The Difficult Truths and the Almost Forgivable Lies of Straight Outta Compton

N.W.A. first popped up on my radar in the seventh grade.  I was in my woodworking class sitting next to a Black kid who with the exception of rhythmic mutterings under his breath was silent.  I do not remember his name and we hardly spoke.  I think we both took comfort in the soothing sounds of a dozen sanders, the smooth feeling of finished wood under our fingertips, the absence of a teachers’ droning.  In the socially exhausting routine of middle school, woodworking was our sanctuary.

I do not recall what our exact assignment was, but the boy next to me was carving something into his project.  I was curious, but was afraid to ask.  At any rate, I would see what the writing was eventually.  Unfortunately, the teacher dropped by and asked him point blank what word he was etching in the wood.  The boy seemed at first to cringe, but then he sat up in his chair and said with sass, “N.W.A.”

He got in trouble and was forced to replace the piece.

I was thoroughly perplexed.  At the time I did not question the teacher’s authority to do such a thing but I wanted very badly to know what the three letters meant.  I spent the rest of the workshop summoning up the courage to talk to him, and when the bell rang and we were in the hallway a safe distance from the class, I asked him what N.W.A. meant.

He looked at me, flashed a smile, and gave their full name.  After thanking him for enlightening me I walked to my locker and thought to myself, “well, no wonder he got in trouble.”

The seventh grade was when people started to call me “Dan Dan the Music Man” because I spent a lot of my time singing.  My musical taste was rudimentary–I listened to what my dad did, sought out musicals, and had yet to choose the 2000s over anything else.  But when the cute girl asked me what my favorite genre of music was I would lie straight-faced and say rap.  For someone who had 3 years to go before he even came close to puberty, I did anything to feel cool.

I did not fake it hard at all though.  I did not go home and look up songs by N.W.A.  I wish I had that day though, because it would have given me an introduction to the pioneer of a crucial and relevant musical genre in American history.  At twelve years old I certainly would not have understood the socio-economic and racial importance of the hip-hop group N.W.A., but it would have helped me talk to that kid in woodworking and perhaps we would have become friends.  Perhaps he could have introduced me into the harsh realities of their music and our world.

The highly successful N.W.A. biopic opened in theaters two weeks ago and the music lover and critic in me was absolutely salivating at the opportunity to see it.  The empath in me also became very aware of the intense feelings the movie would provoke.  Last week I went to see the film with my little seventeen year old brother–who is a more savvy rap fan than myself–and it was quite an experience.

From the opening sequence, the entire film shows the artistic motivations of N.W.A.  It is terrifying and infuriating to be Black in an inherently racist system, where the most viable ways to earn a living are illegal, and that no matter how successful they are, the struggle never stops.  Juxtaposed over various racially motivated acts of violence and other illicit activities, N.W.A.’s story is at times difficult to swallow.  But the film itself is so captivating that looking away would itself be a crime.  For someone who is so deeply affected by music, to see so many people brought together with gangsta rap was magical.

On the other hand, this is a biopic about a group that raps lyrics such as “So what about the bitch who got shot? Fuck her! /
You think I give a damn about a bitch? I ain’t a sucker!” and, “So we started lookin for the bitches with the big butts / Like her, but she keep cryin’, “I got a boyfriend,” Bitch stop lyin’ / Dumb-ass hooker ain’t nuttin but a dyke.”  Rap has a notorious history with misogyny, and that was on full display in Straight Outta Compton.  Women are reduced to nothing but objects to be used and then discarded.  The crucial detail left out of the story, however, is producer Dr. Dre’s assault of journalist Dee Barnes.  The film’s portrayal of women is accurate, but to leave out Dre’s history of abuse left her “like many of the women that knew and worked with N.W.A.: a casualty of [the film’s] revisionist history.”  The brilliance of the film comes from its moments of authenticity, and F. Gary Gray decided to tarnish his movie by treating an important case of violence against women like a footnote.

You can make five different N.W.A movies.  We made the one we wanted to make.

–F. Gary Gray

Furthermore, Dr. Dre should not have been allowed to executively produce the movie along with Ice Cube.  That is gross conflict of interest.  I highly encourage everyone to read Dee Barnes’ personal essay on this issue here.

