It’s safe to assume that most people over the age of 30 with even just a minimal awareness of pop music would know of Vanilla Ice: “Oh yeah, he had that song ‘Ice Ice Baby’ or whatever it was”. They probably see him as a one hit wonder, and lump him and his mega-hit together with something like “Pump Up The Jam” by Technotronic. Hip hop heads of similar vintage possibly still cringe somewhat when reading or hearing the name, remembering what an abomination he was to what “real” hip hop stood for during those days. A few of you might know that he had an album or two, delved into rap/rock, and he even appeared on a couple of reality TV shows – but who out there knows that the apparent one-hit wonder has actually released more than half a dozen albums since the days when he was telling us “Alright stop, collaborate and listen”?
Like many of my underground hip hop purist compadres I hated the Vanilla one when he first came out; I scoffed at mention of him and had zero interest to hear anything he released and did my best to avoid his (unavoidable) songs that were on heavy radio rotation. Deep down though, there was an intrigue as to what his albums were like, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy a Vanilla Ice album so I let my curiosity slide (I had the same veiled interest in Brian Austin Green’s album, which eventually ended up in my CD archives – but that’s another story). Some years after its release, I spotted Ice’s “To the Extreme” CD in a bargain bin for $5, and I thought “well ok, lets see what this shit is actually like, I can live with $5 out the window” – so I took the plunge. You know what? It wasn’t too bad. Without launching into a review within a review, I thought it was a reasonably funky sounding album. Sure, the emceeing was about as simplistic as you’d ever hear, the annoying voice didn’t help, but the production was catchy and it was a decent enough listen if you were in the mood for a lightweight bunch of lively, party oriented rap songs. At the very least you could get your “dance on” to it if you were that way inclined.
The fact I could actually tolerate his debut album didn’t turn me into his no.1 fan, but yes, I’ve checked out some of his other albums since (it helps that I eased up on the “I’m too hardcore for this” stance of my younger years). One of those albums is “Bi-Polar”, from 2001. It’s a rather unusual album, in that it is literally two different albums in one; the first 8 tracks fall under the “Skabz” title and represent the metal portion of the album, whilst the remainder are hip hop tracks that are given the “Bomb Tha System” label (curiously the same hip hop tracks were later also re-released as a separate album, retitled with the rather banal name of “Hot Sex”). The inclusion of a few pointless answering machine recordings at the end of the album, each listed as an individual track, add to make the album’s structure somewhat bizarre.
Cypress Hill had also done the “two genres for the price of one” release with their “Skull & Bones” double CD, but I’ve always questioned the overall appeal of this type of venture; not everyone is a fan of both styles and an album of that nature won’t be likely to convert anyone to what is already not “their shit”, especially in the case of hip hop and metal heads who are traditionally equally as biased when it comes to their musical preferences.
As “Skabz” is the smaller part of the whole package, fans of guitar laced flavours who don’t care for hip hop won’t get too much out of the handful of their type of music that is presented on “Bi-Polar.” I won’t pretend to be an expert on this type of music, but I grew up with Iron Maiden and Suicidal Tendencies albums in my collection, and these days I have a Death Metal loving girlfriend who has done well to give me a healthy appreciation of that particular sub-genre, so I’m not opposed to aggressive headbanging music per se. Ice isn’t giving us music quite as heavy as Cannibal Corpse or Napalm Death here though, in essence Mr. “Cool as Ice” raps, screams, yells and sings his way over a bunch of Nu-Metal’esque tracks that try very hard to be Korn, Linkin Park, Slipknot, Limp Bizkit, Faith No More etc. In fact, “Skabz” features input from Slipknot’s guitarist as well as guys from metal bands Soulfly and M.O.D.
The first track “Nothing is Real” presents a template that is used for a few of the “Skabz” tracks. The track starts off with a chainsaw that morphs into growling guitars and then some pretty funky live drumming is added for Ice to drop his rhymes over. We then get some melodic singing for the chorus, this singing becomes screaming, and along with the instrumentation it all finally climaxes to a noise filled crescendo. Ice quotes Chuck D at one point (“Get from in front of me …”), a habit which he displays quite a bit on the album as we also hear lines from Rakim and AC/DC (to name a couple). The Linkin Park mimicking “Primal Side” is very similarly constructed, but has a bit less of a noise eruption at the end, and “Hate” is also thereabouts but sits closer to “normal” hip hop than the other tracks, albeit with a screamed chorus that The Prodigy would be proud of. “Mudd Munster” does The Prodigy even better with its chorus and shrills throughout the track, and it’s one of a number of tracks on the album where Ice tells us how “psycho” he is.
