Ice Cube is one of hip-hop's most recognizable faces, but these days it has more to do with movies like "Barbershop" and "Friday After Next" than it does his rap records. Before O'Shea Jackson was Hollywood's urban hero, his reputation as the "angriest man in rap" was already cemented by his pivotal role in the rap group N.W.A. The fact he was the ghostwriter behind Dr. Dre and Eazy-E's raps was hip-hop's least well kept secret; that aside, it was when he spit his own writtens that he shined the brightest. Ask "Straight Outta Compton" fans what they remember best about the album and you'll undoubtedly hear a recitation of one of his verses, from the gruff "Fuck Tha Police" to the verbally dexterous "Parental Discretion Iz Advised" to the simple yet powerfully evocative "Gangsta Gangsta," a narrative rap that firmly established him as the group's leader with just one line: "To a kid lookin up to me, life ain't nothin but bitches and money."
Blunt honesty was Ice Cube's calling card, but shady dealings were the calling cards of Ruthless Records' Eazy-E and Jerry Heller. The tales of how Jackson was exploited are damn near urban legend; some suggesting his entire payment for writing and performances on "Straight Outta Compton" was little more than a new car, while the label pocketed millions upon millions in profits. Whatever the arrangement was, Cube clearly realized he was a rap superstar not being given a star's treatment. As the first to defect from N.W.A. he had two guillotines hanging over his head: one ready to slice him if the lyrics weren't up to par with his previous product in the group, the other ready to dice him for anything less than the funky beats provided by music maestros Dr. Dre and DJ Yella. His answer to the critics on the latter was somewhat shocking: Sir Jinx from his own production crew The Lench Mob shared dutied throughout Cube's debut LP with Public Enemy's infamous beat posse The Bomb Squad. It was unheard of in 1990 - a West coast, L.A. rapper flowing over East coast beats.
While his concept for beats may have surprised the rap nation, "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" had a far greater influence on the U.S. at large right off the bat with it's provocative title. Cube, like many in the genre of so-called "gangsta rap" was advocating serious message of social unrest mixed in with his urban narratives that was largely being ignored by critics who placed the focus on the wrong things. To such critics, the appeal of gangsta rap and it's practicioners was based solely on the shock value of the profanity and "living vicariously" through a ghetto experience. In response, Cube placed himself at the front of a visually limitless array of black men rolling backwards for blocks on the album cover, clearly putting himself at the fore as the leader of a movement much as Malcolm X and Huey Newton has been the visible face of their own respective organizations. The message of the photo and the album title was clear even before listening to the music: I'm here to fuck shit up for racist white America, and you can't stop me.
If that statement alone didn't wake people up, Cube wasn't going to take any chances that the point would be missed. The album's first full length song, "The Nigga Ya Love to Hate" portrayed him as a destabilizing force so dangerous that he had earned the singular ire of the entire populace. True or not, he was not going to let that stop him from saying what he wanted, when he wanted:
"They try to keep me from runnin up
I never tell you to get down, it's all about comin up
So what they do, go and ban the AK?
My shit wasn't registered any-fuckin-way
So you better duck away run and hide out
When I'm rollin real slow and the lights out
Cause I'm about, to fuck up the program
Shootin out the window of a drop-top Brougham
When I'm shootin let's see who drop
The police, the media, and suckers that went pop
And motherfuckers that say they too black
Put 'em overseas they be beggin to come back
They say we promote gangs and drugs
You wanna sweep a nigga like me up under the rug
Kickin shit called street knowledge
Why more niggaz in the pen than in college?
Because of that line I might be your cellmate
That's from the nigga ya love to hate!"
Cube correctly surmises that yellow-bellied journalists blame him and his fellow hardcore rappers for "promoting gangs and drugs" while failing to note that his real danger to AmeriKKKa was his willingness to question why more prisons are built than schools. To the hip-hop listener with a fine tuned ear for lyrics, Cube's choice of the Bomb Squad on beats suddenly made perfect sense as a way to emphasize his political views the same way they did for Chuck D in P.E. To further emphasize this link, Cube and Chuck shared the spotlight on the song "Endangered Species" in a rap about the nationwide decimation of black men:
"Every cop killer goes ignored
They'll just send another nigga to the morgue
A point scored; they could give a fuck about us
They rather catch us with guns, and white powder
If I was old, they'd probably be a friend of me
Since I'm young, they consider me the enemy
They'll kill ten of me to get the job correct
To serve, protect, and break a nigga's neck
Cause I'm the one with the trunk of funk
And 'Fuck Tha Police' in the tape deck
You should listen to me cause there's more to see
Call my neighborhood a ghetto cause it houses minorities" - Ice Cube
"Standin in the middle of war, every minute we flex
When we die, then we'll make +Jet+
+Ebony+ can't see to the lightside
The term they apply to us is a nigga
Call it what you want, cause I'm comin from the corner
Sayin my rhymes with a Ph.D.
Who's black - don't wanna roll
Sells his soul, watch his head go rollin
Who the fuck is they foolin?