Despite the glaring omissions, I paid to go see this movie because it was made by Black people for a Black audience and was not stereotypically offensive.  In Hollywood, the number of movies with the majority of the cast people of color is horrifically and inexcusably low.  So low in fact, that when a Black biopic largely set in Los Angeles is released, the police beef up security at the theaters.  This precise kind of ingrained, institutional racism is what makes Straight Outta Compton so relevant and so powerfully good.  To this day the police are intimidated by mainstream art made by and for audiences of color, which is so rare that it’s treated like a terrorist plot.  In 2015, the LAPD have shot 25 people and killed 13, but there have been no acts of gun violence by Black theater audience members in Los Angeles in the same year.  So as N.W.A. would say, fuck the police and go see the year’s best movie.

I’ve thought a lot about that day in woodworking in the recent weeks.  My pretentious response to a boy etching in an acronym for a empowering rap group name was an ignorant one.  The real reason he got in trouble was because the white teacher’s socially and racially motived power dynamic was in jeopardy.  In an inherently racist system the Black boy was not allowed to express his interests in art that upset the status quo.  He was also afraid of something that exposed his privilege and of music that did not represent himself.  Straight Outta Compton is a magnificent portrayal of a crucial chapter in American musical history that is sure to make people uncomfortable. As a result it is poignant and provocative and invites engaging in debates about several important issues relevant to life in the United States.



The Bipolar Genius of Titus Andronicus Lyricist Patrick Stickles, Part One

Google Titus Andronicus’ latest record The Most Lamentable Tragedy and you will find that most–if not all–of the reviews include a reference to singer Patrick Stickles’ manic depression.  I have cringed at those innacuracies, because as a genuinely fervent Titus head I need to get the mental illness distinction corrected.  To be bipolar means the person experiences ups (mania) and downs (depression) in extremes, sometimes in quick succession.  Therefore “manic depressive” simply means bipolar.  Because I am the only fan/critic who has decided to point this out, mine is the only opinion that matters.*

In all seriousness though, living with bipolar disorder is difficult.  Stickles has lived its struggles, and because of that he wrote an album that not only must be heard, but also cements Titus Andronicus as the best American rock band this side of the millennium.

There is not a doctor that can diagnose me

I am dying slowly from Patrick Stickles disease

–“No Future Part 1”  The Airing of Grievances   

In order to better understand the mind from which The Most Lamentable Tragedy (TMLT) was spawned, it helps to brush up on the band’s history.  Titus Andronicus’ (or +@, their preferred acronym) first album, 2008’s The Airing of Grievances, introduced the world to the band’s pretentious multidisciplinary education.  They encouraged listeners to surround themselves with lyric sheets, works of literature, philosophical manifests and pieces of art when listening to their music.

Pieter Brueghel’s sixteenth century “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” depicts the Greek myth in which boy Icarus succeeded in flying using feathers secured with wax. Ignoring his father Daedalus’ warnings, Icarus flew too close to the sun, melted the wax, and fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water just below the ship.

“Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,'” for example, is about Stickles realizing that if something horrible were to happen to him, life would go on:  “I was born into self-actualization / I knew exactly who I was / but I never got my chance to be young.”  Perhaps he laments becoming the oblivious man plowing while the man he wanted to become is drowning in the realities of the world.  Stickles draws heavily from his own experiences and neuroses, but also feels the need to passively seek out those who are know and understand his references– or at the very least introduce his audience to some essential cultural artifacts.

The Airing of Grievances also includes two spoken monologues.  The first is none other than Titus Andronicus’ famous soliloquy from the character’s eponymous revenge tragedy by Shakespeare.  The second is the final paragraph of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, in which the main character “lays his heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.”  As a senior in high school who was unhappily forced to read the French literary classic as part of the curriculum, I now marvel at the bittersweet significance of such a line.  For Stickles, it highlights his rage against the meaningless of his existence.

I will be as harsh as truth, and uncompromising as justice.  On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation.  I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.    –William Lloyd Garrison, as quoted in +@’s “A More Perfect Union.”  The Monitor

Not to be deterred by critics who disapprovingly spat on +@’ overstuffed lyrical content and entitled scholarly wisdom, Stickles wrote a concept album that used the American Civil War as a metaphor for a failed relationship.  As overambitious as that sounds, the project was not a dud, and it became the perfect vessel to deliver the band into the spotlight.  Not only does it include defiant abolitionist speeches, but it delves into Lincoln inaugural addresses, the anxieties of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the poetry of Walt Whitman.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Still lauded as the band’s best record by critics and worshipped by Titus heads, The Monitor (2010) did much more than rehash American history.  On “Four Score and Seven,” Stickles begins by defeatedly singing “This is a war we can’t win / after ten thousand years it’s still us against them.”  Sure, the Civil War ended, but man has always been killing man over societal inequalities and territorial or power disputes.  Stickles sang about it on The Airing of Grievances as well: “When called to answer for their crimes / the only response that they could find / was that it seemed to be a good idea at the time…and the cries of the helpless were never, never enough” (“No Future Part Two: The Days After No Future”).  Questioning senseless violence for the sake of the American dream might seem like a liberal trap, but Stickles spares no one.  He is not interested in purity because he knows it does not exist.  No one is flawless and we are all part the same species and therefore guilty by association.

