There's a moment in “Bompton,” the first episode of the new Viceland TV channel's music-focused Noisey series, when host Zach Goldbaum awkwardly praises a freestyle by rapper and gang member Lil L with a half-hearted, “That was tight.” In that moment, everything that is both entertaining and problematic about the Vice media empire's visit to hip-hop's most iconic city comes into sharp focus.
On the one hand, in its first episode of cable television, Noisey, which has long served as Vice's music brand, isn't pretending to be something it's not — and for that, I suppose, it deserves props for honesty. The Vice empire has its roots in punk-rock culture in Montreal and, later, New York City — and while it was founded by a multiracial team (two white guys and a Pakistani-Canadian guy), it has never particularly cultivated much of a voice in African-American culture. It has an entire “digital channel,” Thump, devoted to electronic music, but nothing comparable for hip-hop. So the “Bompton” episode, wisely and without apology, approaches its subject matter from an outsider's perspective. This is not Vice's home turf.
The personification of that outsider perspective is Goldbaum, the show's white host, who couldn't blend in with Compton's rappers and gang members if he tried. So apart from an occasional “That was tight,” he doesn't try. From a visit to Lil L's grandmother's house (at which it becomes painfully apparent that Goldbaum knows nothing about the Watts rebellion), to a hang at a Piru Bloods party (at which he rather recklessly asks a veteran Piru to take off his shirt to show the camera his gang tattoos), Goldbaum functions both as journalist and tourist. Which, at times, is actually fun — like when he politely shakes hands with a prostitute named Tasha, or apologizes for spilling the weed when he's riding shotgun in a lowrider as its driver does donuts in a parking lot.
I can't really tell what Goldbaum's qualifications are for hosting Noisey, other than looking like a slightly more handsome version of everyone's stereotypical image of a music journalist. But that's beside the point — and anyway, as tourist-journalists (tournalists?) go, he handles himself no better or worse than, say, Anthony Bourdain drunk on the local hooch in a Mozambican fishing village. The point is, his presence as an on-camera avatar for Vice's target audience — young, affluent, mostly male, mostly white — contrasts uneasily with the episode's stated aim, which is to portray not just Compton, the city, or even Compton, the hotbed of hip-hop, but “Bompton,” the nickname given to the city by the Bloods and often used to refer specifically to those parts of the city they claim as their turf.
The episode introduces Kendrick Lamar as its entry point into this world, which kind of makes sense and kind of doesn't. (That it mostly ignores other successful young Compton rappers such as YG, Problem and Boogie is also problematic, but there's enough to unpack here without getting into that.) On the one hand, Lamar grew up in Westside Piru territory and makes no secret of being close friends with several of that gang's members. Gang culture is often a subject of his lyrics, especially on his breakthrough album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City. But as Lamar himself is quick to point out, that's not the whole story to his music, or to his neighborhood.
“I'd rather talk about something a little deeper than that. The reasons and the problems and the solutions behind it,” the rapper says of gang culture and violence early in “Bompton,” speaking to Goldbaum in someone's backyard while a handful of his friends and associates hover in the background. “There's cats out here that are really trying to spark the idea of positivity in the community. Let me tell my story, let me tell other stories out here [about people] that wanna do something different but can't, 'cause you in an environment where you just gotta adapt.”
Like most things coming out of Kendrick Lamar's mouth these days, it's a powerful, insightful statement. And it wouldn't be fair to say that the rest of “Bompton” doesn't at least occasionally take it to heart. Not everyone in the episode is a gang member (though it sure sometimes feels that way, especially when captions identify many of the players by gang affiliation only; Boogie, for example, who's a pretty well-established rapper, is simply introduced as “Boogie: Campanella Park Piru”). There are teachers and social workers and pastors and, memorably, a 14-year-old who hosts his own Internet radio show in the back of an Italian restaurant. There are even non–gang-affiliated hip-hop artists — like barber and beat producer Larry Jayy, who runs a plywood-walled recording studio in the back of his barbershop and brushes aside Noisey's inevitable questions about gang life with a simple, “I can't worry about, am I gonna die today? How am I gonna put my family through that?”
But time and again, when “Bompton” starts to venture down a more interesting path — when it touches, say, on education, or mass incarceration, or the church's role in black communities, or even Lil L's grandmother's Louisiana gumbo — the subject turns back to gang life. And we are reminded that, unlike all future episodes of Noisey, which it appears are just named after the cities they'll portray (“Miami,” “Las Vegas,” “São Paulo”), the producers chose not to just call this episode “Compton.”
Just when you think “Bompton” is about to explore a reason or a solution for Compton's poverty and violence
Of course, it would be disingenuous to ignore the impact that gang culture has had on Compton, or that it's one of the primary subjects of most rap music that's come out of the Hub City. I'm not suggesting Noisey should have downplayed this. But in their fascination with gang life, the show's producers ultimately fall prey to the very mentality Kendrick tries to warn them against. Just when you think “Bompton” is about to explore a reason or a solution for Compton's poverty and violence — or maybe finally get around to addressing police brutality, racial profiling and #BlackLivesMatter, which it never does — the producers go back to shots of guys flashing Glocks.
In another of the episode's most telling moments, the Noisey crew abandons filming the jazz band at Kendrick and Dr. Dre's alma mater, Centennial High, to turn their cameras on a brawl between students in the schoolyard. There's no context or explanation for the altercation. It could be gang-related, or the same battle over lunch money and egos that takes place in high schools anywhere. The cameras simply gawk as children, their faces blurred, are pulled off each other by beefy security guards.
Moments later, Kendrick shares the best advice his troubled friend Lil L, then already running with the Pirus, ever gave him: “Stay in the studio.” As they were making “Bompton,” the Noisey producers probably could have used that advice a few times themselves.