In a scene from the recent biopic about rap group N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton, Eazy-E sits in his car staring tearfully at a billboard advertising Dr Dre’s debut album The Chronic. ‘Over One Million Albums Already Sold’ the billboard boasts, and it is this that is perhaps most upsetting to Eazy-E, who didn’t think Dre’s solo career had any chance of success after he left N.W.A.
This scene’s mawkishness demystified the cool and neutral persona that had always endeared Eazy-E to me, while also spotlighting what it is about the ‘gangster’ persona that continues to appeal to young black male rappers. Gangsters as they are portrayed in popular culture are both feared and admired for being calm, cool and collected – and always in control. In Scarface (1983), gangster Tony Montana stares up at a blimp with ‘The World Is Yours’ flashing along its side. In his biographical documentary Time is Illmatic (2014), rapper Nas cites this scene as one that showed the kind of hunger for success he felt early on in his career.
But there is something else present in Tony Montana’s gaze and in Eazy-E’s sad revelation: the audience briefly sympathises with two characters whose overt promotion of gangster culture makes them a target of broader cultural disdain. Tony Montana is, of course, fictional, but Eazy-E is just one of the many rappers from the 1980s up to the present day who have adopted and promoted ‘the lifestyle’.
Straight Outta Compton is now the highest-grossing film by an African-American director ever. The film’s success was inevitable due to the many loyal fans of N.W.A, though being a box-office hit has perhaps given the impression that Dr.Dre and Ice Cube are above the criticism the film received. Journalist Dee Barnes was assaulted by Dr. Dre in 1991, and wrote a compelling criticism of the film and its omissions that focused on the glossing over of assaults like her own. Her article has the benefit of personal insight, though the word ‘revisionist’ was the only element replicated across criticism of the film. Barnes’ article reveals not that this group of young men formed N.W.A because they wanted more opportunities to mistreat women, but that the mistreatment of women was one aspect of a culture where the threat of violence felt so constant, that no matter the fame and fortune the group found, they continued to feel threatened by even the smallest attacks on their character.
Gangster rap has always promoted itself as dangerous; but many aspects of gangster culture that are promoted under the wider umbrella of urban culture are affectionately embraced. Rappers have cough syrup addictions, make brownies with Martha Stewart, tell Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly ‘You mad’ and otherwise display pimped-out personas. Pop culture’s awareness of ‘the ghetto’ allows credibility to be extended to some rappers, but very little is still sought to be understood by those who didn’t grow up in a place like Compton.
In response to the ‘revisionist’ claims made about Straight Outta Compton, Selma director Ava DuVernay tweeted, ‘To be a woman who loves hip hop at times is to be in love with your abuser, because the music was and is that. And yet the culture is ours’. Such a bold statement begs the question: why aren’t we admitting that the urge to party hard, spurn authority and ‘get’ money exists outside of the lifestyle promoted by rappers who call themselves gangsters? The urge to both mock and encourage rappers who accumulate cars, weed, guns, and – yes – women, exists, and it exists so long as those who merely consume urban culture wish to pretend their own violent behaviour and consumerist excesses aren’t comparable.
If life, as Ice Cube puts it on N.W.A’s track ‘Gangsta Gangsta’, ‘ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money’, then there’s no need to take the rest of it seriously. The projective voice of such lyrics has an undeniable visceral appeal, but rap music’s true power is hidden by the over-promotion of gangster culture, which favours illusions of grandeur instead of trying to overcome limitations in real-life. Even the most problematic gangster rap appeals to females who are frequently denigrated in its lyrics, but labelling a biopic about the most famous gangster rap group ever as ‘revisionist’ is merely seeking to extend the mass denial of rap music’s appeal wider. Underneath the persona of a rapper is the wish to be untouchable, much like the vulnerability felt by women. Rap music is a lone voice of agency; its knowledge, and the attitude it lends, can feel like armour.
Control over other people’s pain (and ultimately, the power to manage and prevent your own) is the underlying appeal of gangster culture and gangster rap. Whether real or fictional, there are always casualties in the mind of one who thinks only their own pain matters. The reality of gangster culture is that those who truly live it either require constant protection from organised crime, or otherwise are promoting an image and persona that are merely part of their broader role as musicians and entertainers. Only in a fantasy could this be a source of actual empowerment.