There’s a way to live the values your forefathers gave you
Prepare to be told “that shit’s gay dude,” but I guess that what they say is true
And there is no race more human, no one throws it away like they do

“The Battle of Hampton Roads”

These kinds of lyrics still ring painfully true, but the true genius behind The Monitor’s success were the abreactive anthems and exuberant mantras.  Somehow +@ managed to turn cries of “the enemy is everywhere,” “it’s still us against them,” “it’s alright, the way that you live,” and “you will always be a loser” into transformative cheers of acceptive love.  The silliness of repetitively yelling these choruses over roiling drums or catchy guitar licks is the exact kind of thing that defines Stickles’ writing style: mania and depression performed simultaneously.  Perhaps the most poignant example of this comes at the end of “No Future, Pt. Three: Escape from No Future.”  After all band members chant “you will always be a loser” thirty times across a ridiculous number of bars of music (not unlike protesters or fans at a sporting event), Stickles affirms, “AND THAT’S OKAY!”

+@’ triumphantly epic and powerfully cathartic sophomore release vaulted the band into indie rock stardom, but also threw Stickles into a deep depression.  Perhaps he dwelled too much on the follies of man which he raged against.

Solidarity’s gonna give a little less than it’ll take

Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?

Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate?

Is there a human alive ain’t looked themselves in the face without winking

or saying what they mean without drinking

who will believe in something without thinking, ‘what if someone doesn’t approve?’

Is there a soul on this earth that isn’t too frightened to prove?

“Battle of Hampton Roads”

Out of that depressive iteration of Stickles’ bipolar disorder came +@’s third album, Local Business.  Released in 2012, Stickles reveals more details of his troubled life:

Drug addict since single digits

Vitamins to fight the fidgets

They put something in my applesauce but I found it

–“My Eating Disorder”

At the age of four, Stickles’ parents started to hide Ritalin in his food.  This forced him to question the natural progression of his personality, caused him to have trouble eating and made him struggle with his self-image.  In the same song he bemoans, “I can feel you starting to judge me / I’m starting to feel, I’m feeling ugly…I know the world’s a scary place–that’s why I hide behind a hairy face.”

The album also includes a song in which he witnesses a fatal car crash (“Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With The Flood Of Detritus”), realizations that he is a meaningless puppet in a consumerist society (“In A Big City,” “In a Small Body”), and festering confessions of partaking in a lot of meaningless sex.

It made me wonder if I’ve ever been my authentic self, or if I’ve just been a series of chemical reactions influenced by substances I’ve consumed. And it’s gone on from there, to taking antidepressants and drinking beers— all these things.  –Patrick Stickles on receiving Ritalin at the age of four

Stickles’ pushed the limits on how much tragedy his collective fan base could endure, and in the wake of The Monitor’s massive success, Local Business seems underwhelming.  It is consistently referred to as +@’ weakest effort.  But despite all of the doom and gloom that was on Local Business, it still is a powerfully therapeutic record.  True Titus heads know that it is the band’s most underrated album because it showcases Stickles’ amazing ability to validate tough emotions with music.  He blends mania and depression just as well as the prior two albums.  Outwardly, the music is majestic and ballad-like, rife with power chords and song structures that lift up downtrodden spirits.  Combined with the storied, professorial and at times horrifically tragic lyrics, each song is a brief yet beauteous window into the human experience.

These explorations into the lyrics and music of +@ only offer a brief introduction to the band, but they will help in understanding their newest record, The Most Lamentable Tragedy.  A ninety-three minute, twenty-nine song rock opera about life with bipolar disorder, TMLT encompasses everything the band has ever done–plus some surprises–and puts it all into a narrative that is daunting yet satisfying.  It is a frighteningly intimidating and ambitious album, but Stickles would not want it any other way.

If making a piece of art is scary to you, that’s probably a good thing.

–Patrick Stickles

Part Two