Over a lush, seductive beat on "N.W.A." Miguel croons wicked promises: She just wanna have fun / She just want a wild nigga, right now / She just wanna fuck crazy / She just wanna fuck till she can't move no more /She don't wanna fall for me, she don't wanna fall for me /But it's too late
The song from 2015's Wildheart glorifies the sex appeal of a West Coast archetype: the Nigga Wit an Attitude. And today sees the release of Straight Out of Compton, the film documenting the rise of seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A., which places the birth of gangsta rap into the limelight close to three decades after the release of the original album.
The film is becoming an event, thanks to turbulent incidents over the last few years. And set against a backdrop where protestors are taking to the streets daily to remind the nation that Black Lives Matter, N.W.A.'s anti-law enforcement anthem "Fuck Tha Police" feels even more relevant 27 years after its debut. But the breathless reception around the film's release is about more than just the story of five rappers making it to the silver screen.
N.W.A is both a group and an aesthetic, and the archetype of the Nigga Wit an Attitude is one so powerful that the crown prince of R & B created a video around a song entirely focused on his own self-image.
That mythos that circles N.W.A. is best explained as black macho. Intertwined with the something-from-nothing narrative, the outsider ethos, the you-don't-like-the-way-I'm-livin-then-fuck-you declarations are also a very specific depiction of blackness and masculinity. As Michele Wallace described in her foundational feminist text Black Macho and The Myth of the Superwoman,:
It was not equality that was primarily being pursued, but a kind of superiority—black manhood, black macho—which would combine the ghetto cunning, cool, and unrestrained sexuality of black survival with the unchecked authority, control, and wealth of white power.
Wallace fell in love with this image of the Black Power Movement, just as so many across the US fell in love with the image of N.W.A. in 1992, yet another cultural moment born of civil unrest. Even though Black Macho was published back in 1976, it is clear that this dynamic transcends generations. And as a new generation devours the N.W.A. origin story, what messages about themselves and society are they consuming?
Writing for Clutch, Britni Danielle explains her trepidation with the uncritical celebration of N.W.A.:
As the media heaps praise on Straight Outta Compton and Cube and Dre continue talking about the good ole days of NWA, it would be nice to see that the pair has grown over the years.[…]Sadly, though, Dre is still putting out songs that talk about murdering women and disposing their bodies, and Cube still thinks a bitch is a bitch.
Early reports note the film glosses over quite a few of N.W.A.'s issues—like Dr. Dre's history of hitting women, among others—but this isn't the first or the last time artists have received a pass for abusive behavior.
But most memories aren't about that aspect of N.W.A's rage—that energy is valorized as a more righteous, purifying anger, an update from the streets, a note to those on the furthest on the margins that they are not alone. The duality of N.W.A.'s positioning mimics the dynamic most hip-hop heads struggle with—the need to reconcile the contradictions of our favorite groups within ourselves.
Renina Jarmon, in her essay "Hip Hop & Patriarchy: My Struggle with Mobb Deep," notes a similar dance with loving and hating Mobb Deep:
I find it difficult to let go of Mobb Deep because it is the dysfunctional soundtrack to the patriarchy within me. There is something to be said for finding Mobb Deep entertaining. These Black men are rapping about killing other Black men. Lately I have began asking myself and my peers what does it say about us that we find Black male murder entertaining when all of us have lost Black male friends and loved ones? When reflecting on it, I realize that I am arguably more able to enjoy the beats and the story telling because I don’t live amongst the kind of violence that Mobb Deep is speaking on. I did from 1989-1992 and I am still haunted by it. In a way, the music keeps me connected to that part of where I come from and listening to it reminds me that I will probably always have one foot in the hood and one foot in the future. On Balance, there is the possibility that listening to “Shook off the Realness” is nurturing something dysfunctional in me. Perhaps it is nurturing my survivors guilt associated that stems from the fact that I have made it out alive and so many of my peers haven’t.
Life is complicated and it is entirely possible to love N.W.A.'s music and attitude, but not agree with the actions of the five men making up the group. Watching Miguel's video, the N.W.A. in 2015 is more of an posture, a gritty swagger, against an L.A. backdrop. Miguel isn't promising violence—he's more interested in sexy playtime. It's a far cry from "Fuck that Police" to "She just wanna fuck till she can't move no more," but the evolution of people to icons to archetypes tends to smooth out the rougher edges—until only the essence remains.
The key to enjoying Straight Outta Compton is to not give into the tunnel vision of nostalgia and to remember that beautifully crafted stories are just that. The real trick to humanity lies in acknowledging the myth but embracing the truth.