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Remember the scene in Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing in which everybody's looking straight into the camera, screaming racial slurs at the ethnic group of their choice? Throw that bit into the middle of Boyz N the Hood and you get a pretty good idea of what the new Ice Cube album is like.
Jews, Japs, crackas, Koreans, niggas, bitches, fags. And so on and so forth. Each demographic gets the Ice Cube tongue-lashing on the rapper's latest disc, Death Certificate. It'd be easier to list everyone--make that anyone--Ice Cube doesn't hate.
His face frozen in a perpetual scowl, Ice Cube is easily the angriest and most purposefully offensive rapper around. The question is whether his IQ is higher than his blood pressure. But add those things up, and you've got hip-hop that hits harder than even Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions.
If we can use a favorite metaphor of P.E.'s Chuck D and say that hip-hop is the black CNN, then Chuck is the anchorman and Ice Cube is Bernie Shaw in Iraq. Where Chuck is often content to offer analysis from the desk, Cube's dodging bullets to get the story.
Ice Cube brags about never having left the hood, and even though he has enough money to buy a place next to Ice-T's in Bel Air, he's staying put. Which is probably the best thing for his music. Ice Cube gives you an unflinching, homie's-eye view of South Central, and it's enough to justify his eternal crankiness. By the time Death Certificate's over, he's cruised the streets, popped into a few bedrooms, visited a VD clinic and even stopped by the ICU ward at L.A.'s Martin Luther King Hospital.
Not that this is autobiography. If Ice Cube really were the 40-crackin' gat packer he played in Boyz N the Hood, he'd have earned his album title by now. But it's probably safe to say that in life and in his art, he's about as tolerant of Asians, Jews and gays as David Duke.
Even if Cube would yea several points in the Klan platform, he seethes with smarts. It was Ice Cube, remember, not Ice-T, who gave the hip-hop world at large a Rodney King preview while he was still with N.W.A. in 1988. ---- tha Police" belongs right up there beside "I Shot the Sheriff" on the all-time cop-killer anthem list. That song also gave Ice Cube something in common with Elvis Presley and John Lennon--his very own FBI file.
Oddly, "Police" was atypical of Cube's early work in at least two ways. Except for that song, N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton album is almost wholly amoral. N.W.A.-era Ice Cube sweats niggas, fucks bitches, does a little time, gets high on 8 Ball and loves to rhyme. He also damn near denies, except in the subtext of his songs, the existence of white people. He's not looking to finger anyone for his condition. As the rapper himself boasts, "Do I look like a muthafuckin' role model?/To a kid lookin' up to me/Life ain't nothin' but bitches and money."
Although N.W.A. was flying high, not all was well in gangsta land. The money part of Ice Cube's equation for happiness was apparently giving him trouble. N.W.A. was selling millions of albums, but reportedly, Cube was still driving a bucket and getting ripped off by the group's management.
In 1990 Ice Cube decided to go solo, a move that was a huge artistic risk. Straight Outta Compton is easily one of the best ten records in hip-hopstory. N.W.A.'s minimalist producer, Dr. Dre, bucked out raw, metallic beats that cut through the air like drive-by bullets. The only place Ice Cube could've gone to ensure himself an equally foam-at-the-mouth soundtrack was Strong Island, home of Public Enemy's Bomb Squad. Which is exactly where he headed for his N.W.A.-less debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted.
On AmeriKKKa's, Ice Cube was looking to do more than match Straight Outta Compton, though. He began to search beyond the invincibility and nihilism of his N.W.A. days, exploring desperation and helplessness in a couple of disturbing vignettes. In "You Can't Fade Me," the rapper responds to a girlfriend's pregnancy by threatening to kick her in the stomach. And in "Once Upon a Time in the Projects," he admits his powerlessness to do anything but watch as the noose of welfare, drugs, violence and police brutality tightens around him.
Ironically, though, Ice Cube's most transcendent moment was also his quietest. On Kill at Will, the EP follow-up to AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, the rapper takes his vocals down to a mournful hush for "Dead Homiez" as a chorus of horns and keyboards moans softly behind him. Because of the high testosterone levels required in gangsta hip-hop, you just don't hear a lot of rhymes about grief and defeat. But in this dirge, Ice Cube sheds tears and epiphanies over funerals, Compton-style: "Why is that the only time black folks get to ride in a limo?" Like the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" and L.L. Cool J's "6 Minutes of Pleasure," "Dead Homiez" doesn't confront the listener with the usual threats and boasts, preferring to stretch the lyrical territory of hip-hop with intimate concepts like surrender and weakness.
As if to show he wasn't going soft, Ice Cube stepped to his latest disc with particularly foul rancor. The new-look Ice Cube had lost his politically incorrect jheri curl, picked up a few friends from the Nation of Islam and was clearly in no mood for horsing around. Overall, the material is as full of big grooves as hard-core can get--something like Bomb Squad's noisiest industrial clatter smoothed out on the Digital Underground tip. Produced by Cube, Sir Jinx and the Boogie Men, Death Certificate contains much of the worst and best stuff of his career: pathetic bigotry and introspective social commentary rolling side by side.
"Horny Lil' Devil" and "No Vaseline" tackle two fairly pesky problems--miscegenation and those snakes in N.W.A.--but the songs degenerate into that always-rich source of comedic material: gay bashing. Death Certificate is littered with almost-greats like this. In "True to the Game," it isn't clear whether Ice Cube's more interested in getting buppies to stick around the hood or in flaunting his own, oh-so-righteous loyalty to South Central.
Still, you've gotta give Ice Cube a Pulitzer nomination for the unflinching reportage of his own neighborhood. "Color Blind" may be the most exciting chase scene in hip-hop. It's an almost slo-mo anatomy of gang warfare, forcing the listener to focus on the hypnotic, nearly nauseating tension of players getting ready to kill or be killed.
Applaud Ice Cube for his objectivity, too. In "Black Korea," he's assailing shopkeepers who take one look at him and decide he's a thief, but a few songs later, in "Us," the rapper's virtually apologizing for his own race's misdeeds, lashing out at his wayward sisters and brothers. This isn't your average "just say no" song, either. Ice Cube delivers an encyclopedic tirade on repression in the manner of a father scolding his children. He's more ashamed than angry, and he's looking to lay an embarrassing guilt trip on his community while the neighbors listen in.
As riveting, unsettling and original as Ice Cube's lyrics can get, it's easy to overlook his artistry on the mic. His vocal skills are the product of the same inventiveness that give his tales such weight. A master at keeping his rhythms fresh, Ice Cube throws in syncopation, odd phrasing, rhymes that turn the corner when you least expect them and lines that take their own sweet time to wrap up. He's not in the upper echelon of hip-hop stylists that includes Monie Love and L.L. Cool J, but Cube's still worth listening to for his technical ability alone.
In the second song of AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Ice Cube dubbed himself "The Nigga Ya Love to Hate," a song that's become his calling card. But so much of what Ice Cube does makes him worth a listen, even if you know it would be more politically correct to boycott his ass. He could just have easily called himself "The Nigga Ya Hate to Love."
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