. Both men oversaw the production of the film; Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., plays a younger Cube in the film. The viewer can notice their influences in the story’s portrayal. Though Dre and Cube are undoubtedly the most talented and successful of N.W.A., their characters are also easily empathetic with an audience as N.W.A’s former manager, Jerry Heller, and other side characters take on the offbeat villainous roles that act as mere obstacles in the way of their current successes. Cube’s lyrical talent flows through all of the film’s studio and concert rap scenes, particularly in his recorded disses towards N.W.A. at a time when his solo career success and his former group were at odds with one another. Dre also rolls in as a powerful, dark cloud of intangible talent as his character discovers new paths to follow as a rising producer. Arguably the most iconic scene in the film occurs when Dre decides to leave the bullying atmosphere of Death Row Records and declares that his new label will be called Aftermath. Audiences that understand Aftermath’s success fully embrace the directing genius behind this on camera moment. 

The film is full of turmoil and metamorphosing talent, yet it does not fail to humor its viewers. The youthful ages of N.W.A. members create a perfect backdrop for the music industry’s glamorization of parties and sex, but it’s never without a character’s side joke or goofy dilemma to entertain. In addition, there are many well-known artists who are represented due to their connections with N.W.A., specifically with producer Dre. Snoop Dogg and Tupac are both discovered by Dre in the film during his time at Death Row Records. The imitations of the mega rap stars are well done to anyone who appreciates hip-hop. Names such as Snoop and Tupac begin to slowly fill in the range of influence N.W.A. had on the development of their genre; it creates familiarity to the viewer while also demonstrating the intertwinement of hip-hop subgenres.

Straight Out of Compton’s story is more than an inevitable box office success or big-time artist advertisement. Instead, it combines the immature and raw drive of youth with the evolution of a once-sheltered culture. As a viewer, you cannot believe the horrors of the King beating or the misconduct of officers towards rambunctious boys who later become some of the hugest names in the industry. Yet, there’s Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. The Baltimore Riots. Fresh gears in the hip-hop realm: Kendrick Lamar. These forces between race and rap are still at work. Society has not completely healed from the reality that N.W.A. experienced and honestly spoke about. The fourteen-year fight for the creation of this film stands legitimized. Compton, California is on the map. Much more than just a ghetto where a few boys recorded music, it stands for the ever-changing dialogue between societal issues and the development of hip-hop culture.

Straight Outta Compton is now playing in theaters everywhere.