Just as Philip Larkin sighed that the sexual revolution “came too late for me,” I had already aged out of rap as it emerged with enormous force in the 1980s. I was then in my twenties and, listening to it, I felt for the first time the same sort of generational disdain that adults of the 1950s had felt upon listening to rock ’n’ roll. It was a lot of noise, you couldn’t understand the words, and everybody who performed it was just too angry and hyper-sexualized.
This is all by way of saying that Straight Outta Compton, the enormously successful backstage melodrama about the rise of the “gangsta rap” group NWA, tells a story that has little resonance for me. I was aware of NWA—who wasn’t, after all, as its key song “F— tha Police” created a cultural uproar in 1988 that certainly set my law-and-order tongue to clucking at the time? But my actual problem with NWA and rap in general was never really ideological, although my tongue-clucking did seem to elevate my aural distaste from aesthetic disapproval to a self-congratulatory moral sneer that makes me cringe when I look back on it.
The honest truth was this: NWA’s stock in trade was in serving as a musical id, whereas I was one of those people who craved musical fare that would soothe my overactive superego. Even as an adolescent myself a decade earlier, I never found the emotional release so many others of my age did at the time in the angry white people’s music of the time: heavy metal and punk. Quite the opposite. I did not want my anger reflected in the music I listened to; I wanted to salve it with beauty, wit, sophistication. My teenage countercultural weirdness—and trust me, it was very weird, there was nothing remotely cool about the American Songbook at the time—was playing the grooves off Frank Sinatra’s Capitol albums of the 1950s.
What Straight Outta Compton reveals is that NWA had plenty in common with Sinatra, albeit backstage. The movie is both a hagiography of the men who led NWA—Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E—and a warts-and-all portrait of them. They’re shown as shy, sensitive, and well-meaning. But we also see them mistreating women, trashing hotel rooms, and partnering with psychotic crooks. In these respects, they were just following Sinatra’s lead.
He was the original gangsta. Sinatra sucker-punched people and was arrested for it, ate bacon and eggs off the prone bodies of women he had brought into his Palm Springs lair, and hung around with Mafiosi from his earliest days in Hoboken.
In his autobiography, Jerry Lewis (himself a man entangled with the Mob) insists that the anecdote in The Godfather about how Mario Puzo’s thinly veiled Sinatra character got out of his band contract with Tommy Dorsey because a Mafia don made Dorsey “a deal he couldn’t refuse” was an accurate representation of reality. He also says that Sinatra served as a bagman for Lucky Luciano. Straight Outta Compton’s depiction of Dr. Dre’s relationship with the horrifyingly violent (and oft-imprisoned) impresario Suge Knight suggests that, in show business, the sins of the Godfather are passed on to the children unto the fourth generation.
The difference, of course, was that Sinatra sought to make beauty, while NWA sought to embody, personify, and reflect the rage of its audience. And here, I guess, one has to suspend a certain kind of judgment and pay obeisance to the market. Sinatra was a voice of his time, and NWA was a voice of its time. And both have stood the test of time—so far.
The success of Straight Outta Compton raises the surviving members of NWA (the depiction of Eazy-E’s death from AIDS in 1995 brings the movie to a close) to the level of cultural elder statesmen. It’s been 27 years since NWA released the album that gives Straight Outta Compton its name. Ice Cube, who shouted “F— tha Police,” will soon appear in the sequel to his hit 2014 movie Ride Along—in which he plays a hard-bitten cop. (His son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., plays him in Straight Outta Compton.) Dr. Dre sold his headphones company to Apple last year in a deal that made him $620 million in a day—and, as a good employee, released his first album in 16 years exclusively on his corporation’s horrendous new Apple Music platform.
Meanwhile, the pop form they helped pioneer is now so enshrined that a hip-hop biography of Alexander Hamilton on Broadway has made its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the most celebrated artistic figure in America. And as for the output of NWA itself? I still prefer beauty to rage, but rage is infectious and multigenerational. For as Philip Larkin also said, “Man passes on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf.”
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.