How sad that Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella can reunite in 2015 to perform N.W.A’s best-known (and unprintable) anti-police anthem and have so much new footage of brutality against young people of color to project onstage.
The clips came from Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., a McKinney, Texas, pool party and other places around America. As the trio rapped about fighting back against a ceaseless police state, stagehands drove an LAPD car across the Staples Center stage with its flashers on.
It was a classic bit of old-school hip-hop theatrics, but one that everyone in the arena felt acutely. So much has changed in America since that 1988 single was released. And yet, as all that footage showed, so little has changed at all.
The return of the influential Compton hip-hop group was the centerpiece of Saturday’s concert at Staples Center as part of the weekend-long BET Experience. It wasn’t a full return: founding member Eazy-E died in 1995 of AIDS complications, and Dr. Dre continued to keep his distance with a new career as a billionaire music and headphone mogul at Apple.
But after more than 25 years, N.W.A’s return as part of an all-star bill underlined how hip-hop crews have fundamentally changed the way L.A. defines itself.
The night started with a contemporary group that comes out of N.W.A’s Compton legacy, but took it in a different, more reflective direction. Top Dawg Entertainment, the label that fostered Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and a coterie of other talents, brought out most of its marquee names to open the show. J Rock and Ab Soul haven’t had the chart success of Lamar and Q, but their brief showcases underscored how having a group of like-minded musicians can refine everyone’s individual talents.
Newcomer Isaiah Rashad shined in his quick set, while the charismatic and flinty Q did his best to stir up a laid-back early crowd with crossover hits like “Hands on the Wheel,” “Studio” and “Collard Greens” (“This aint a jazz concert,” he jibed, though to be fair, it was just past 8 p.m.)
Lamar breezed through a set of hits from his breakthrough 2012 album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city.” His 2015 followup, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” was perhaps the year’s most instantly acclaimed LP, but its dips into jazz fusion and meta-conversations with Tupac Shakur might have been a harder sell at a truncated mainstream event like this. The funk bounce of “Butterfly’s” “King Kunta” and the disco swerve of “i” were pure joy, however.
Snoop Dogg has settled into a sort of elder statesman life: once a commander of his genre, now a global ambassador for peace and goodwill. While Snoop has a sneakily good album of trimmed-up funk called “Bush” out, his BET show culled from his ‘90s g-funk hits, especially those on his breakout LP, “Doggystyle.” “Ain’t No Fun” and “Gin & Juice” will outlive us all, and even though his messy set went heavy on guests (including Warren G, Kurupt, Too Short and Lady of Rage), it still felt like an L.A. house party gone charmingly off the rails.
When Ice Cube walked out to close the night, he opened with the searing “Natural Born Killaz,” a track that featured Dr. Dre and offered a hopeful sign he might show up after all. Dre didn’t, in the end, but Cube took the occasion to re-assert his own importance in the L.A. canon. “This is my first time up in Staples Center,” he admitted. If fans had thought he was off “getting high off that Coors light,” he joked (referencing his goofball beer ad campaign), they’d be forgiven -- but corrected.
From N.W.A staples like “Gangsta Gangsta” to solo hits “Check Yo Self,” Cube’s rangy set was a bracing tonic that ramped up anticipation for the forthcoming “Straight Outta Compton” biopic. If that movie can capture the mood and vitality of the era’s music, as Cube did in his show, it will be a needed achievement.
Though N.W.A’s set centerpiece featured a blast of frustration at the police, Cube ended with an even more beloved tune, “It Was a Good Day.” After so many gunshots and anger reflected in a decade-spanning overview of L.A. hip-hop, finally something smooth, slow-rolling and hopeful to take us home.
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