Variety does exist here though. “Molton” has more doom in its vibe, with heavier guitars, and sees Ice dropping an almost spoken word screamo type delivery, with a late song change-up where Ice proclaims he’s a “holy solider” (didn’t see that one coming did you?). “I Know” is actually more Van Halen than anything else – which may or may not appeal to you depending how old you are and what music you grew up on (it takes me back to my youth). “Exhale” is interesting if you like a touch of randomness; Ice starts off the song telling us he’s “Dropping science in your ear like my name was Einstein” (he doesn’t drop science), then a few lines later he throws barbs at Eminem “fake mini-me like Marshall Mathers”, and then for reasons that are beyond my powers of reasoning, we get a classic early 90’s Soul Assassins/Muggs styled beat breakdown in the middle of the song. I don’t mind the guitar riffs in this one at all though, very pleasing.
In summary, rap/rock had been around since the 80’s, so by 2001 there was nothing new about what Ice was doing here with these tracks (Cypress released their example of musical duality just a year before). It wasn’t really a new thing for Ice either as his “Hard to Swallow” album from 1998 had already moved in a rock based direction. If it’s not your thing then you won’t be too interested to hear what Ice offered on these guitar driven efforts, and if this kind of music does float your boat then you might get something out of the “Skabz” tracks, but V-Ice is probably not going to knock the likes of Mike Shinoda, Zach De La Rocha, Jonathan David and Mike Patton from your top 10.
The hip hop side of this album is going to be of more interest to our readers; it ranges from a few VERY GOOD tracks to a couple that just plain suck, but don’t expect anything too original here as Ice doesn’t hesitate to take influence from a few different areas of hip hop; influence which is more like duplication in some cases. If you ever imagined what Vanilla Ice would sound like on a Wu-Tang Clan track (no I haven’t either) well you’re getting a couple tastes of that here. After being officially welcomed to the hip hop section of the album the first track we hear is “Hip Hop Rules”. It features the stern flow of the underappreciated La the Darkman and is a track which swims in some good old 90’s Wu flavour. It also has effects like gunshots, Muggs styled funky horns and underlying scratches that all combine to make an excellent collage of sound. Vanilla Ice is pretty much his old self on the mic, rhyming in the elementary way he did back in 1990. Lyrically he makes sure we didn’t forget “Ice Ice Baby” and its success (“I went 17 million, amazing”), and he once again calls out his arch-nemesis (“I love rap, I paved the way for Eminem”). “Unbreakable” gets even closer to Shaolin with its sampling of Asian instrumentation, which is catchy despite being rather predictable. La the Darkman also assists Ice on this one, and far outshines him again, not that Ice is putting forward any sort of A-Game with a line like “got the funky rhymes, sometimes they leave ya scared bro”; this line and others from the same verse were actually used BEFORE on his earlier album “Mind Blowin'” (recycled lyrics is something which is a less than impressive trait of his).
Ice also displays a connection to the world of horrorcore, a connection that is almost too close for comfort at times. “O.K.S.” (Original Killer Shit) features the usual no holes barred flow of Cyco from Insane Poetry; it might as well be an Insane Poetry track from the vaults (circa 2nd or 3rd album) with its sirens, dramatic strings and overall tense and dark West Coast feel. The too close connection is that Ice himself talks about delivering “pistols to the dome” and it all feels like he’s trying too hard to pull off some kind of “psycho killer” image, when we know he’s not. This is taken even further on “Detonator” where I can’t help thinking Ice’s rhymes were actually written by Cyco (who introduces the track); Vanilla jocks the technique, flow and lyrical style of Cyco so hard that it just doesn’t sound like Vanilla Ice. Maybe I say this because Ice really sounds GREAT on the song (although he “almost” gets lost in the fast pace of his own rhymes) but I can’t help suspecting there’s more than meets the eye (and pen and notebook) to this one. Suspect lyrical origin aside, “Detonator” is one of the best tracks on the album being another Insane Poetry channelled track that is presented in horrifying splendour, with all manner of screams and alarming effects combined with a futuristic meets industrial feel. “Natural Born Killas” stays in murder mode, and along with another appearance for La the Darkman it brings in Violent J of ICP for a verse. This is the pretty much the only track where Ice outshines a guest mic-wise as the offbeat, forced comedic style of Violent J basically sucks, although Ice talking tough again with lines like “rap Kujo, you know my flow is ferocious” doesn’t help. Musically it sounds like a haunted Dr. Dre “Chronic” or “Doggystyle” era production, particularly in the chorus, and there is a predictable sample from the Cube and Dre track of the same name. La the Darkman dominates this one also and shows how he probably should have risen to greater heights in his career.
