As a nerdy white kid growing up in small-town Indiana, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of rap music – basically, if an artists wasn’t featured on the radio, I didn’t know they existed – and my first encounter with N.W.A. came courtesy of my older brother. There was a copy of a particular CD that he probably shouldn’t have owned at his age, and I most certainly would not have been allowed to listen to at mine – but what Mom didn’t know couldn’t hurt us, right?
Needless to say, I was shocked by the sounds coming out of my stereo, with language far more explicit than I had ever heard in person – but even more captivating than the near-constant stream of profanity was the anger, the rage, and the urgency. It was the first time in my life that I realized music didn’t just have to be a catchy melody that would sell records, that it could also be used as a tool to communicate – and the voices on this CD had plenty of things to say.
Straight Outta Compton charts the rise of one of hip hop’s most influential groups, but our film opens with Eric “Eazy-E” Wright walking a very different path, narrowly escaping arrest after making a delivery to a crack house just moments before a police raid. Eazy (Jason Mitchell) is a hustler, well aware that selling drugs holds the promise of a short future in exchange for the potential to make big money, and he’s looking for a way out of the game.
Meanwhile, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young is honing his craft as a DJ, with his hard-working mother reminding him that “spinning records ain’t paying the bills.” Dre (Corey Hawkins) has plenty of big ideas but lacks the resources to put them in motion, spending his weekends performing at a local nightspot to scrape together a few dollars. But it’s one of these performances that opens the door for an experiment, as Dre invites his close friend O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson onto the stage to spit a few rhymes. The teenage Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) has been spending every day filling notebook after notebook with material, and his graphic portrayal of life on the Compton streets strikes a chord with the crowd – not to mention Eazy, who looks on from the back of the club.
Straight Outta Compton‘s opening act is definitely its strongest and most entertaining, as we experience the unfolding of events that led to the formation of N.W.A. From a hilarious and heartfelt scene in a recording studio, where Dre coaches first-time rapper Eazy on the proper way to hit the opening lines of Boyz-n-the-Hood, to the acquisition of members MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), we see the spark of creativity – and like everyone else at the time, we’re captivated as it ignites a wildfire.
Under the guidance of new manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), N.W.A. enters a recording studio to begin work on their first full-length album, and the ensuing release of Straight Outta Compton kicks off a storm of controversy as the group finds themselves under the media microscope. But there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and when the lyrics to Fuck Tha Police earn the group a warning from the FBI, it just means more album sales and sold-out shows.
But despite a nationwide arena tour and hotel rooms full of drugs and women, there’s still some friction, and a dispute about royalties prompts Cube to pursue a solo career. The breakup isn’t exactly amicable, with N.W.A. taking shots at Cube on their next release, and Cube responding with the legendary diss track No Vaseline (presented almost in its entirety and prompting an uproarious reaction from Heller). Meanwhile, Dre finds himself wanting to scratch another creative itch, and it isn’t long before he departs to form his own record label with ex-con Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor).
As the three core members of N.W.A. go their separate ways, we catch glimpses of the paths they would eventually walk. Eazy continues to live the high life with little regard to the consequences, Dre finds a new muse in the lanky, laid-back Snoop (Keith Stanfield), and Cube begins dabbling in the film industry. But there’s regret all around – for things said and unsaid – and a constant underlying feeling of “what if?” If things hadn’t gone sour, what could N.W.A. have achieved together? Sadly, the tragic fate of Eazy-E prevented those questions from being answered.
Unsurprisingly, the film features a stellar soundtrack which not only includes some of N.W.A.’s biggest hits, but also tracks from Cube and Dre’s respective solo careers. But even more impressive than the music are the performances, particularly from O’Shea Jackson Jr., whose portrayal of his real-life father is so pitch perfect that it’s easy to forget we’re not watching Cube himself on the screen. Jason Mitchell also turns in a superb performance as Eazy, giving the late rapper a level of humanity that was rarely on display in public.
With the real-life Ice Cube and Dr. Dre serving as producers, Straight Outta Compton offers an incredibly authentic inside look at the evolution of the gangsta rap genre through the eyes of some of its most prolific artists. There are some less savory moments from N.W.A.’s history that are noticeably absent from the film – including Dre’s infamous altercation with MTV’s Dee Barnes – but that sort of thing is to be expected. After all, this is meant to be a celebration, not an indictment, and it’s probably as close to the “real” story as we’re ever likely to get.
Director F. Gary Gray has done an outstanding job with the pacing, and the characters and performances are so engrossing that you’ll barely notice the 147-minute running time. Straight Outta Compton adheres to the tried-and-true formula of other music biopics, but infuses familiar tropes with a frenetic energy that makes everything feel fresh and exciting. Most people will know where the story is going right from the beginning, but the journey is so captivating that we aren’t concerned with the outcome – we’re just along for the ride.