Words by Martin Connor
Just as Hollywood is synonymous with the movie industry, Compton might now be a city that is synonymous with the rap industry. With a lineup that includes N.W.A, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Game, DJ Quik, and Kendrick Lamar, L.A’s “Hub City” has indeed become a hub for some of rap’s greatest talent.
As their song titles show, depictions of Compton figure heavily on all of these groups’ albums. There is “Straight Outta Compton” (by N.W.A), “Born And Raised In Compton” (by DJ Quik), and, simply, “Compton” (by Kendrick Lamar).
In the 26 years between 1988 –the release of N.W.A’s debut album–and 2014–the release of YG’s major debut–rap has changed so much. It turns out, as a look at some of their lyrics shows, Compton groups’ depiction of their city has changed over that period as well.
N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton – 1988
When N.W.A released their first album, Compton was pretty unknown as a place where great rap could come from. Even though they came from an unexpected place, this group’s music would go on to shape much of rap’s history. A lot of N.W.A’s songs talk about drugs, sex, and violence, and all the other Compton acts that came afterwards would pick up on those same subjects.
When Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, and MC Ren describe their hometown, it seems like Compton consists only of gangstas, sex, and a great time. There is no mentioning of the city’s widespread poverty, even though the poverty rate in its county was 8% higher than the national average in 1980. N.W.A’s initial depiction of Compton turns out to be pretty one-dimensional, with no room for deep thinking. As Eazy-E’s lyrics from this album’s title song show, carefree sex, crime, and violence is first and foremost on all of these emcees’ minds.
“Straight Outta Compton”
“Straight outta Compton /
Is a brother that’ll smother your mother /
And make your sister think I love her /
Dangerous motherfucker raising hell”
Dr. Dre – The Chronic – 1992
On his first solo album, Dr. Dre, for the most part, keeps talking about Compton in the same way that N.W.A did. As the very title of “A Nigga Witta Gun” shows, Dr. Dre still focuses a lot on violence. This happens even though Compton’s violent crime rate was down almost 10% in 1990.
The other big change in Dr. Dre is how this former NW.A member now talks about weed. Although his old 5-man group had a song called “Dopeman” that made fun of druggies (“If you smoke ‘caine, you’re a stupid motherfucker”) and he said himself on “Express Yourself” that “I don’t smoke weed or cess,” this album’s very title shows that Dre’s attitude towards the wacky tobacco has indeed changed.
“A Nigga Witta Gun”
“See I never take a step on a Compton block /
Or LA without the AK ready to pop”
Dr. Dre – The Chronic: 2001 – 1999
The Chronic: 2001 is different from all the other albums here because Dr. Dre doesn’t talk specifically about Compton very often. He only mentions the city by name 5 times; meanwhile, Game and N.W.A shout out Compton at least 18 times on their own albums. Instead, Dr. Dre makes himself much more of a citizen of L.A. or the entire West Coast. For his second album, the artists Dre works with had expanded beyond Compton and N.W.A to places as far away as Detroit, where Chronic: 2001 co-writer Eminem grew up. Crime is still a frequent subject, but it isn’t so carefree and harmlessly fun anymore, as it was for N.W.A. Instead, contraband is frequently obtained in dangerous and sinister ways. There are consequences now, but only for their victims, not for Dre and his fellow perpetrators.
“Dre and Snoop chronic-ed out in the ‘llac /
With Doc in the back, sipping on ‘gnac /
Clip in the strap, dipping through hoods /
Compton, Long Beach, Inglewood /
South Central out to the Westside”
Game – The Documentary – 2005
By the time 2005 rolls around, Compton’s place in the rap game is very different for Game than it was for N.W.A’s members. When Game raps, Compton now has a legendary status, and Game’s main goal is to connect himself with those legends in the mind of his listeners. Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, King Tee, Ren, N.W.A, and Compton’s Most Wanted all get love.
As for smoking, drinking, and sex, illegal activities now take place in the context of gangbanging, as Game mentions a lot that he’s a member of the Bloods gang. Our next artist, Kendrick Lamar, would go on to pick up on this gangbanging theme, but from the perspective of someone who is not in a gang.
“Don’t Need Your Love”
“Put the gun in his mouth, he gon’ bite the steel /
Come to Compton, I got stripes for real /
Before Dre, before the ice, before the deal – I was almost killed.”
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city – 2012
Kendrick brings a very original approach to depictions of Compton. On good kid, m.A.A.d city, listeners get the full picture of Compton as somewhere that can be both very exciting and very depressing. On “Good Kid,” Kendrick makes you feel what it’s like to go through a drug stop with policemen who are way too aggressive. But K-Dot also combines this new approach with traditionally carefree and fun depictions of the city, like “Compton” (“They come here for women, weed, and weather”).
More than any of the other Compton rappers, Kendrick makes his hometown a real place. He is largely the first person to mention actual places in Compton, as Gonzales Park, Leuders Park, and Dominguez High all get referenced. As the “mixed feelings” in the lyrics from a deluxe edition good kid, m.A.A.d city track show, Kendrick’s music completes one part of a decades-long transformation where Compton went from being little more than a criminal’s playground, to where Compton is now a real city that is just complicated as any other.
“Black Boy Fly”
“Mixed feelings was my opinion, I was defending my insecurities /
Chillin’ my conscience, next to a villain /
Compton made you believe success wasn’t real.”
YG — My Krazy Life — 2014
If Kendrick marked a fulfillment of sorts for where artistic discussions about Compton were heading, YG’s own 2014 album heads a different way, marking a generational update on N.W.A’s and its immediate predecessors’ topics. As YG himself says, “Game told it his way, Kendrick told it his way, I’ma tell it my way.”
The way YG tells it is somewhat similar to Game and his brethren, with crime, gangs, and illegal money everywhere, there to be taken by those who can dare it. These lines below could’ve been pulled right off of The Documentary, if YG hadn’t gotten so damn specific when he gives you a step-by-step guide for house burglaries. If Kendrick gets more vivid about the non-crime aspects of Compton, YG nightmarishly fits the criminal facts of Compton life into something that’s almost a how-to manual.
“Meet The Flockers”
“Four, make sure nobody is home /
They gone, okay it’s on /
Don’t be scared nigga, you in now /
If the police come you gonna find out who your friends now”
As all of these lyrics show, though, what most strings these rappers together in their lyrics is what they’re saying, not necessarily how they’re saying it. YG, youngest out of all of them as he is, might give us the wisest perspective on this entire discussion: “At the end of the day, it’s all the same, talking about money, bitches, and homies. It’s all the same shit, it’s just different ways.”