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‘Straight Outta Compton': The Coming of Age of the Rap Biopic

N.W.A.’s 1988 debut album, "Straight Outta Compton," etched – in defiant and profane lyrics, propelled by a relentless, driving beat – a raw coming of age story that marked a major step in the coming of age of hip hop.

Now, on Friday, a movie with the same name telling the story of the gangsta rap group’s ascension offers an opportunity for a coming of age of the hip hop biopic.

The timing is right, even if it’s overdue: The movie arrives days after the 27th anniversary of the album’s release. The film also comes amid the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement – an extension, in some respects, of the conditions, anger and frustration that fueled the creative output of N.W.A., whose members were determined to make their young, black voices matter. As Dr. Dre declared in kicking off the album: “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”

Some, then and now, didn’t want to hear it. The album unleashed a swirl of controversy, thanks primarily the unapologetic anthem “F--- Tha Police,“ which warned there’s “gonna be a bloodbath.” Whatever the divergent reactions the song and album spurred, there’s little doubt that the group’s rise out of some of Los Angeles’ toughest streets makes for a compelling story.

N.W.A.’s journey follows a standard music biopic path: Groundbreaking artists from hardscrabble roots battle odds, cultural conventions, authority figures and their own demons along the road to fame. The unflinching 2005 Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” and last year’s unvarnished James Brown tribute “Get On Up” mark two of the genre’s standout offerings from this century.

Some four decades after hip hop got its start in the Bronx, there should be room in the cinematic landscape for serious biographically driven films about rap. But the ground hasn’t been trodden much: Eminem’s fictionalized “8 Mile” and “Notorious,” about the life and death of Biggie Smalls, are among the notable few entries.  

Mixing pop culture history and mass entertainment value can be tricky in the confines of the multiplex. It’s trickier still when some or all of the subjects are alive, and have forged expanded identities. Dr. Dre, who just released “Compton” – his first album in 15 years and, he says, his last – is better known these days as a music producer and entertainment mogul. Ice Cube cuts a far more benign figure in the fun “Friday” and “Are We There?” movies than he did as a 19-year-old gangsta rapper channeling the rage of his reality into the artistic explosion of “Straight Outta Compton.”

The new movie promises a potent introduction to N.W.A. for latter-day audiences as well as reminder for those of us old enough to remember the album’s debut. Check out a preview of "Straight Outta Compton," which lands with the steep challenge of living up to the spirit of the album that gives the movie its name.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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