Has 'Gangsta' Rap's Popularity Started to Slip?" a Wall Street Journal headline recently asked. The article ventured that "changing musical tastes and a national aversion to rap's increasingly violent culture--epitomized by the death of star rapper Tupac Shakur--may now be slowing gangsta rap's spread." Even though its market analysis--rap as a whole is still going great guns, though alternative rock is posting higher relative gains--neither addressed nor supported its bearish forecast, no one can blame the Journal for getting off a shot. To the genre's detractors--white and black censorious conservatives and increasingly uneasy free-expession liberals--the 25-year-old Tupac's untimely and violent end was the long-awaited death knell of gangsta rap.
Commercially speaking, they couldn't be more wrong. With its fantasies of casual murder, woman-bashing, chronic substance abuse, and lawlessness, gangsta rap is an affront to the core values of society, and in that, it's pure rock 'n' roll. Gangsta rap, like rock, became popular because it seemed dangerous (and like rock, it became less dangerous as it became more familiar). Did Elvis Presley's pathetic passing so much as scratch rock's cherry-red finish? Did Kurt Cobain's grisly suicide halt for one moment the lowing herd of alternative bands that followed? Do parental advisory stickers deter kids from buying records? No, Tupac's death won't hurt sales; just this week, his five-million selling All Eyez on Me, an album distinguished only by its monumental hubris, rushed back into the Top Ten with a bullet.
Artistically, however, gangsta rap has been dead since, oh, about 1991, when N.W.A (Niggaz With Attitude) released their second and final album, Efil4zaggin (Niggaz4life backward). During their brief four-year recording career N.W.A would become, as claimed on the cover of their new retrospective, "The World's Most Dangerous Group" (and, as not claimed, the Beatles of gangsta rap). They didn't invent it, but by tweaking rock's formula for commodified menace, Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson), Dr. Dre (Andre Young), the late Eazy-E (Eric Wright), DJ Yella (Antoine Carraby), and M.C. Ren (Lorenzo Patterson) brought gangsta rap to the mainstream.
Their 1989 major-label debut album, Straight Outta Compton, proved them savvy provocateurs and cynical profiteers of the culture war. Tapping into both minority resentment of racist law enforcement and white fear of race/class insurgency (and presaging the videotaped beating of Rodney King), "Fuck tha Police"--thanks to a highly publicized protest by the Fraternal Order of Police--made N.W.A a household name: "Fuck the police, coming straight from the underground / Young nigger got it bad 'cause I'm brown / And not the other color, so police / Think they have authority to kill a minority."
But this explicit social critique was an anomaly for N.W.A, whose stock-in-trade was an utterly opaque misanthropy, endless variations on "we bad." They were everyone's favorite nightmare: they allowed white suburban teenagers to reject their parents' propriety while inheriting their racism; they allowed young urban blacks to transcend their nihilistic reality through its symbolic exaggeration.
A great deal of the group's appeal is owed to purely formal qualities--the singular authority of Ice Cube's rapping, the distinctive muscularity of Dr. Dre's production. But when Efil4zaggin--released shortly after the record industry's adoption of the SoundScan point-of-sale tabulation system--entered the charts at number one, showbiz was saying something about America. Perhaps it was simply that we elevate our worst nightmares so that we may control them. Like the hate-mongering stand-up comedian and the cinematic serial slasher, N.W.A was just another lurid villain sprung full-blown from America's id.
Greatest Hits traces both artistic growth--the refinement, culminating in "Real Niggaz Don't Die," of what's arguably the most influential sonic architecture in rap, Dr. Dre's fat bass, wheezy synthesizers, and choice R & B samples--and exhaustion--the decline of the group's lyrics, precipitated by the post-Compton departure of the gifted Ice Cube, into ad hominem malevolence, or, as Eazy-E self-mockingly rapped, "bitch this, bitch that, nigger this, nigger that."
If the pose once had an edge, it was only a pose. Dr. Dre cuts to the bottom line in one of the retrospective's spoken inserts: "All you people listening, thank you for your money [laughter]!" It's a sentiment worthy of the reunited Sex Pistols.
Like punk, gangsta rap sustained its popularity long after its subversive power was spent, by dressing the timeworn tropes of rebellion in new outfits--the promarijuana zealotry of Cypress Hill, the misprised mysticism of the Wu-Tang Clan. N.W.A told us that "real niggaz don't die"; Tupac, late to the gangsta rap game and possessing but a fraction of N.W.A's talent, was forced to up the ante, blurring the line between art and life, staying in the literal line of fire as an existential--and heart-stoppingly handsome--thug. He was a mediocre rapper at best, an idea only a few dared venture in the flurry of postmortems, most notably Donnell Alexander in LA Weekly: "Tupac's career had more to do with his elegant eyelashes and high African cheekbones than it did with rapping." And his death, ultimately, may have had less to do with rap's violent roots than it did with its mature, overcrowded market.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tupac Shakur/ NWA album cover.