"Straight Outta Compton," the 1988 album by N.W.A., was about as easy to ignore as a stray bullet ripping through your living room window. If nothing else, these belligerent Southern California rappers let you know that there's madness out there.

N.W.A.'s fusillade of threats, obscenities and gunshots -- on top of some ferocious rhythm tracks -- made the album a million-seller. "Straight Outta Compton" has spent the last 79 weeks on Billboard's Top 200 album chart. And with each passing month, the group's influence is further demonstrated as other rappers unload songs with titles like "Gangsta Melody," "Gangster Grip" and "Gangster Driven." After all, there does seem to be money in it.

To those who might be upset that drug-related violence and gang crime are being exploited by rappers and record companies, consider the movies. In "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," the central character is a gangster who forces one victim to eat feces. Even critics who didn't like "The Cook, the Thief" acknowledged that it was a serious work of art. "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" was praised for being a disturbingly intimate look at a sociopath. And Martin Scorsese's upcoming "Goodfellas," judging by the ads, is a whimsical tale of life as an Italian hoodlum. ("As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster," one character says.)

So if we start blaming creative artists for taking advantage of our fascination with criminals and violence, N.W.A. shouldn't be on top of the list.

Like a lot of people, I happen to like my hip-hop hard. I don't necessarily have a problem with young rappers indulging in some good ol' American macho outlaw fantasies. But I'm not convinced it's altogether harmless either.

Early one morning recently, a young black man was shot in the back in Southeast Washington, in front of the home of a friend of mine. People came out of their houses to gather around the guy on the sidewalk. The bullet had mushroomed inside him, becoming a lump under his breastbone. He was fully conscious. "I don't want to die, man. I'm scared," he said. "I can't feel my legs, man. I don't want to die."

He died a few hours later in the hospital.

The hard-core street rappers defend their violent lyrics as a reflection of "reality." But for all the gunshots they mix into their music, rappers rarely try to dramatize that reality -- a young man flat on the ground, a knot of lead in his chest, pleading as death slowly takes him in.

It's easier for them to imagine themselves pulling the trigger.

A number of big-time West Coast rappers, including N.W.A., recorded the anti-gang track "We're All in the Same Gang," a politically correct and sufficiently funky Top 40 single in the spirit of East Coast rappers' Stop the Violence Movement. But it's going to take more than one do-gooder project to allay growing concerns about the commercialization of black-on-black violence.

N.W.A.: '100 Miles and Runnin' '

Ice Cube is sorely missed. The lyricist-rapper who provided "Straight Outta Compton" with so much of its reckless urgency has gone solo, and he's not looking back. Cube's "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" is shaping up to be the strongest rap album of 1990.

But N.W.A. still has potent weapons, especially the two-fisted production of Dr. Dre and the wise-guy vocals of leader Eazy-E. Unfortunately, on the five-song EP "100 Miles and Runnin' " (Ruthless/Priority), N.W.A. seems satisfied with recycling the bluster of "Straight Outta Compton," while Ice Cube grows and stretches, finding new stories to tell.

N.W.A. follows up its most notorious track, "{Expletive} tha Police," with "Sa Prize," which is less a sequel than a retread. This time, at least, N.W.A. tries to justify better its anti-police tirade, presenting several cynical vignettes of cops abusing their authority at the expense of innocent minorities.

But the song that will bring N.W.A. the most trouble is "Just Don't Bite It," a bit of pornographic comedy that's more sexually explicit (and more clever) than anything on the 2 Live Crew's "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," which was declared obscene by a federal judge. "100 Miles and Runnin' " is bound to be yanked off many record store shelves once the nation's self-appointed moral guardians get hip to what's on it.

In less than 24 minutes, N.W.A. manages to cuss out everybody from the FBI to N.W.A. wannabes, and even its own fans (during a brief "Kamurshol" for its upcoming full-length album). By now, it's hard to take all the wolfing seriously. N.W.A. is about as threatening as a bunch of pro wrestlers.

But for what it is -- hard-rocking, mentally undemanding entertainment -- "100 Miles and Runnin' " is kind of fun, elevated by such touches as an allusion to the movie "The Warriors" in the middle of the title track.

CPO: 'To Hell and Black'

Until a couple of years ago, an album so full of profanity and menace would be strictly underground. But given the exploding market for hip-hop -- hard, soft and in between -- CPO's debut release, "To Hell and Black," bears the venerable logo of Capitol Records.

