CASHIN' IN ON CONTROVERSY
So Bill Clinton tried to bag votes from corn farmers and middle-class blacks horrified by the South Central L.A. riots by cluck-clucking at Sister Souljah's musings on killing white people? And pop culture antisnob Dan Quayle got bent out of shape because of Ice-T's cop-killing wet dreams?
It's always amusing and telling to see how rap irritates white America. And maybe we need to doff our X caps at Ice-T and Sister Souljah for making the cops, Clinton and Quayle squirm.
But that's all the gratitude Ice-T and Sister Souljah deserve. There's no reason, for instance, to buy either of their new albums--Ice-T's Body Count or Souljah's 360 Degrees of Power. It's pathetic when music acts decide a great way to sell albums is to indulge in a little creative controversy that has nothing to do with the music. Public Enemy's musical ability is too brilliant for Chuck D to indulge in rabble-rousing. Even if Madonna's underwear and ego didn't raise my pulse, I'd still dance to "Vogue" and "Justify My Love."
But the latest albums by Body Count (Ice-T's hard-core metal group) and Sister Souljah achieve a singular dubious distinction: Never have two more worthless albums sold so many copies--and only because everyone wanted to know what all the fuss is about.
Body Count's self-titled Body Count almost made me long to listen to the first and only record by Dee Dee King. (Before falling on his face as a rapper, Dee Dee's last name was Ramone.) Even with the release of Body Count, Dee Dee's album easily reigns atop my all-time worst list, but Body Count is right down there between Cat Scratch Fever and Sgt. Pepper.
Blame Ice-T for the Body Count fiasco. In an eerie parallel with Dee Dee, the rapper sunk to dizzying depths when he thought it was time to prove his flexibility.
Ice-T's always been a competent rapper on disc and a pretty good one on stage. He narrates his gangster fables with a laid-back smoothness that lopes along in easy-to-follow grooves. A less generous analysis would say Ice-T is old school bordering on extinct. No less an authority than L.L. Cool J even told the rapper, "Shut ya old mouth when young folks is talkin'."
In his switch from hip-hop to hard-core, Ice-T does little more than confirm L.L.'s opinion. The rapper knows as well as anyone what to do with a midtempo funk track, but he's dumbfounded at worst, tentative at best, when it's time to put vocals atop an angry guitar. His flat, spoken style on Body Count sucks the momentum out of nearly every black-rock lick on the album. While his band rocks with an explosive riff in "On With the Body Count," the singer speaks in a monotone when he should be howling to keep up. Ice-T's familiar with this kind of music--he's sampled Jello Biafra and toured with Henry Rollins. And while he's been able to process their naughtiness, Ice-T never learned about the seething-intensity part. Maybe it's nothing a few singing lessons from Kurt Cobain or Perry Farrell wouldn't cure.
The rest of the Body Count band is responsible for the tinkling chorus on "The Winner Loses," a feather-down-your-throat antidrug song that made me want to reach for the nearest crack pipe. Perhaps Ice-T and Dan Quayle aren't as far apart ideologically as they might think.
But it's easy to see why Quayle and the LAPD are steamed over "Cop Killer." I guess if I were one of L.A.'s finest, it would fill me with the same sort of nervous tension I would feel before bashing some Comptonite's head in with a baton.
The one possible reason to listen to a friend's copy of Body Count is to hear "KKK Bitch," the only time on the album that Ice-T is as engaging as he thinks he is. Here the vocalist romances the Grand Wiz's daughter and lives to tell about it. Was Ice-T hoping David Duke would also call for a boycott of the album?
No mystery why Ice hits his peak here. As a rapper, he's made a pretty good living for himself penning paeans to crotch-grabbing like "L.G.B.N.A.F." But the minute he hears a heavy-metal track behind him, Ice-T turns into Glen Danzig, rhapsodizing about the supernatural (Voodoo) and matricidal nut-cases (Mama's Gotta Die Tonight). Hey everyone, let's go tattoo a pentagram on our foreheads and eat a dog!
