Thoughts on NWA at the LOC
“Rap music and video have been wrongfully characterized as thoroughly sexist but rightfully lambasted for their sexism.”
— Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America
I was reading the Internet the other day and learned that NWA’s debut album, Straight Outta Compton, has been chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress. I was reminded of the warm praise and high ticket sales for the 2016 movie of the same name, and my mixed feelings toward that reception.
My apprehension was due to the movie’s portrayal of women; specifically, in what it didn’t portray. A few journalists pointed this out at the time, so there’s no need to dedicate much of this column to it, but the movie ignored the group’s derogatory lyrics about females and showed no examples of their penchant for actual violence.
This isn’t simply something that can be glossed over; for those familiar with NWA’s catalogue, the absence was glaring. Multiple songs from the first album were featured, but the disparaging lines in “I Ain’t Tha One” weren’t played, and neither were the even more vitriolic, misogynistic ones in later songs like “One Less Bitch”:
I tied her to the bed,
I was thinking the worst.
But yo, I had to let my niggas fuck her first,
Loaded up the forty-four, yo,
Then I straight smoked the ho.
Even if we can uneasily look past those lyrics, and belatedly accept that they’re a caricature done for entertainment or expression, it’s still imperative to realize that director F. Gary Gray made the choice not to include them (the movie also made no mention of Dr. Dre’s assault on Dee Barnes, Tairrie B., Michel’le, or other women). “Straight Outta Compton” rightfully addressed the racism the group faced, but it shied away from the sexism, apparently considering it of lesser importance.
But, as I said, the movie is yesteryear’s news. This isn’t new ground. I’m rehashing it only because of the Library of Congress’ recent decision to honor the album.
Should it be praised?
Personally, NWA was never my favorite rap group but, as a newcomer to rap in the early 90s (and still a fan of the music to this day), I was definitely aware of them and their influence. They were widely copied, musically and thematically, usually to lesser results.
It’s hard to explain today exactly how much NWA was feared and hated after their first album was released and, conversely, how deeply their music resonated. Their subsequent work, while commercially effective, was largely an effort to compete in the environment they had created, and they traded any semblance of social messaging for shock value — aside from Ice Cube, who famously split from the group and embraced a series of heady, controversial social statements.
By all means, NWA was, and is, free to say whatever they want. An argument could even be made that NWA was doing something similar to the early work of John Waters — an attempt to make the disgusting entertaining. And the Beatles haven’t encountered any resistance in having their work celebrated, despite the bitter misogyny in “Run for Your Life.” It only takes a cursory review of the history of popular music to realize that NWA isn’t alone in their hostility toward women.
Yet we generally give a collective shrug to misogyny and dismiss it with a nonchalant “boys will be boys” or “that’s locker-room talk.” As comedian Patton Oswalt noted, “America is way more sexist than it is racist. And it’s pretty fucking racist.”
I’ve written in this space before about the difficulties in admiring reproachful artists, and my view hasn’t changed. Despite knowing everything that I know about Woody Allen (and having uneasy suspicions about what I don’t), “Manhattan” is still an immensely powerful movie to me. Hemingway has moments with his female characters that, to be generous, make me wince, but I’ll fight you if you criticize For Whom the Bell Tolls. I still hold that an artist’s work should be separated from what we know about an artist’s life.
In line with all of this, NWA is being celebrated for an album that is blithely misogynistic, a point ignored by the Library of Congress in its press release. Not only that, the album was made by men who actually exhibited some of that behavior. NWA was put on a pedestal it doesn’t deserve, and that’s a shame — not just because the admiration is misplaced, but because their music could have been better than what it was. Their explosive outrage was timely and necessary, but subjective and self-serving.
They could have been better.