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Craft as well as confrontation

Controversial in its heyday, N.W.A's music retains its punch in a retrospective collection.

January 09, 2007|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

The new N.W.A retrospective "The Best of N.W.A: The Strength of Street Knowledge" raises an interesting question about when is the best time to measure an album's greatness. Is it the week the album is released or two decades later when you can see how well it holds up?

The remarkable thing about N.W.A, the Southern California quintet that largely defined gangsta rap with its "Straight Outta Compton" album in 1989, is that its music sounds arguably more impressive now than when it was first released.

That's because we can more easily look past the controversy over the collection to see the extraordinary craft involved in the group's best recordings.



"The Best of N.W.A: The Strength of Street Knowledge"


The back story: Make no mistake, "Straight Outta Compton" sounded awfully commanding in 1989, with its explosive social commentary and spectacularly catchy beats.

Thanks chiefly to the early, landmark work of such outfits as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Public Enemy and Run-DMC, rap gave pop music its biggest creative spark since the arrival of punk in the late '70s.

Yet nothing in rap quite matched the fury and provocation of N.W.A's team of Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella.

Much of the praise at the time for N.W.A's most influential work -- the "Straight Outta Compton" album -- concerned the group's boldness in describing inner-city tensions. The album, on Ruthless Records, featured sirens and gunshots as backdrops to the frequently brutal, X-rated tales of drug dealing, gangbanging and police confrontations.

Even though Ice Cube, who wrote the most compelling of the N.W.A raps, stressed that the extreme language was a reflection of the group's world, many saw the angry, violent themes simply as an attempt to shock -- which was fine by rock standards. After all, a big part of rock's early appeal was that it unnerved adults.

The N.W.A story also was dominated by free-speech issues after an FBI agent warned that the lyrics to the album's most celebrated song, "F--- tha Police," encouraged violence against law enforcement officers.

Now that nearly two decades have passed since "Compton," it's much easier to marvel at the solid craftsmanship involved in N.W.A's work, and this package is an ideal study guide. It includes 17 tracks, including six from "Compton," and a DVD with N.W.A videos and brief interviews with group members, especially Ice Cube and Dr. Dre.

A good way to start is with the DVD. The opening video, also titled "Straight Outta Compton," feels as daring and confrontational as it did all those years ago. Despite all the gangsta rap acts that have followed N.W.A, there is still a power and pulse to the video, and the album's music, that feels edgy and fresh.

"We were just coming from the heart, not trying to be rebellious or dark, just trying to do exciting records," Cube told me in 2001 of his work with N.W.A. "We loved good action movies, so we wanted a lot of drama, and there was a lot of gang violence in our neighborhood, so that tension got onto the record."

But lyrics were only one part of N.W.A's art and appeal.

Dr. Dre, now widely hailed as the most respected producer ever in rap, was the architect of the N.W.A sound, and his beats on such tracks as "Straight Outta Compton" are still masters of invention and delight.

What was often lost in all the drama surrounding N.W.A is the humor in some of the tracks, and it's illuminating now to watch scenes on the DVD of Dr. Dre, his occasional co-producer DJ Yella and others having fun in the studio.

The downside of N.W.A is that the group's reign was so short. Ice Cube left for a solo career shortly after "Straight Outta Compton," and Dr. Dre, too, said goodbye after one more album. But the group's place in hip-hop history remains unshakable.

Further Listening: While you get six of the tracks from "Straight Outta Compton" on the new retrospective, a remastered version of "Compton," complete with four bonus tracks, is also available from Priority Records. Ice Cube's first three solo albums -- "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted," "Death Certificate" and "The Predator" -- make up one of the great trilogies in all of hip-hop. And Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" and "2001" are masterful works that merge hard-core rap with the melodic strains of classic R&B. They are all essential moments in modern pop music.



"Closet Freak: The Best of Cee-Lo Green the Soul Machine"


This may be the earliest that Legacy, the longtime reissue arm of Sony Music, has released an artist's past work. Although most reissues take us back two decades or more, it has been only five years since the release of Cee-Lo's two solo albums.

The reason for the reissue is to capitalize on the attention that Cee-Lo (whose real name is Thomas Callaway) is now getting as a partner with producer-composer Danger Mouse in Gnarls Barkley, whose "Crazy" was the most infectious single of 2006.

The single is a record of the year nominee in this year's Grammy competition, while the duo's CD "St. Elsewhere" is an album of the year contender.

What's striking about Cee-Lo on the 14 selections from his two solo albums is his range. The singer-rapper incorporates soul, gospel, funk and even country in his music so convincingly that he would have been right at home in the '60s on Stax, the great Memphis, Tenn., soul label. Gnarls Barkley fans should find much to enjoy in this 69-minute collection, which includes some of Cee-Lo's earlier work with the Goodie Mob.


Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues with special attention to artists or albums deserving greater attention than they received originally.

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