To most of white America, Niggaz Wit’ Attitudes represented one thing: anger. N.W.A was essentially the late eighties and early nineties version of Eminem, in that they had everyone, from soccer moms to the FBI, up in arms. In terms of controversy, 1991’s “Niggaz4Life” achieved something that “Straight Outta Compton,” their 1988 debut, did not. Due to the graphic manner in which the group rapped, the lyrics reached a whole new level of shock value. “Straight Outta Compton” consisted mostly of profane language and threats that were broad enough to avoid offensiveness. The follow-up, though, pushed the envelope much further, with disturbingly descriptive tales of sex and violence. This added level of intensity, and the ensuing controversy, showed in their sales, as the record opened at #2 on the Billboard Charts. The threat that their popularity posed only intensified the worries of White America.
After “Straight Outta Compton,” a monetary dispute within N.W.A disrupted the chemistry beyond repair. Amongst rap aficionados, there was concern about what Ice Cube’s unpleasant departure would mean for the group. Cube, the best lyricist and Eazy E’s frequent ghostwriter, had departed angrily to join with the East’s Bomb Squad. The crew didn’t miss a step, however. They just got right back into the studio to record the depraved yet frequently brilliant “Niggaz4Life.”
Despite being an excellent group, N.W.A didn’t get the credit they deserved from some critics. Many couldn’t see past their infamy to realize that what they were making was better than nearly everything else. Their second album didn’t help their cause, as it served as a sharpened and intensified update of the first. “Niggaz4Life” is a frightening album, jammed with explosive beats, visceral skits, and inciting rhymes. There is an overwhelming sense of sensual stimulation that overcomes the room when this album is playing. The eighteen tracks move by effortlessly, jumping from shootout skits to Ice Cube disses to revolting accounts of sexual acts. Even if you are turned off, it is impossible to deny the kinetic force that exudes from this album. I find myself that I can’t listen to it as often as I should, despite its high quality, simply because it leaves me drained.
From a historical standpoint the most important aspect of “Niggaz4Life” is the production. This is Dr. Dre at his best. The production is not as unified as his groundbreaking G-Funk work, nor as catchy as “2001.” From the first moment the drums drop on “Prelude,” though, it is clear that this is one of his most qualified, complete production works. Each beat is unique, and by barraging the listener with skits and sound bites, the record still works as a whole. The single, “Appetite For Destruction,” is the best example of this. The foundation for the beat is a wicked bassline and a repetitive loop that can best be described as “noise.” The hook consists of a frenetic blend of vocal samples, scratches, and arbitrary musical snippets. The rappers’ vocals only add to the tense atmosphere of the track. Up until the abrupt end, Dre is leading us along behind him, and a sigh of relief will be breathed when the needle falls off of the wax within the song.
“Real Niggaz Don’t Die” welcomes N.W.A back with an intense electric guitar loop and riveting rhythmic scratches. Fittingly, Dr. Dre drops the first verse on the album:
“I got a case of spitting in a motherfucker’s face
So me and my ace we got a taste
Of a motherfucker’s billy-club, he took his gun and
Put it to my head and said, ‘Nigga start running’
So tell me what’s the next episode
Is he crazy, does he want to chase me and waste me?
I thought ‘Run nigga run’ – but I caught myself
Because my secondary thought was death
I get hit hard real but still motherfucker said
‘I want another black motherfucker dead
Niggas ain’t good for shit for me
‘Cause this is a race for second class
So get your ass up against the wall, bitch’
And then he tried to jump me
But the punk became a victim of a walkby”
There it is. N.W.A isn’t on some high-school shit here, they mean business. This first verse serves as a notice to everyone who didn’t take “Fuck Tha Police” seriously. From here on, the record serves as a middle finger to everyone who doubted their potential without their leading man. “Alwayz Into Something” features vicious rhymes and the Dre’s first hint of what was to come with the G-Funk era, in a relaxed production that is a clear predecessor to “The Chronic.” “Real Niggaz” is a vicious Ice Cube diss, with MC Ren delivering the knockout blow:
“People thought we was finished and done with
But if you think about it, yo, we really ain’t done shit
Catch, so cover your ears, and wipe off your tears
And quit sniffing all over my dick for new ideas
And when the new record comes, don’t come like a fucking bum
Asking for fucking money to buy you a fucking crumb
You’re on the dicks of four niggaz, not one
And when it comes to dicks, you don’t even have one
So braze yourself, to make sure you don’t get fucked up
Cause if I let you slide, it’s just ’cause you’re locked up”
The subject matter contained in “Niggaz4Life” is consistently offensive throughout. The raunchy “She Swallowed It” details, among other things, MC Ren’s encounter with the preacher’s teenage daughter. “Automobile” is a sing-song ode to groupies, complete with amusing proof that Eazy-E is better off rapping. “I’d Rather Fuck You” discusses exactly the topic the title suggests. This album is strictly R-Rated, and there is hardly anything redeemable about the subject matter. This is the album that everyone thought they were hearing when they got so worked up over “Straight Outta Compton.” At least their first record had the cautionary “Dopeman” remix. There is no semblance of morality on this record, which is why it is so affecting.
The skits fill out the record, and they range all the way from funny to sick. There’s an amusing, twisted live broadcast from a overtly white reporter at an N.W.A concert. Several tracks later, there’s the aptly titled “To Kill a Hooker,” which segues into Dre’s “One Less Bitch,” one of the most disturbing songs in rap music’s extensive catalogue. The marvelous thing about all of these skits is that they are perfectly engineered. Dr. Dre takes skit-making to a whole new level, scrutinizing every last detail. The concert skit, especially, sounds exactly like a live recording. This perfectionism heightens the frantic atmosphere that is infused throughout the album. The fact that each skit sounds so real adds to the skin-crawling feeling that might creep over you while listening to “Niggaz4Life.”
To the average rap fan, this record’s importance might be lost in the misogynist themes and graphic nature. This is mostly the point. N.W.A embraced the unreasonable fear that “Straight Outta Compton” struck into suburban parents, using that as a basis to create this nightmare. Keep in mind, the U.S. Government was seeing this Compton crew as a threat. “Niggaz4Life” was Dre, Ren, Eazy, and Yella deciding that if they were going to be seen in that way, they might as well earn it. The title reveals this perfectly. Hidden slightly by the backwards spelling on the cover, N.W.A’s second album basically announced that they knew what people thought of them. They didn’t pretend to shy away from it, instead they just put their own twist on it, without holding anything back. This record was just an over the top message to everyone who doubted when they were really trying to say something. N.W.A, as well as rap music in general, was a force to be reckoned with.
Despite its influence, this album is not as frequently talked about as other classics from this era. This is due to the stomach turning power contained within. After listening to this, you may want to stash it away for a few days. You may not even listen to it again. The fact remains, though, that you can’t deny the emotions that “Niggaz4Life” stirs up in you. It’s like a really good horror film because it just may float through your mind again and take your breath away. The musical element of this record is mind-blowing, and creates the incredibly dense environment in which the emcees craft this Craven-esque experience. As a piece of rap history, it’s unavoidable and essential. Despite its disturbing nature, “Niggaz4Life” is an experience that no hip-hop fan should go without.