The Popdose Guide to Ice Cube

Straight Outta Compton (1988)
When NWA stepped onto the scene, California rappers were largely seen as cheeseballs wearing tight leather suits and doing music that was way more electronic based than the streetwise sounds coming from rap’s mecca, New York. Compton (along with Ice-T’s Power and Rhyme Pays) marked the arrival of Los Angeles as a legitimate hip-hop threat. Cube, as the group’s main lyricist, steered them into socio-political commentary with songs like “Dopeman,” “Gangsta Gangsta” and the legendary (and infamous) “Fuck tha Police” even while other songs took on more typical hip-hop themes like mic prowess. Cube’s presence as a lyricist is not to be understated-all he had to do to validate his stature in the group was leave it. While NWA’s two post-Cube efforts were impressive from a production standpoint, the lyrics became hollow and profane-the remaining members seemed more interested in glorification than being cautionary. “The strength of street knowledge” had become a parody-and all it took was for one member to depart. –Mike Heyliger


AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990)
Now here’s how you start a solo career. Unhappy with the antics of N.W.A. manager and Ruthless Records honcho Jerry Heller, Cube left the group — and quickly proved he didn’t need to share the mic with anyone. Though he initially wanted Dr. Dre to produce his solo debut, the bad blood from the breakup forced Cube to find new collaborators, and he chose wisely: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted is a thick, bracing, brutal East/West mashup, featuring work from the Bomb Squad, Lench Mob member Chilly Chill, and Dre’s cousin Sir Jinx. As white suburban teenagers, the kids in my peer group gravitated toward the album’s funnier stuff (“A Gangsta’s Fairytale,” “It’s a Man’s World”), but what made AmeriKKKa’s special — and what resonates strongest in this towering hip-hop classic — is Cube’s molten outpouring of rage. He burst out of the blocks like a sprinter running a marathon; looking back, we should have known he wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace for long. –Jeff Giles


Kill at Will (1991)
Still riding the afterburners from AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Cube waited a mere seven months before releasing this seven-track follow-up. It isn’t often that you hear the words “classic” and “EP” together, but Kill at Will fits the description — even though it repurposes a pair of AmeriKKKa’s tracks (“Endangered Species,” featuring a new Chuck D verse, and a remixed “Get Off My Dick and Tell Yo Bitch to Come Here”) and includes the throwaway “JD’s Gaffilin’ (Part 2).” What’s left is still remarkable, especially the funny, boastful “Jackin’ for Beats” and “Dead Homiez,” which distills, in under four minutes, Cube’s gift for unsparing, even-handed commentary on life in the ‘hood. It’s out of print now, and has since been appended to the expanded AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, but I still prefer listening to Kill at Will the way I heard it in 1991 — on its own. –JG


Death Certificate (1991)
I grew up in New York City, and Death Certificate was the first hip-hop album by a West Coast artist I remember my friends and I being legitimately excited about. After all, where I came from, Los Angelenos were still considered backwards jheri-curl wearing goofballs. Soaking up the political unrest in early Nineties and Rodney King-era L.A., and deeply influenced by the Nation of Islam, Cube symbolically shed his curl and created his solo masterwork. Although there are moments of repugnant racism and sexism on the album, Certificate remains an essential hip-hop album and also serves as a companion piece of sorts to Boyz N tha Hood, the flick that ignited Cube’s movie career. The production is the perfect mix of what would eventually be known as G-Funk and the grimy East Coast sound, and Cube tackles topics ranging from promiscuity and STDs to taking a shit with righteous indignation and the perfect amount of wit. Of course, he then throws in “No Vaseline,” probably the most scathing dis record in hip-hop (or musical) history. –MH


The Predator (1992)
The socio-political content of Death Certificate stirred up a shitstorm Cube couldn’t have possibly imagined. Never one to back down from a fight, Cube followed up with the equally fiery Predator. Set against the backdrop of the L.A. riots just a couple months before, Cube’s rhymes now seemed prophetic. No one was safe from attack, not even Billboard editor Timothy White (who questioned some of Cube’s lyrics in an editorial not long after Death Certificate’s release). Achieving across-the-board success only widened the list of targets, although Cube proved he wasn’t all aggro all the time with “It Was a Good Day” — a song that, ironically, became his biggest and most fondly-remembered hit. –MH


Lethal Injection (1993)
Just a few months after The Predator became the first album to debut at #1 on the pop and R&B charts simultaneously, Ice Cube found himself supplanted as West Coast hip-hop’s top draw — by his own former bandmate and archrival. With Dre and his Death Row camp now leading the way for the rap genre, Lethal Injection found Cube backing away from his hard-edged political material and following the G-funk train, even relegating his longtime musical partner Sir Jinx to occasional production duty in favor of Quincy Jones’ son QDIII. While the album is still reasonably enjoyable, it’s extremely disheartening to hear Cube turning from leader to follower. Injection was the last Ice Cube album that could legitimately be considered an “event” and marked the end of his golden era. –MH