Along with “Unbreakable” and “Detonator” we have one more track that I would rate as excellent here, “Elvis Killed Kennedy” (all three tracks sit together for a very strong mid-album set), and it comes with a very big surprise – the presence of none other than Chuck D! It goes without saying that this is a combination that no one would have seen coming back when “Ice Ice Baby” first appeared. The wall of sound is a magnificently hard combination of rap metal (executed far better than anything on “Skabz”) with live drumming, driving guitar riffs, PE sirens and even a few kung fu movie samples, sword effects and such, not forgetting harsh ragga chanting from a talented chap named Rahan over a sonic assault in the chorus; musically it’s better than a lot of modern era PE tracks. Chuck of course drops actual science but Ice does also give us reasonably conscious lyrics (by his standards) which seem more believable this time as coming from his own pen:
“Now I feel trapped in this everyday form of life
Who’s wrong or right, who knows, I still fight
To survive live from the land of confusion
Man’s abusing, which religion are you choosing?
Substance abusing, losing touch with reality
Have you forgot about your family values
Can’t you understand the plan
World destruction, push the button, end of discussion
Boom, what’cha gonna do now
It’s like the sound of a nuclear holocaust goin’ Boo Yow
What a mad world, we got cops on the take
Females being raped, bodies floatin in the lake?
Why? Over hate?
Better check your faith cause it’ll be gone before you wake”
A few of the rap tracks fail though. “Dirty South” isn’t actually that bad, but everything about the song is as generically, ahem, “Dirty South” as the title implies (Ice even plays around with an exaggerated Southern accent). Ice is once again left in the wake of the guests on the track, guests who are basically a bunch of no names from that part of the world. Worse is “The Weed Song”, which has weird blips throughout and again leaves little surprise in that it plays like a slowed down version of Cypress Hills’ “How I Could Kill a Man”, and big thumbs down for Ice’s auto-tuned singing in the chorus. “Get Your Ass Up” has Ice rapping over a very familiar sample from D-Nice’s “Call Me D-Nice” where he’s doing his best Rakim paraphrasing and telling us “I take 4 emcees, put ’em all in a line”, and again he doesn’t leave the “17 Platinum” boasts alone here either. It also features a verse from a female rapper named Pearla, which is close to the messiest mic delivery that I’ve heard in my life. Then of course the creativity continues with “Hot Sex”, where Ice gives us every imaginable “I’m gonna do such and such to you baby” sexual cliche under the sun – I can’t tolerate sex rhymes like this at the best of times, and this is one of the worst examples of said theme, ever. I assume the underlying Middle Eastern rhythms are supposed to be exotic and sexy, but they come across as vapid bullshit to me, and the fact I hear some Islamic “in the name of Allah” singing buried in the samples just makes this song totally weird, if not inappropriate, and best forgotten.
Despite taking quite a few jabs at Vanilla Ice and throwing some sarcasm around in this write-up I actually DO enjoy around half of this album and I’ve listened to it quite a few times in recent years (it was a recent revisit that led me to give Vanilla Ice his inaugural Rapreviews write-up here). In a word, I like how “hard” the album sounds. In amongst the 18 or so proper tracks, youu get 5 or 6 GOOD hip hop ones, and a few more listenable songs dependent on your taste for rockier music. I should probably mention that the majority of the album is self-produced by our main man as well, although it’s hard to find anything original in what he does here. Sure, when you break down everything about the album there are more than a few negative aspects and general oddities to point fingers at, and Vanilla Ice still leaves little impression of any sort of musical identity, but you could do a lot worse than “Bi-Polar” if you are in the mood for some reasonably dark and angry music. In fact, I kind of admire Mr. Van Winkle for sticking it out in the face of what must have been incomparable hate over the years (not to mention overcoming drug addiction and surviving a suicide attempt). Yes, he tries very hard, too hard, to latch onto different styles here, but it’s not the wackest shit you’ve ever heard, truly.