Ice Cube's been livin' large off his gangsta boogie and movies like Boyz-N-the-Hood and Friday. So why does he want to be a "microphone master"?
Ice Cube's appeal has always been his ability to play the right role at the right time. In the movies, his timing was perfect as the likable but criminal-minded Doughboy in Boyz-N-the-Hood, and as Craig, the hood's average Joe, in Friday. In his music, three roles have made him a hip-hop legend -- I call them "Gangsta Cube", "Storyteller Cube", and "Cube the Emcee". Let's discuss.
In the beginning, there was "Gangsta Cube". And he was a bad, bad man. That's the Ice Cube from NWA's Straight Outta Compton, specifically on the title track ("Straight outta Compton, / A crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube, / From the gang called Niggas With Attitude") and the song "Gangsta Gangsta":
Here's a little somethin' 'bout a nigga like me,
Never shoulda been let out the penitentiary,
Ice Cube would like to say,
That I'm a crazy motherfucker from around the way.
"Gangsta Cube" is the Cube we know best -- scowling and surly, posturing and full of toughness. That's the persona that fueled Ice Cube's first solo album, Amerikkka's Most Wanted. "Gangsta Cube" ain't no joke. He'll break into your crib ("Amerikkka's Most Wanted"), beat you at craps ("What They Hittin' Foe?"), and steal your hoes ("Get Off My Dick and Tell Yo Bitch To Come Here"). He can also share his knowledge of the game with you so you won't be a sucker, in songs like "Who's the Mack?"
"Gangsta Cube" spawned "Political Cube", the more controversial side of the rapper that fueled his Death Certificate album (the "death certificate" was issued for "Uncle Sam"). "Political Cube" is still thuggish, but he's sensitive to his social status ("My Skin Is My Sin") and society's role in his plight ("I Wanna Kill Sam"), as well as his own contribution to that plight ("Us", "Laugh Now, Cry Later").
At the same time, "Gangsta Cube" shared space with "Boyz-N-the-Hood Cube", especially after John Singleton's Boyz-N-the-Hood. "Boyz-N-the-Hood Cube" is just a brotha tryin' to make it through the day. This Cube appears in songs like The Predator's "It Was a Good Day" (a brotha goes about his day safely and without incident) and Lethal Injection's "Ghetto Bird" (the police helicopter shines its search lights on the entire neighborhood). Ice Cube, aware of his image, actually referred to this persona in 1993's "When Will They Shoot": "Media tried to do me, / But I was a boy in the hood before the movie, yeah".
And he's been struggling with that awareness ever since, working to balance his film and music success with the at-the-bottom ethos of the urban gangsta. That was the theme of his twin CD set, War & Peace, the title of which could be seen as a description of Ice Cube's inner struggle. On the "War Disc" (1998), Gangsta Cube got promoted to a Don (as in "Corleone") that he named "Don Mega". Don Mega sounded like a business mogul who, as Cube put it in "Pushin' Weight", was "straight legit, while niggas like Gotti just sit". The "Peace Disc" (2000) played more to the "Boyz-N-the-Hood" and "Cube the Emcee" personas.
Laugh Now, Cry Later, Ice Cube's latest effort, continues that trend. In fact, it really could be the third CD in the War & Peace trilogy, as the colors of Laugh Now, Cry Later's cover -- the reds, oranges, and yellows juxtaposed against black -- recall the cover of the "War Disc". Crazy at it sounds, I liken these three discs to the Godfather movies, an analogy made appropriate in light of the "Corleone" references made throughout War & Peace. The "War Disc", like The Godfather, shows Ice Cube (like Al Pacino's Michael Corleone) transforming from boy in the hood to "Don". The "Peace Disc" shows Ice Cube's more legitimate side, just as Michael Corleone tried to become more legitimate in Godfather II. The third Godfather movie, which director Francis Ford Coppolla insists he originally planned on calling The Death of Michael Corleone, is about Michael's inner conflicts, running from his past yet seeking to reconcile it. In the end his sins come back to bite him, resulting in the death of his daughter. Similarly, Laugh Now, Cry Later could have been called The Death of the Gangsta, as it focuses more on Ice Cube the man, actor, and rapper. He also confronts his relationship with gangsta rap.
However, there are appearances on the new album by "Gangsta Cube" and "Political Cube", like the Scott Storch produced "Why We Thugs". This West Coast headbanger breaks us off a proper chunk of the Cube we know best. As always, when "Gangsta Cube" and "Political Cube" hit the scene, it's on once again:
I'm from the land of the gangbang,
Since I was little ain't a goddamn thang changed,
It's the same old same,
Bush run shit like Saddam Hussein,
I cock and aim, clinically insane,
To deal with this bullshit day to day,
If I sell some yay or smoke some hay,
You bitches wanna throw me up in Pelican Bay,
Call me an animal up in the system,
But who's the animal who built this prison?
Other examples on the new album are "The Nigga Trap" ("I'm from the place where the fuckin' Terminator is the governor"), the interlude "A History of Violence", and the cautionary "Laugh Now, Cry Later". In "Stop Snitchin'", he makes a reference to the song "Gangsta Gangsta", while "The Game Lord" sounds like an updated version of Ice Cube's "Dopeman" from Straight Outta Compton. Meanwhile, "Boyz-N-the-Hood Cube" partners up with Snoop Dogg to kick game to the honeys on "You Gotta Lotta That", and also comes out to play for "Doin' What It 'Pose 2 Do" and "Chrome & Paint". On the latter two tracks, which are reminiscent of Dr. Dre's "Let Me Ride" from The Chronic, Cube shows he's still got more bounce to the ounce.
