***1/2 out of ****
After years of floundering and misfires, the rap film has finally solidified its place as an indispensable genre, a template for stories of emotional heft that also act as a mirror to the times. In the same class as 8 Mile and Notorious, Straight Outta Compton is less concerned with the image that rappers create than with the lengths they go to embody that image. They may seem to celebrate violence in their lyrics, but they get no pleasure out of living it.
As far as hip-hop groups go, N.W.A. is the Avengers, and the movie plays out more or less like the musical cousin of an Avengers flick. The superheroes in this case are Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Cube’s actual son), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), names that appear to N.W.A. fans in flashing gold letters. Mitchell, Hawkins and Jackson supply the standout performances, and most of the film follows their pursuit of fame—selling drugs for capital, courting record labels, scuttling with the law—and leaves the aftermath for history books. Like with most biopics, there is just too much yarn in director F. Gary Gray’s hands to spin all at once.
As it is, there are already more cameos in Straight Outta Compton than in every Marvel film since Blade. Tupac, Suge Knight, and Snoop Dogg are among the hip-hop icons portrayed by newcomers, their names stitching together a larger picture of the West Coast music scene in the 80’s and 90’s that seems only fitting for a film of this scope. But perhaps the greatest victory here is that, amidst all the name-dropping, aliens to hip-hop’s rather young history aren’t turned away either. On the contrary, Compton is a wonderful filmic Rosetta Stone for those that haven’t yet listened to the language of one of America’s most vibrant and relevant musical camps.