It’s hard to give a thumbs-up to an album that calls itself The Essentials when there’s so much essential material missing.
A lot of times, greatest hits compilations are an exercise in redundancy -- especially in this day and age when all you need is a computer to make your own compilation of an artist’s best work. So it’s a bit strange to see labels still peeling off multiple hits albums from one artist. So, the first thing you should ask yourself when confronted with a copy of Ice Cube’s The Essentials is, "Do I really need this CD?" After all, Cube has a perfectly good greatest hits collection already available if you’re not up to the task of making your own, in addition to a duets/collaborations disc and a collection focused on songs from his hit films. This compilation (which must have been released as a contractual obligation) shares several songs with the hits album, adds some curiously chosen album tracks, a couple of rarities, and even a live cut. The end result is kind of a mess. The Essentials is certainly unnecessary, especially if you, like me, are of the mind that Ice Cube --a once fiery, uber-talented emcee who has morphed into the 21st century version of Bill Cosby -- has released barely anything relevant in the past fifteen years.
When Cube split apart from N.W.A. in 1989, just as they achieved massive success, the thing that set Ice Cube apart from not only his former group but most of the rest of the rap world was his anger. He was the first West Coast emcee to truly get respect on the other side of the country, thanks to hard hitting albums like 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (which was co-piloted by Public Enemy’s production team, The Bomb Squad) and the following year’s Death Certificate. Before Dr. Dre and G-Funk changed the game, Cube was the King of L.A. Obviously, the best songs on this compilation hail from those two albums. From the mournful elegy Dead Homiez (the first in a LONG line of hip-hop songs dedicated to, well, dead homiez) to the hilarious anti-promiscuity rant Givin’ Up the Nappy Dug Out, Cube’s first two albums contain tons of classic material…all of which is to say that you should probably just get Cube’s first two albums instead of spending money on this half-assed compilation.
Let’s face facts. No matter how much of a Cube apologist you might be, there’s no denying that his skills (which at one time had him on the short list of greatest rappers of all time) eroded once that Hollywood money started rolling in, with 1993‘s Lethal Injection (strangely not represented on this compilation) being his last even vaguely necessary album. Listen to the righteous anger on songs like The Wrong N*gga To Fuck Wit, and compare it to the trite hustler/gangsta-isms of songs like Supreme Hustle or the forced social commentary of Ghetto Vet, which is still among the best of his more recent work. What do you think 1991-era Ice Cube would have thought of the embarrassing Lil’ Jon/Snoop Dogg collaboration "Go To Church"? The same guy who once berated MC Hammer for dancing in his videos making a club anthem? Sacrilege!!
Another reason you might want to skip out on The Essentials? Some slight deception going on. Remember Check Yo’Self? You should. It was a #1 hit on Billboard’s R&B charts in the summer of ‘93. However, the version on this compilation is the little-heard album version, not the Grandmaster Flash-sampling radio version that became a hit. Same goes for What Can I Do?, a song that’s included in its LP version and not in the remixed version that became a hit. Unless you have a soft spot for the original versions of these songs (which is unlikely, considering you’ve probably never even heard the original versions of these songs), you’ll probably want to skip this and head straight for Cube’s Greatest Hits album.
The Essentials, ultimately, is an unnecessary hodgepodge, probably put together without Cube‘s involvement. The track listing doesn’t make sense. Not all of these songs were hits. There are huge hits missing (Steady Mobbin’, You Know How We Do It and We Be Clubbin’ chief among them) and some of the inclusions are serious head-scratchers. I mean, did we really need a live version of Why We Thugs, the only track here not otherwise available on an Ice Cube album? If you’re an Ice Cube fan, you’ve got most of this material already. This isn’t a horrible introduction if you’re being introduced to Ice Cube for the first time, but it’s hard to give a thumbs-up to an album that calls itself The Essentials when there’s so much essential material missing.