Thursday, September 16, 2010

September 16: N.W.A., "Express Yourself"

Artist: N.W.A.
Song: "Express Yourself"
Album: Straight Outta Compton
Year: 1989

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At some point in their career, nearly every band that lasts more than a year or so records at least one song that seems strangely divergent from the sound for which they are best known.  In most cases, this manifests itself in the form of a ballad or other style of slower song, and it is far easier to pick thie "oddball" sound out within the more rock-based bands.  Even the most hardcore or fierce styles of music have countless representations of this style, yet the problem lies in the fact that in most cases, the song is such a wild departure, that it comes off as forced or artificial.  However, there are a handful of songs that have been recorded that are able to be seen as a break from the normal course of the artist in question, yet still retain the key aspects that define that artist.  While one may not even remotely consider such a statement in terms of a group that was "the most feared" group on the planet for a time, there are few songs that represent this as well as one finds in the catalog of "gangsta rap" founders, N.W.A.  Having made their name for their outrageous (for their time) lyrics and overly aggressive delivery, hits like "Straight Outta Compton" and "Fuck Tha Police" remain absolute icons within the genre.  However, alongside these vicious tracks, there is another that is far more introspective and shows another side of the group as well as almost predicting the state of the hip-hop genre over the next decade.  Though often overlooked, there are few songs within hip-hop that can compete with the overall magnificence that is N.W.A.'s 1989 single, "Express Yourself."

After a brief spoken intro, the song kicks in and has a far more accessible feel than a majority of the other songs found on the bands iconic Straight Outta Compton album.  Truth be told, the main musical piece that is sampled is the song "Express Yourself," which was recorded by Charles Wright And The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.  In fact, the song is nearly devoid of any other musical additions, as aside from an almost unnoticeable addition of percussion, the sample remains untouched.  In many ways, this fact makes "Express Yourself" as authentic a hip-hop song as has ever been recorded, as it perfectly displays the origins of the genre, with one emcee delivering his rhymes over a single musical loop.  This was certainly a conscious effort, as it is Dr. Dre's "solo" track on the album, as he spends a majority of the record handling production duties as opposed to being a primary emcee.  This is perhaps why the song has a such a unique feel in comparison to the other songs on the album, and it gives a peek into the sound that he would perfect on his own solo debut.  However, this different tone is one of the keys to the song retaining its place as a classic more than two decades later, as it was able to appeal to a far larger audience than the albums' more notorious songs, and it also showed the groups' lyrical approach in a completely different light.

In many ways, one can see "Express Yourself" as a Dr. Dre solo effort, as aside from Ice Cube's two lines in the intro, no other member of N.W.A. appears on the track.  However, one can feel the presence of the group, as the song still hits hard and has an aggression within.  Yet it is on this track that one can hear how different Dr. Dre's delivery style is from that of his band-mates, as his vocals do not seem as forced as other members.  His sound is smooth and well timed, and this was the aspect that made his later solo work so successful.  On "Express Yourself," one can also sense that there is a great deal of honestly and conviction behind the words Dr. Dre is saying, and the verses are just as relevant today as they were in 1989.  Looking over the entire history of hip-hop music, few songs are as perfectly critical of the genre as one finds in "Express Yourself," as Dr. Dre turns the pen on many of his peers, calling them out for their own hypocrisy.  Dr. Dre leaves no stone unturned, and it is scathing accusations like, "...or they kill where the hip-hop starts, forget about the ghetto, and rap for the pop charts..." that place the song high above nearly any other single in the history of the genre.  Dr. Dre even goes after the emcees that were trying to present themselves in a more positive light, throwing the charge of, "...some say no to drugs, and take a stand, but after the show they go looking for the Dopeman..."  The way in which Dr. Dre delivers each line is nothing short of perfect, and few artist of any genre have so perfectly criticized their own peers as he does on "Express Yourself."

Sadly perhaps, "Express Yourself" went largely unnoticed when it was released as a single, likely because it presented the other side of the group that had made their name on the controversial singles that had already been released.  However, as it almost always does, history has sorted out this issue, and "Express Yourself" has become one of the most highly respected and heavily covered songs in the history of hip-hop.  While many hip-hop artists have recorded versions of the song, it has also crossed over into other genres, with one of the most unique covers coming from none other than punk icon, Tim Armstrong.  It is this reality that proves the overall power and greatness of the song, and one can make the case that it is due to the truth and simplicity found on "Express Yourself."  Even by 1989, most of the music being released in hip-hop was getting musically complex, and one can see the genre beginning to lose focus even at that point.  On "Express Yourself," Dr. Dre scales things back to the roots of hip-hop, delivering smooth, clear vocals over a single, funk-based loop.  This combination works brilliantly, as the song is able to take on a life and personal all its own, even when surrounded by some of the most fierce and aggressive songs ever recorded.  Simultaneously taking a stand against the constraints that radio stations were placing on emcees as well as taking shots at inauthentic rappers, Dr. Dre created an absolutely iconic song when he recorded the phenomenal 1989 N.W.A. single, "Express Yourself."


Anonymous said...

Fantastic article. I felt the exact same way!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the valuable insight and perspective. sonofsaf.