“Alright stop! Collaborate and listen.” If you remember those five words then you also Robert Van Winkle, better known to the pop music world as Vanilla Ice, and equally known to the hip-hop world as The Great White Fake. Looking back 30 years after his meteoric rise and extinction level event crash, it’s much harder to decide who was really at fault for it all. It was easy to clown Ice for the obvious mistakes he made, such as claiming he was “from the streets” when he grew up fairly well off in Dallas and Miami, or using phrases like “word to your mother” that sounded absurd coming out of his mouth. The truth is as always a little more complicated. There’s no doubt that a young Robert loved breakdancing and rapping, and got the name “Vanilla” from being the only white boy in those circles, but once his musical ambitions got the attention of record labels any authenticity he had was lost to marketing gimmicks.
Everyone from Tommy Quon to Suge Knight rushed in to get a piece of Van Winkle’s unexpected success, and in the rush to cash in he was overexposed to the point he became the focal point of an industry-wide backlash. Rappers who has existed on the margins of the music scene trying to sell a few hundred thousand units or maybe go gold had plenty to resent when hip-hop got whitewashed and suddenly went 11 times platinum. In no way does the fact he was being used and abused by a music industry that cared nothing about him as a person absolve him from his role in the process. He could have said no to changes to his wardrobe and persona. He could have turned down interviews he was ill-prepared for where he made obvious mistakes. He could have done more to change the narrative that he was a white boy profiting off black music with no regard for the art and culture. Starting his own label and signing some of the rappers he befriended in his underground days would’ve been a good start. He did none of those things.
When it took four years for his second major label album to come out, both any pop music fans he had garnered and rap respect he might have once had were long gone. After “Mind Blowin'” did less than 1% of his previous sales (one report suggests it sold under 50,000 copies) he went on another four year hiatus from the music industry. His return in 1998 for “Hard to Swallow” saw Ice try to completely reinvent himself as a nu-metal rocker — part Fred Durst and part Mike Shinoda. As ideas go it certainly wasn’t the worst one he ever had. Hip-Hop had so thoroughly rejected him as a phony that coming back with a rock band (drummer Shannon Larkin, Scott Borland on keyboards, and Sonny Mayo on guitar) was his only hope. In some ways it was a prescient move as nu-metal had yet to achieve the heights “Hybrid Theory” would in 2000 (ironically outselling “To the Extreme” in the process). Maybe, MAYBE this move would work for him.
There’s good news and bad news for Mr. Winkle here. “Hard to Swallow” did twice as good as his previous album, but that still made it a blip on the radar compared to everything else in 1998 (or since). The lyrics did find Vanilla Ice mining some personal angst to good effect. “I can’t hide from my fucking self/I wanna peel my skin, hang it on the shelf” raps Ice on “A.D.D.” It shocks me to say he was “ahead of the curve” yet again, but these are the same kind of sentiments Chester Bennington would wail a couple of years later talking about addiction and delirium tremens on “Crawling.” It probably won’t surprise you to find Ice had survived a heroin overdose before this album. Whatever questions about his authenticity there were at the height of his fame were being answered here, even if it was at the expense of his health.
Even if the transformation may have seemed magical to anyone not paying attention, Ice was definitely coming back to the musical landscape wearing the “Scars” of his rapid rise and fall. “Reality sucks, too much pain […] got a new baby, want to stay alive.” He’s torn by the opposing forces in his life. Ice hates what he became almost as much as the entire world grew to hate him for one album. “Where did I get this anger? Where did I get this hate?” We know. There was so much negativity directed his way. Some of it he deserved, but certainly not to the degree he received, nor to the extent it fucked him up as a person.
Even though this review may in some way seem like an apology to Robert Van Winkle for the hell he went through, don’t twist that into thinking you need to own “Hard to Swallow.” I appreciate the moxie that Van Winkle showed by delving deep into a new genre head first, and given the place he was at in his life mentally, nu-metal rap-rock was a very good fit for him. The truth unfortunately is that the supporting band members don’t do much to help him bridge the divide between the old and the new Ice, which is why a remake of “Ice Ice Baby” is the only memorable single found here. He lacks the slap funk of Korn and there’s no DJ Lethal baking his Bizkits. Tracks like “The Horny Song” are a wall of sonic noise that howl at the moon but don’t inspire you to sing along with him. It doesn’t matter what genre you’re in — your songs have to connect with the audience.
I don’t think either the rock heads OR the rap heads wanted Vanilla Ice at this time in his career, so for “Hard to Swallow” to work he was going to have to be twice as good as the rest. With a more capable producer behind it and at least one track that could have charted, Ice 2.0 would’ve worked. This is a case of an A+ idea being destroyed by D- execution. It’s the best thing he did in the 90’s other than “To the Extreme” though. I came to this album with low expectations and at least left with a modicum of respect for what he attempted, along with the belief that he was indeed the tormented soul portrayed within these songs.