If you grew up in the mid- to late-80’s and early 90’s, there’s no doubt you at least heard of N.W.A., Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the likes. Their brand of so called “reality rap” started to raise awareness of social issues with the harsh lyrics, while at the same time causing more than its fair share of controversy. Nearly 30 years after the start of N.W.A., director F. Gary Gray brings the story of the rise of the popular rap group to the big screen and our Straight Outta Compton review takes a look at this latest biopic.
Before we get into the movie, let’s take a quick look at the group behind the story. N.W.A., short for “N****z Wit Attitudes” was formed in 1986 in Compton, California and was initially comprised of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young who then brought Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby with O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson and Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson joining later. Their debut album was released in 1988 and the three main tracks quickly gained popularity and came under scrutiny by law enforcement for their lyrics. The title track, “Straight Outta Compton” served as an introduction to the group, “Gangsta Gangsta” portrayed life as an inner-city youth, and “F**k tha Police” brought light to racial profiling and police brutality. While N.W.A. referred to their genre of music as “reality rap,” police and news outlets took to calling it “gangsta rap” due to the profanity laced lyrics which, according to law enforcement, incited violence and glamorized street gang life. Either way, there’s no arguing that N.W.A., particularly Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube spawned a new genre of hip hop music that would take America by storm and leave a lasting legacy on hip hop music.
Straight Outta Compton, the movie, starts off just before N.W.A. forms and gives a quick introduction to the lives of Eazy-E – a gang banger running drugs, Dr. Dre – an aspiring DJ struggling to make ends meet, and Ice Cube – a high school student who spends his time writing lyrics. Through a series of events, Dre and Ice Cube end up meeting with Eazy-E and convince him to front some money so they can start a record label which they called Ruthless Records. With lyrics written by Ice Cube, Eazy-E ends up rapping and released his first solo track – “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” One day while picking up the latest stack of freshly pressed LPs, Eazy-E meets Jerry Heller who insists he can help take him and N.W.A. to new heights. As a result, Eazy-E and Heller end up co-owning the new Ruthless Records label.
The movie then follows the initial rise of the group, from their first album to the subsequent tour, including their infamous 1989 Detroit concert in which they were told by Detroit police that they couldn’t perform “F**k tha Police” and would be arrested if they did. As you can imagine, N.W.A. being defiant as always performed the song anyways and were subsequently arrested for a short time. Over the course of the tour, Ice Cube starts to question Heller’s motives and wonders why Eazy-E and Heller are frequently eating fancy meals while the rest of the group is stuck eating Fatburgers, and presses Heller and Eazy-E throughout for a contract. By the end of the tour, Ice Cube has made up his mind to leave N.W.A. feeling he’s not getting his fair share of the profits considering he wrote the lyrics for many of the songs the group sang.
From there Straight Outta Compton chronicles the solo career of Ice Cube, starting with his solo album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, and the animosity and battle raps that grew between N.W.A. and Ice Cube. Eventually Dr. Dre parts ways with N.W.A. as well, in part due to guidance from Suge Knight, and forms Death Row Records. With the three main players of N.W.A. going their separate directions, it definitely appears that N.W.A. is done for good. After a few years of distaste for each other, Eazy-E reaches out to Ice Cube and Dr. Dre to try and get the group back together again, unfortunately the movie ends on a somber note as Eazy-E is diagnosed with HIV and passes away before the trio had a chance to record once again as N.W.A.
The credits featured facts and tidbits about the group members since the early 90’s such as the sale of Beats by Dre to Apple last year, as well as bits of testimonials from current artists like Eminem and 50 Cent who attribute their success to Dr. Dre. In fact, Eminem even gives a shout out to N.W.A. in the song “Forgot About Dre” back in 1999. The credit sequence helps to solidify the lasting impact N.W.A. has had on the music scene.
While the movie is about N.W.A., there’s much more at play here. Straight Outta Compton also acts as a social commentary of the time, when police brutality against blacks was on the rise, culminating in the 1991 beating of Rodney King which led to the 1991 L.A. riots after the four officers were acquitted – all of which is featured in the movie. As for the music focus, the movie starts with the main focus on N.W.A., and Eazy-E being the front man, but shifts to following the rise of both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as they mature and go their separate ways from their former rap group.
With both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre on board as producers for the film, it seemed pretty accurate – although with any Hollywood movie there are bound to be some notable, but small, differences. For example, in the movie the group is arrested at the concert in Detroit whereas in reality they managed to get back to their hotel room before being arrested. That being said, the film definitely feels authentic and gives viewers a great look behind the scenes not only of the rise (and fall) of N.W.A., but the rise of the careers of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Suge Knight, and the mitigating social factors that influenced the group at the time.
The acting in Straight Outta Compton was absolutely fantastic. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. – Ice Cube’s son – portrayed his father and it really helped in making the movie more believable because of how close he looks to Ice Cube. Even though it was his first movie performance, his delivery and acting were great, especially alongside Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), Neil Brown Jr, (DJ Yella), and Aldis Hodge (MC Ren) who played the rest of the rap group. Each actor was more than believable as younger versions of the group. Paul Giamatti was pretty decent as Jerry Heller, and the rest of the casting was bang on. It was a bit eerie how much R. Marcos Taylor looked like Suge Knight, Keith Stanfield as Snoop, and Marcc Rose as Tupac.
As one would suspect, the music in the movie was a great mix of the tracks of the time and aside from a few scenes featured only tidbits – often a few short lines in a recording studio, or the actors jamming out coming up with lyrics for new beats on the fly. I would have loved to see more full versions of the songs, but given the movie already clocks in at just under 2 1/2 hours, I can see why the movie took the direction it did. It was still a great glimpse into how some of the hits of the time came to be though, and how the main players of the time came to cross paths and eventually become partners, friends, and in some cases foes.
While the movie did finish off shortly after the death of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and the end of N.W.A. as a group, there’s plenty of room for a sequel given the number of other players that were introduced, especially considering they ended with Dr. Dre parting ways with Suge Knight and Death Row Records, and when asked by Knight what he’s going to call his new label, Dre responds simply with “Aftermath.”
If you were a fan of N.W.A., Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and other “gangsta rap” back in the late 80’s and 90’s, you’ll definitely want to check this biopic out. Great acting, soundtrack, and a believable accounting of the rise and falling out of one of hip hop’s most influential groups make this a movie you won’t want to miss.
And I’ll leave you with the original “Straight Outta Compton” – complete with “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” as it was meant to be heard.