“Why do I call myself a nigga, ya ask me?” MC Ren muses on “Niggaz 4 Life,” the title-track from EFIL4ZAGGIN, N.W.A.’s explosive sophomore LP. The album came at a time when hip-hop culture was emerging as a dominant force in mainstream America; it’s popularity spreading among fans of all colors and creeds. This fact was solidified with the release of Niggaz4Life, which coincided with the implementation of Soundscan, a tracking system that accounts for all record sales. N.W.A.’s previous albums both racked up over one million copies sold, but Niggaz4Life‘s first-week numbers would prove to be historic.
Totaling over 954,000 copies sold and debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, the highest-charting album debut since pop megastar Micheal Jackson’s Bad in 1987, Eazy, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella shocked the music industry’s number crunchers, who were astounded at the sheer pandemonium that an album from a gangster rap group could generate. Although Beastie Boys were the first rap group to attain top billing with the No. 1 album in the country, N.W.A. would become the first gangsta rap act to achieve the feat, doing so without mass radio airplay or any huge crossover singles, which spoke to the anticipation that the group’s 1990 EP, 100 Miles and Runnin’ had built.
That EP, which can be seen as a bridge between their classic debut, Straight Outta Compton, and Niggaz4Life, was framed as a response to former group member and lead lyricist Ice Cube’s decision to jump ship amid financial dispute with group founder Eazy-E and their manager, Jerry Heller. Dropping his solo debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, in May of 1990, Ice Cube would quickly become a breakout solo star, with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted going platinum without a proper lead single and limited promotion or airplay. He would also become one of the first rappers to be cast in a key role in a major motion picture with his appearance in John Singleton’s rugged coming-of-age flick, Boyz n the Hood, the title ironically inspired by the hit Eazy-E song that he had penned years earlier.
Cube’s defection and subsequent success didn’t sit well with N.W.A., who would send unprovoked barbs towards their former bandmate throughout 100 Miles and Runnin’. On the title track, which saw Dr. Dre slyly note “Started with five and, yo, one couldn’t take it/So now there’s four cause the fifth couldn’t make it,” in reference to Cube, but it would be the song, “Real Niggaz,” that packed the most vitriol. Some of the lyrics may have been attributed to the steady rise of gangsta rap groups, many of whom piggy-backed off of the mass success of N.W.A.; but more than a few could be applied to Cube, but MC Ren made sure to take a direct shot at his friend-turned-foe. Rapping “They played out, that’s what niggas were chanting/One nigga left and they said we ain’t happening/People had thought we was finished and then done wit/But if you think about it, yo, we really ain’t done shit yet.”
100 Miles and Runnin’ would reach platinum status, proving N.W.A. could withstand Ice Cube’s departure from the group, and it increased fans’ thirst for a proper follow-up to Straight Outta Compton. But before the album’s release, N.W.A. would have to endure a firestorm of controversy, namely Dr. Dre, who would find himself in an encounter that would forever alter fans’ perception of the gifted producer.
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