Nobody knows, but I suppose the color of my clothes
matches the color of the one on my face
as they wonder what's under my waist" - Chuck D
Often times, Cube's message is not so obvious. When giving a recitation of daily events in his neighborhood such as on "What They Hittin' Foe?" he's not just telling a story but underscoring the lives of the disenfranchised trying to cope in a country that was (and even today often is) set up to make anyone not in the majority a second class citizen. As such, gambling on a dice game serves both a social release of pent up tensions and the allure of "the come up" out the ghetto on any big jackpot. Of course, some aren't content to take the inherent unfairness of random rolls of the dice in a manly fashion, which is why when you're Ice Cube you've always gotta carry some protection:
"Poppa need brand new shoes and a sweatshirt
Fool, you can't even FUCK with that
And now that I'm winnin, I gots to get my gat
Cause I see your homies startin to look
And broke motherfuckers, they make the best crooks
And I'm feelin like a baller
Buckin fools, now the circle's gettin smaller
Now you wanna go and scheme
Punk niggaz like you just love to triple-team
So I pick up my money and start walkin
Cause now I let the gat start talkin; now
Since y'all lost, you wanna go out like a sucker
Take that motherfuckers!"
The most controversial part and misunderstood part of this album was one single line from the song "You Can't Fade Me." In his typically blunt honest fashion, Cube was describing how some women misuse their own wombs as a ticket out of poverty; in other words, conceiving a child for the sole purpose of collecting child support and welfare. That concept alone may have been too much for the Christian conservative, but they really took up arms over this quote:
"Cause all I saw was Ice Cube in court
Payin a gang on child support
Then I thought deep about givin up the money
What I need to do, is kick the bitch in the tummy"
Taken out of context the lyrics are grossly misogynistic, but the right-wing and the feminists who were so quick to condemn him for it undoubtedly never heard the two lines that followed:
"Naw cause then, I'd really get faded
That's murder one, cause it was premeditated"
In a flash of anger Cube considering exacting revenge on the woman with shocking brutality, then immediately realized the harsh consequences of such actions. And how many of us have not felt murderous rage against someone who did us wrong at one point in our lives, only to wisely conclude the act immoral and the penal consequences too costly? This lyric's widespread misinterpretation though just proved Cube's point though that he was "The Nigga Ya Love to Hate." The more the critics tried to shut him up though, the stronger his appeal became. Cube even found some unexpected crossover success with the Sir Jinx & Bomb Squad co-produced "Who's the Mack?" featuring music from the JB's. With a jazzy swing of flutes, horns and saxophones, the song carried a mellow groove while Cube's rap illustrates the lengths people will go to just to get a dollar:
"Who's the mack? It is that fool that wanna pump the gas
Give you a sad story and you give him cash?
He start mackin and mackin and you suckered
Quick to say, I'm down on my luck and
you give a dollar or a quarter and he's on his way
Then you see his sorry ass, the next day
Are you the one gettin played like a sucker?
Or do you say -- get a job motherfucker?
Every day, the story gets better
He's wearin dirty pants and a funky-assed sweater
He claims he wants to get somethin to eat
But every day you find yourself gettin beat
He gets your money and he run across the street
Don't look both ways cause he's in a daze
And almost get his ass hit for the crack
Now ask yourself - who's the mack?"
Not every song on the album has a subtext or social message. "I'm Only Out For One Thing" featuring Flavor Flav is all about the joys of sex, "Rollin' Wit the Lench Mob" is a braggadocious ode to his crew with a sly diss to being TOO PREACHY in your raps ("Some rappers are heaven sent, but 'Self Destruction' don't pay the fuckin rent"), and "It's a Man's World" is a battle of the sexes where Yo-Yo makes her national debut by putting Cube is his place and effectively saying, "Hey it's a woman's world too!" These songs balance out the more blunt offerings like "Turn Off the Radio," where a fed up Ice Cube recognizes that only happy non controversial pablum will ever get played in a national top ten:
"Turn on the radio take a listen what you're missin
Personally, I'm sick of the ass-kissin
What I'm kickin to you won't get in rotation
Nowhere in the nation
Program directors and DJ's ignore me
Cause I simply said FUCK top forty
And top thirty top twenty and top ten
Until you put more hip-hop in
Then I might grin but don't pretend that you're down with the C
And go and diss me in a magazine
How could you figure the brother could dig ya
DJ face down in the river
No it's not a threat but a promise"
It's hard to really put into context just how revolutionary this album was. Like Boogie Down Productions' "By Any Means Necessary" and Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" before it, the album combined the hardest of hardcore MC's with dope beats while the messages offered hope against a corrupt system within a decaying social fabric. To the hip-hop nation it was straight up truth, while conservatives blasted the violence and profanity and completely missed the point. For the younger generation, black white and otherwise, it wasn't hard to get the message. Even if they were turned on by Ice Cube's "Gangsta Gangsta" persona and "fuck you" attitude, they discovered that the fiery rapper was also breaking down hard facts in digestible and highly quotable chunks of hardcore rap. The lyrics alone would be among the best Cube has written in his career, and the beats alone would be among the best Sir Jinx or The Bomb Squad has ever made, but the potency of the two together make "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" a watershed album. Now that it's been digitally remastered with the "Kill at Will" EP included as bonus tracks at no additional cost, you owe it to yourself as a hip-hop fan to put this album in your collection if you don't own it already; and if you do it's worth investing in the upgrade. On a short list of the most controversial, most funky, most lyrically intense rap albums ever made, this album is easily top ten. More than that, it's one of the most important records released in the 20th century in ANY genre. If anyone ever says to you, "Rap is simple shit, I can do that" just play them this album and dare them to write something better -- none of them ever will.
Music Vibes: 10 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 10 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 10 of 10
Originally posted: April 8, 2003