CPO -- the Capital Punishment Organization -- is fronted by Li'l Nation, a 6-foot-2, 357-pound former gang member from Compton, Calif. He was discovered by N.W.A.'s MC Ren, who has translated N.W.A.'s success into a production deal for himself.

Dig how the Capitol press kit makes a selling point of Li'l Nation's hostility, while trying to imbue it with social value: "His mean-tempered diatribes on violent 'gangsta' lifestyles challenge middle-class norms by rubbing their noses in the reality of the contemporary urban jungle -- a place most suburbanites don't dare tread."

Li'l Nation sends mixed messages. His stark first single, "Ballad of a Menace" -- a first-person description of a ruthless criminal who "started by killing my own mother" -- is clearly meant to be disapproving. But in "Homicide" and "Gangsta Melody," Li'l Nation seems to savor the role of an indiscriminate killer: "Just for fun I'll go loc and smoke a {expletive}." And then, in "The Wall" and "The Movement," he takes an overt stand against violence and "low living."

"I purposefully use harsh words that can easily be misconstrued," Li'l Nation explains in the press kit. "I want people to take notice. I want people to get angry and ask, 'Why do you condone killing?' That way, I'll get to explain that {violence} is not the way to go." (Except when it comes to homosexuals, apparently. In "Ren's Rhythm," he promises to beat down and spit on any he catches listening to his record.)

Such is the moral morass of gangster rap.

Musically, MC Ren's production is largely unexciting. But Li'l Nation is an undeniable talent, vocally agile with a superior vocabulary. "Maniacal madman, son of Mephisto. Bound to go to Hell since I was an embryo," he raps in "Ballad of a Menace."

Compton's Most Wanted: 'It's a Compton Thang'

Like CPO, Compton's Most Wanted -- the most obvious of the N.W.A. clones -- plays it both ways. "It's a Compton Thang" (Orpheus/EMI) is a blatant attempt to profit from the dangerous reputation of the group's hometown. The album's hottest track, "This Is Compton," is full of N.W.A.-style tough talk. But the very next number, "We Made It," is an uplifting autobiographical saga about how rap saved the fellas from a life of crime.

Either way, Compton's Most Wanted lacks the sonic punch and the verbal verve of N.W.A. At the very least, the group and its record company should be congratulated for editing the profanity out of this album, which doesn't even have a parental warning label.

Bigg Ocean Mobb IV-1-5: 'Wrangler Tuff'

When a rap album's best cut is an instrumental, you've got problems. "Wrangler Tuff" (RCA), the debut from the Bay Area's Bigg Ocean Mobb IV-1-5, contains a startlingly fresh 2 1/2-minute jam titled "Brothers in a Coupe Ride." Playing the guitar, bass and piano over a simple drum-machine shuffle, punctuated with brief snippets of rap, producer Khayree comes up with an irresistibly cool, old-fashioned funk groove. His understated sax-like synthesizer line also brings life to "Poetry Is ... ." If Khayree had done more live instrumentation and less sampling of old beats, "Wrangler Tuff" might have started a welcome trend. How long can hip-hop producers keep regurgitating James Brown riffs?

Bigg Ocean Mobb IV-1-5 (in California, a Code 415 is a criminal violation involving excessive noise) engages in typical street-tough posturing. Thankfully, rapper Item Nice isn't interested in pushing the boundaries of scandalousness. But even after repeated listenings, his words don't leave much of an impression, except when he invokes a moment of silence for the victims of "this massacre of the drug crisis."

Uzi Bros.: 'Uzi Bros.'

Despite their name, the Uzi Bros. are safe as can be. The entire first side of their self-titled album (Original Sound) is tirelessly upbeat. Chipper, even. As party music, it has a certain low-budget charm.

On Side 2, lead rapper Will Rock addresses the gang problem in a way that would make McGruff the Crime Dog proud. "There's a Riot Jumpin' Off," "Gangster Grip" and "Nothin' but a Gangster" are flat-out lectures in which the Uzi Bros. counsel their young listeners to avoid crime, lest they find themselves getting raped in prison.

It's the proper message, yes, and unequivocally stated. But Will Rock's weak rapping style will probably undercut the effectiveness of his public service announcements. Somehow, he doesn't come across as the voice of experience.