In the spring of 1992, while white America blinked fearfully at the images of anarchy in the streets of South Central Los Angeles on their television screens, fans of Ice Cube’s incendiary raps and rants simply nodded knowingly to themselves. Because whether it was through his work on NWA’s seminal Straight Outta Compton or his own Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate, no one could deny that Ice Cube not only had his pulse on the state of L.A.’s civic affairs long before they erupted into violence, but that he also concretized a vocal resistance to entrenched racism and oppression more capably than anyone in hip-hop at the time, including Public Enemy. There was something truly visceral about Cube’s voice, its confident swagger, that made his ever-present snarl that much more serious. As he barked, loudly and clearly, on Death Certificate and Amerikkka’s, he was the nigga you love to hate as well as the wrong one to fuck with. The fact that he, unlike icons such as Tupac and Biggie, carried this type of hyperskilled braggadocio into the next millennium without bullet holes or prison sentences showed you just how media-savvy he was.
Before NWA’s street-smart overlord, Eazy-E, became the butt of Cube and Dre’s jokes on Death Certificate and The Chronic, respectively — as well as an ironic AIDS casualty, considering E’s rampant misogyny — everyone from Stetsasonic’s Daddy-O to PE’s Chuck D was claiming that rap’s defining album had been made by four Gs in Compton; whether or not that claim holds up throughout history, there is no disputing that NWA’s verbal potency and power came from Cube and Cube alone. Like any winning team, Cube and Dre were the superstars (Cube for the voice, Dre for the beats) and the rest (E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella) were effective role players. Which is why Cube was the first to leave the group when Eazy tried to muscle in on the business, and the first to mercilessly lampoon his former friends (most notably in Death Certificate‘s “No Vaseline”). It was years before Snoop and Dre took their respective potshots at Eazy that Ice Cube saw which way the money was counted and went solo, taking NWA’s credibility with him.
So it was both the L.A. riots and NWA’s ascendancy (and eventual redundancy) that marked the initial stages of the supernova now seen everywhere from music videos to Virgin Megastore racks to the silver screen. It was that proverbial case of “you had to be there”, most notably because white kids bumping gangsta rap from their parents’ cars these days think that the genre — and all of its serial, glamorous trappings — started with Dre and The Chronic. It didn’t. I’ll argue from here to eternity that it started crossing over into the mainstream with the Cube-penned “Fuck Tha Police”, an antagonistic slogan still used today during global protests. And regardless of what Ice-T was doing at the time — metal songs about cop killers, to be exact — all of gangsta rap’s street cred stuck to Cube like glue. He simply was gangsta rap.
Whether or not this will stick with kids who catch sight of the remastered reissues of Cube’s earliest works is not up for question. But neither is the fact that Amerikkka’s Most Wanted is not only Cube’s best album, but one of the Bomb Squad’s (Public Enemy’s sonic architects) finest production efforts. Together, they made one hell of a team. The urgent bass thump of “What They Hittin’ Foe?” matches seamlessly with Cube’s kinetic delivery, making a tune about taking money from suckers in a craps game feel like being held hostage on a runaway train. Same goes with “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” and “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted”, twin chapters that set the album off like “The Bomb” that ends it. Plus, Cube’s patented “street knowledge” (as explained in the beginning of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton”) is in top shape here. “Turn off the Radio” lambastes African-American media ignoring rap and hip-hop for the safehouse of R&B; “A Gangsta’s Fairytale” updates Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” while lampooning the possibility of childhood innocence in the rough and rugged South Central streets; and “Endangered Species (Tales From the Darkside)”, featuring a louder-than-a-bomb guest turn from Chuck D, is a harrowing tale of street murder and vengeance, laced with the pop-pop of Glocks and bodies falling.
“Endangered Species” gets an update in the Kill At Will EP appended on this reissue of Amerikkka’s (that’ll save you a little cash!), complete with a Tom Brokaw intro and what sounds like a home recording of an actual violent conflict, one that still can creep the shit out of you. But the funereal video featuring a slightly weepy Cube in “Dead Homiez” aside, Kill at Will‘s best track is “Jacking for Beats”, where Cube and his Lench Mob simply bust into the studio and lift beats with aplomb from everyone to EPMD, Public Enemy, Digital Underground and more.
