It’s no surprise that Drake’s listener-friendly If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is the most downloaded and streamed album in the first half of 2015. Three hip-hop songs were also among the top 10 on-demand singles streamed: “Trap Queen” by Fetty Wap; “See You Again” by Wiz Khalifa featuring Charlie Puth; and “Post to Be” by Omarion featuring Chris Brown and Jhene Aiko. Despite the fact that songs like “Alright” are gaining traction with like-minded listeners, the success of less critical songs reinforces the idea that artists can’t have the best of both worlds: Being black, visceral, angry, critical, and also commercially successful often don’t go together. As Shaun King, an activist and writer who focuses on police brutality, says, “All artists have to make a decision: Do I make music that might have the chance of helping me pay the bills or do I make music that represents my heart, my community, and how the country is going?” With so few big artists successfully choosing the second option, it’s hard to fully condemn those who pick the first.
Many rappers struggle with the need to feel that their work is authentic. Lamar grew up in Compton, lived in L.A. during Rodney King riots, and knows people who are incarcerated. So of course it makes sense that he’d make music criticizing the prison-industrial complex, or lamenting the effects of poverty, or coming to terms with his own newfound fame and wealth.
So it’s perhaps unfair to expect all rappers, some of whom don’t have the lived experience to back up their two cents, to use their music to fight for a cause. “I think their biggest responsibility is to be a real person so that other people can respond to their genuine humanness,” says Irvin Weathersby, a professor at CUNY who uses hip-hop in his classes.
And it’s here also—in capturing N.W.A.’s bare humanity—that Straight Outta Compton also succeeds. Sure, the film has the over-indulgent flair of any biopic: With the exception of showing how Eazy recorded his first song, the film takes a fairly romantic view of the way the group produced their music. One minute, they’re being harassed; the next minute, they’re in the booth making magic. It also leaves out many claims of misogyny against the rappers—perhaps expected of any biopic co-produced by its own subjects (Dr. Dre and Ice Cube). But overall the film manages to tell an entertaining story about N.W.A.’s origins, while making the rappers feel deeply relatable. Their pain, their humiliation, their anger, their fear, their exuberance are all the audience’s.
The film doesn’t shy away from the seemingly unchanged nature of police brutality and the hardships of being black in America—it’s not trying to sell the audience a comforting illusion about progress and reconciliation. But it does believe in the ability of artists and everyday citizens to be honest and critical about their situation. At a time when so little popular hip-hop music is eager to champion that same message, Straight Outta Compton and N.W.A. offer a welcome reminder of that collective power.