He hadn't intended it, of course, but there was something eerily coincidental about the death (of complications from AIDS) of Eric ''Eazy-E'' Wright last March. The rap pioneer who, with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, was the creative force behind the seminal N.W.A, the group whose bare-knuckle, uncompromising street music defined gangsta rap died at the same time the authority-defying music had, apparently, reached its commercial and artistic peak. By last year, the bells had begun to toll for gangsta, and not merely as a result of public pressure from moral crusaders and opportunistic politicians. Even hip-hop fans began tiring of the guns-and-ho's talk, as evidenced by the prominence on the rap charts of pop-conscious hitmakers like TLC. And, despite initial chart success, the recent, much-hyped, and disappointingly slack Dogg Pound album galvanized the anti-rap forces in greater numbers than record buyers. Even ''California Love,'' the insanely hooky new single by 2Pac and Dr. Dre, sounds more like a freewheeling funk ride than the pit-bull attack we would have expected.
Perhaps Eazy himself sensed that gangsta rap was winding down. At the time of his unexpected death, he was in the midst of recording an album, and thanks to former N.W.A band mate D.J. Yella, who guided the numerous unfinished tracks to completion, we can hear Eazy's last testament, Str8 Off tha Streetz of Muthaph---in' Compton. The album includes not just his last recorded music but also snippets of conversation in which Eazy makes a case for gangsta's legacy. We hear his claims that the Rodney King incident was foretold in N.W.A songs and his protests that ghetto kids learn more bad habits at home than from gangsta-rap records. The statements weren't intended as farewells, but they come across as Eazy's attempt to set the history books right before it was too late.
Not that Str8 Off tha Streetz is a somber, mournful record. Still dubbing himself ''the original Compton criminal,'' Eazy never stopped spewing the sort of stories that earned gangsta rap its menace-to-society image. He still taunts his former partners in N.W.A and brags about his prowess with artillery and women; to him, ''a hit is a hit and a bitch is a bitch.'' In ''Sorry Louie,'' he defends himself against enemies both male and female with a baseball bat; in ''Creep N Crawl,'' yet another cop gets shot. His trademark laugh a loud, mocking cackle leaps out at us throughout the album, almost in defiance.
Compared with the rich, layered melodies crafted by his archrival (and former N.W.A cohort) Dr. Dre, which skillfully incorporate everything from Philly soul to hard funk, Eazy's music has always sounded malnourished, his whiny voice as runty as his appearance. Str8 Off tha Streetz has its share of Dre knockoffs, and its unfinished songs have been fleshed out by other rappers, making Eazy seem at times like a guest on his own record. But thanks to contributions from Yella, East Coast kingpins Naughty By Nature, and old-school funk star Roger Troutman, the music here (recorded over a two-year period) swings. Sadly, it's his most musically varied and enjoyable album. The collaborations with Naughty are particularly sharp, resulting in the breezy R&B groove of ''Hit the Hooker'' and the fast, hard clip of ''Nutz on Ya Chin.'' Finally, it's possible to respect Eazy not just for his business acumen (he was one of the first rappers to start his own record label) but for his beats.
Gangsta rap may never again conjure the confrontational power it did in the late '80s and early '90s, and the paucity of subject matter limited to talk of getting loaded, having your way with ''bitches,'' and so forth on Str8 Off tha Streetz is almost an elegy for the music. (Eazy makes no references to AIDS, as if his illness was as much of a shock to him as it was to us.) But for all his foibles, Eazy-E exposed social problems, especially on the drug-ravaged streets of his native South Central Los Angeles, that no one else dared. On Str8 Off tha Streetz, he leaves our consciousness the same way he entered rough, raunchy, embattled, and utterly unapologetic.