"Storyteller Cube" was solidified on Ice Cube's first solo album, Amerikkka's Most Wanted by tunes like "Once Upon a Time in the Projects" and "A Gangsta's Fairytale". The latter, which sounds like rap's parallel to comedian Andrew Dice Clay, chronicled a gang war between Mr. Rogers, the Big Bad Wolf, and the Three Little Pigs, among other things.
On "The Product", from his Kill At Will EP, Ice Cube explains how a man's life can go downhill real fast, as he imaginatively tells the story from sperm cell to cellmate:
And it was hell tryin' to bail to the ovary,
With nuttin' but the Lord lookin' over me,
I was white with a tail,
But when I reached the finish line -- young black male!
Once cell made two and two cells made fo',
And so on, so now I'ma embryo,
Then I got a hunch,
That I'ma be on lockdown, for nine months.
On "Ghetto Vet", from the "War Disc" of War & Peace, Ice Cube delivered a first-person narrative about an old school gangsta who gets shot, becomes paralyzed, and is forced to compensate, and in some ways repent, by living out the remainder his days in a wheel chair.
The biggest problem with Laugh Now, Cry Later is the absence of any real stories other than the autobiographical "Growin' Up". Unfortunately, that tune, backed by a Minnie Ripperton sample, boldly goes where we've already been -- back down memory lane. Cube explains how he and the fellas met and founded NWA, talks about the break-up of the group, and recalls the death of his old pal Eazy-E. Then there's this:
From Boyz-N-the-Hood to Triple X 2,
Everybody wanna know my next move,
Fans all around say, "We love you, Cube",
I wanna take time to say, "I love you too".
Just because I'm acting, nigga never stop rappin',
It's in my blood, homie, I'ma keep the party crackin',
Money keep stackin' 'til they put me in a casket.
Who you think you fuckin' wit', here's another classic.
Is he reaffirming his dedication to the fans or to himself? On the interlude "Dimes & Nicks", actor Mike Epps leaves Ice Cube a voicemail message, wondering when they're going to do another movie. Epps is worried about making money and feeding his kids. It's kind of funny, but it makes you wonder -- does Ice Cube find it difficult to juggle his family, his acting career, and his music? It would be surprising if he didn't. And that, I think, is where the insecurity has crept into his rhymes. It also explains why Laugh Now, Cry Later focuses so much attention on Ice Cube the rapper.
Cube the Emcee
"Cube the Emcee" has never been Ice Cube's bread and butter. The persona only shows up when Cube refers to his rhymes or when he's critiquing the entertainment industry. On Amerikkka's Most Wanted, Emcee Cube admonished radio's reluctance to embrace hip-hop on "Turn Off the Radio" and later, on the "War Disc", he compared record labels to pimps on "Record Company Pimpin'". Kill At Will's "Jackin' For Beats" showed his ability to maintain a flow over an ever-changing series of recognizable beats, from LL Cool J's Big Ol' Butt to Public Enemy's Welcome to the Terrordome.
On Laugh Now, Cry Later, the best of the "Emcee" tunes is "Smoke Some Weed", a slow grinding, bass-heavy romp produced by Budda. On the Scott Storch track, "Steal the Show", Cube refers to himself as "a real lyricist, fuck a ghostwriter", while on "Spittin' Pollaseeds" (featuring WC and Kokane) he rhymes:
Fuck a ghostwriter, sittin' in the back
of the studio tryin' to write a nigga's rap,
It's the Muppet Show,
Most niggas need A&R to tell 'em how to fuck a hoe,
Ice Cube -- true emcee,
Write everything I say, even back in the day.
"Click, Clack - Get Back!" reiterates the point that Cube doesn't "take shit from rappers" (he turns them "into cadavers") or their ghostwriters. Meanwhile, "Go To Church", featuring Snoop Dogg and Lil' Jon, drives home Ice Cube's lyrical toughness through references to other rappers, as when he says, "In the hood, all the way down south, / I ain't Mike Jones, keep my name out your mouth".
Why the emphasis on Ice Cube's skills as a rapper or, as he says on "Stop Snitchin'", a "microphone master"? Perhaps it's because he's more sensitive to his role in the gangsta rap genre. On the "War Disc", he compared himself to Dr. Frankenstein, in a song of the same name, and used Frankenstein's monster as a metaphor for gangsta rap. There, he said he was "getting liberated by this monster I created". But on the "Peace Disc", Cube joined his NWA buddies Dr. Dre and MC Ren for another round of attitude, this time with a reflected twist, evidenced by the chorus of "Hello": "I started this gangsta shit, / And this the motherfuckin' thanks I get?" It's as if rap has come back to haunt them. On Dr. Dre 2001, Dre's follow-up to The Chronic, his song "The Watcher" illustrated the thoughts of an aging gangsta: "But now we got a new era of gangstas, / Youngsters and hustlers livin' amongst us, / Lookin' at us now and callin' us 'bustas', / Can't help but reminisce back when it was us".
Along these lines, Ice Cube's "Child Support" from Laugh Now, Cry Later again implicates Ice Cube as the father of "gangsta rap", but now he's calling himself a "deadbeat dad" who refuses to pay child support. The "mama", he says, took him on Maury for a paternity test and that's when Ice Cube announces the truth: "I'm the father of this gangsta shit, / Never thought that I'd have a bunch of bastard kids". From Frankenstein to deadbeat dad, all of this suggests some type of conflict about the way things turned out. Even the album title alludes to the consequences that eventually follow instant gratification.
Considering the criticisms that have been leveled at "gangsta rap", that's quite a heavy burden for one emcee to carry. If that's what's going on, this is a dilemma that needs to be worked out; otherwise, the next step in the Cube evolution could easily go in the wrong direction. As for Laugh Now, Cry Later, there are enough enjoyable moments to satisfy us until next time.