Between “Amerikkka’s and NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Cube laid down the gauntlet on gangsta rap, and let white America in on the LAPD’s dark, little secrets. But Cube also laid aside the reportage and did the vision thing for his next release, Death Certificate, a concept album on the state of Black America, featuring a “death” and “life” side denoting what he saw as necessary progressions towards agency and respect. Problem was, the concept came off feeling more like a gimmick (albeit a slammin’ one): the “death” side contained Cube’s more famous tracks, like “Steady Mobbin'”, “The Wrong Nigga to Fuck Wit”, and “My Summer Vacation”, all songs about slangin’ drugs, killing thugs, and cashing checks. His “Robin Lench” was a hilarious send-up of The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous for the ghetto crowd — instead of a limo, winners get carted around Compton on the RTD (“rough, tough, and dangerous”) bus system — but his “Givin’ up the Nappy Dugout” was a borderline pathological adherence to the women-equals-bitches paradigm that gangsta rap still can’t shake to this day. Death Certificate‘s “death” side was so uproarious that the message simply got lost. Which didn’t really matter to the majority of Cube’s fans, black or white, who just wanted more tales of “bitches and money” as Cube rapped on NWA’s “Gangsta Gangsta”. So when he eventually did tackle compelling social issues — responsibility and self-awareness in the amazing “Us”, the predominance of poor blacks in the military in “I Wanna Kill Sam”, interracial sexual politics in “Horny Lil’ Devil” — people were already fast-forwarding to the homophobic slams on Eazy-E in Death Certificate‘s finale, “No Vaseline”.
But these polarizing dualities are what made Cube so attractive to everyone from consumers to academics; after all, William Blake had already written hundreds of years earlier that “without contraries, there” would be “no progression” (Cube himself wrote, “It ain’t wise to chastise and preach / Just open your eyes a peep”). So while it was variously received, no one denied that Cube had at least attempted to sum up the complexities of urban African-America as well as he could on Death Certificate, sex jokes and all. As much as Straight Outta Compton set the table for canonicity, Cube’s second solo album cemented his position as a major player in rap and hip-hop for good.
So by the time he released the crossover hit, The Predator, the world was ready for his breakout. And “It Was a Good Day” fit the bill perfectly. A relatively downtempo entry compared to the frenetic work on Amerikkka’s and Certificate, “It Was a Good Day” was a laid-back L.A. tune about hardcourt ballin’, eating a good meal, and thanking God no one got killed that day. But the problem was that many did get killed. By the time The Predator was released, the L.A. riots were about six months old, and there weren’t many good days to be had at all, even though everyone was trying to, like Rodney King said, “just get along”. “It Was a Good Day” struck a mellow note with a nation wanting to heal, which meant that Cube’s activist tracks like the breakneck “Wicked” and the song written specifically about the riots, “We Had to Tear This Mutherfucka Up”, were relatively overlooked. The video for “Wicked” (currently included on the thorough DVD collection released at the same time as the album reissues) featured the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for chrissake’s; if you want to neutralize a potent political statement, film a bunch of near-naked Caucasian skate rats breaking shit up.
But Cube was growing up, getting older and richer, and making fiery, political (sometimes conceptual) gangsta rap probably just didn’t feel the same. So The Predator‘s “It Was a Good Day” was both a clarion call to chill and a reflection of where Cube’s career was headed. Watts might have sucked ass, but it was all good from where Cube stood, good enough to party with George Clinton and his “Bop Gun” on his next album, Lethal Injection, no doubt the weakest of the four reissues. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all, to be honest. While some may bitch about Cube being a sellout in corny screen comedies or stupid snake movies like Anaconda, the guy knew what he was doing from the moment he passed himself off as a South Central gangster (even though he was bused into the Valley).
The fact that he’s immortalized in a series of reissues shows that he’s made the big time, and that’s all any South Central L.A. — or South Central Iraq, for that matter — kid wants these days.