The looniest notion of all, though, is Ice-T's crossover dream, which he lays bare in "There Goes the Neighborhood." He portrays Body Count as a damned-near-religious mission--to put some color into the clubs and minds of pasty-white metal-core America. Ice-T should go back where he came from and leave it to Fishbone and Bad Brains to make sure white kids get enough multicultural moshing in their diets.
Sister Souljah suffers from the same multiple-personality disorder as Ice-T. In her previous life, she was a public speaker, firing up campus crowds with feisty Afrocentric speeches. Now she's a rapper for the biggest record company in the world. For this we can thank Public Enemy, who no doubt realized Souljah would one day create the kind of controversy to justify the addition to P.E. of such a wack rapper. Souljah made a quiet start in show biz on a Terminator X single. After joining P.E., she appeared on a few cuts from P.E.'s latest, Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black. It was only when Bill Clinton popped off that Souljah's own record started to pay off.
Sure, Souljah's politically incorrect enough for P.E., but when it comes to rhyme time, she's more than a half-step behind Chuck D and Flavor Flav. The rule that applies to fellow P.E. waterboy (ex-waterboy now) Professor Griff holds equally true to Sister Souljah: No matter how many times you use words like "cracker," "shay whitey," "African Liberation Army" and "angry," it doesn't make you a great rapper.
Not that Souljah even bothers to rap on 360 Degrees of Power. Instead, she spends an eternity reminding the listener why the sounds of hip-hop revolve around funky drummers drumming and not crackpot radicals hammering their fists on a lectern. Minutes, hours, days go by without a rhyme in sight while Sister Souljah whines in a very loud voice about the thousand-and-one ways America has cheated black people.
When Souljah, in her public-speaking mode, pontificates, "They say two wrongs don't make it right/But it damn sure makes it even," you don't mind the snickering nihilism. And for all we know, honkies really do "join the Peace Corps so they can spy on other people's culture/And make money off of the things they learn." But even if this were an album full of speeches, the science Souljah drops just isn't worth the sticker price. You really wanna pay 10 or 15 bucks for gems like "Always remember to use your common sense"? On "Brainteasers and Doubtbusters," she seethes that "White feminists say that they are the sisters of black women/. . ./And then they want to give you five hundred reasons why you should leave your black man/And let them eat your pussy!" Hey, I'm willing to bet a fair number of black feminists wouldn't mind singing Souljah their own special version of "500 Ways to Leave Your Lover."
Funny thing is, Souljah--like fellow heterosexuals and album guest stars Chuck D and Ice Cube--is good on the mic during the all-too-brief moments when she tempers her rhythmless bark and starts rippin' rhymes like she was a born Public Enemy. Souljah's operatic blasts even measure up decibel for decibel with such hoary sistas as Bytches With Problems and Yo-Yo. Like Chuck and Cube's, her stentorian chants are authoritative enough to snap you to attention and stand the hair up on the back of your neck. On the title song, Souljah gets out so quick and hits rhymes from such unexpected angles, you'd think she was trying to earn herself a Newsweek cover for her musical skills alone.
But then, almost too ironically, an off-camera voice cuts off her free-verse rantings on "The Hate That Hate Produced" and asks, well, can she rhyme? You wanna throw the guy a party--until Souljah steps to the occasion like Deputy Dog and dribbles couplet after couplet.
What really makes you wonder about Souljah is the almost beside-the-point production of Bomb Squadder Eric "Vietnam" Sadler. On P.E.'s first three albums, Sadler helped invent hard-core hip-hop. He's got the high-definition-muscle-and-bones-scratch-and-sample-industrial-funk thing happening here, too. But if Souljah's relegating Sadler to background noise and not wrapping her rhymes around the beats, whaduzit matter?
But then, you probably can't tell Souljah anything she doesn't already know. She opens the album by predicting her own immortality: "Maybe in a year or two or five. . .all the money-making bloodsuckers will come out with hats, coats, buttons and posters and maybe even movies, and people will lie and say, 'Yeah, I was down wit' her.'"
Shee-yeah. Advice to Sister Souljah and Ice-T: Don't give up your day jobs.
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