Cringe a Minute (Again) With N.W.A

*** 1/2




At the end of '88, when N.W.A's "Gangsta Gangsta" 12-inch single hit the streets, rap aficionados were confused: How did one reconcile the fact that the freshest beats of the year were inextricably tied to cheerful, unrepentant rhymes about inner-city crime sprees? The group, of course, came up with its own solution: They were "street reporters" who just documented what they saw around them. The rap community sighed--permission to dance. Gangsta rap became the biggest rap trend of '89. But by the end of 1990, gangsta rap was completely played out, as tired as break dancing.

The revelation here is that the new N.W.A album is as powerful and self-referential as Public Enemy's great second album, "It Takes a Nation of Millions . . . ," chock-full of responses to the media's accusations of misogyny and violence.

But where PE came back politicized, N.W.A replies here by tripling its assault on mainstream values. N.W.A repeats the common vulgar epithet for African-American so often and so incessantly as to attempt to deny the offensiveness of the word; it ups the violence to a level that could leave even the Geto Boys open-mouthed; it is so hideous toward women--especially in the unbearable second half--that it makes apostate member Ice Cube seem as sensitive as Phil Donahue. There's a cringe a minute.

N.W.A's producer, Dr. Dre, is an artist, weaving stone-deadly beats through extremely funky bass grooves, pitching the album to a relentless intensity throughout. This is the best- sounding rap record to come along in some time. It's also probably the most unlistenable great album since Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music."

Albums are rated on a scale of one asterisk (poor) to five (a classic).

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