War & Peace Vol. 1 (The War Disc) (1998)
Ice Cube was furiously prolific from the late ‘80s through the early ‘90s, so it’s perfectly understandable that he needed to refuel after Lethal Injection. What no one could have predicted is just how quickly he’d drop off: 1998’s War & Peace Vol. 1 is an overlong, dismayingly rote collection of stereotypical West Coast beats (courtesy of Bud’da, N.O. Joe, T-Mix, and others) matched with some of Cube’s least inspired rhymes. “Pushin’ Weight” was the album’s big hit, but it was annoying then, and it’s just as annoying now. Elsewhere, Cube dabbles in would-be g-funk horror (“Dr. Frankenstein”) and, in the unintentionally hilarious “Fuck Dying,” defeats death itself with the aid of Korn. At this point, the promised sequel sounded like a threat. –JG


War & Peace Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc) (2000)
Cube’s swan song for longtime label Priority Records is far from his best work, but it’s a substantial improvement over the first installment of War & Peace — even if the album’s most highly touted track, the partial N.W.A. reunion “Hello,” finds him retreading old ground (and noisily, if correctly, taking credit for gangsta rap) instead of bothering to do anything new. Really, there’s nothing new anywhere on War & Peace Vol. 2; he still had enough left in the tank to give us something as irresistible as “You Can Do It” — and enough chart clout to turn it into a hit — but no matter how much fun “You Can Do It” is, it’s ultimately nothing more than an entertaining shadow of Cube’s pioneering early records. Released the same year Next Friday came out, War & Peace Vol. 2 proved that Cube was still capable of playing to his strengths, but suggested he’d run out of new ideas. –JG


Laugh Now, Cry Later (2006)
After a six-year absence from solo work, Ice Cube returned in 2006 with Laugh Now, Cry Later. There are spots on the album where it sounds like his vacation helped quite a bit-the fiery old Ice Cube pops up on tracks like “Child Support” (which finds Cube reflecting on his legendary status). More often, though, the strain that Cube must feel having to balance his music career and film career is evident in the flimsiness of the tracks. There’s a fair amount of trend-hopping here, what with the enlistment of Lil Jon for a couple of club tracks, and Cube continues his decade-long decline into the same tired thug/gangsta posturing that 1990 Ice Cube probably would’ve written songs railing against. How times have changed. Even with the knowledge that art isn’t necessarily a reflection of the real life of the artist (even in the “Keep It Real!” school of hip-hop), it’s still not easy to take Ice Cube seriously as a badass after seeing him mug his way through Cosby-style comedy in movies like Are We There Yet? Although Laugh Now proved that Ice Cube’s brilliance hadn’t totally left him, it paled in comparison to the music he made at the outset of his career. –MH


Raw Footage (2008)
The good news: Raw Footage gave Cube another #1 album on Billboard’s Hip-Hop/R&B chart, and debuted in the Top Five of the Billboard 200. The bad news: It was released in 2008, when topping the charts was possible even if you sold fewer than 70,000 copies. Footage is vintage late-period Cube, which is to say it has its moments, but most of it can be safely skipped; it’s nice, for instance, to hear Cube waxing sociopolitical again, but grumpily defensive tracks like “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It” just don’t stack up against, say, “Endangered Species.” What’s left? Hollow bragging tracks (“Jack N the Box”) and ‘hood observations nowhere near as pointed as they used to be (“Get Money, Spend Money, No Money”). Raw Footage lives up to its title in all the wrong ways. –JG


I Am the West (2010)
If this were an episode of Behind the Music, this is the part where we’d talk about how I Am the West is Cube’s triumphant return to form — proof that hip-hop isn’t just a young man’s game, and that the old lions can still draw blood. Alas, this Popdose Guide won’t end on a triumphant high note; while I Am the West isn’t the worst thing Cube’s ever done, and bits of it flash the sort of humor and savage bite that made him a living legend, it’s really just another in a lengthening list of passable releases. As hard as it is to complain about anything that keeps him from making more terrible movies, it’s even more difficult to ignore the fact that Cube has not only long since ceased to evolve as an artist, but he’s clearly regressed from his peak. Tracks like “Urbanian” and “It Is What It Is” rely on the sort of brain-drilling repetition that Cube’s classics had no room for, and the album’s best tracks (including “Hood Robbin’” and “No Country for Young Men”) are just good enough to remind you of when he was great. As an angry young man, Cube laid waste to the status quo; now, as an elder statesman, he needs to find a way to build on the hip-hop framework he helped create. It’s easier said than done, and he hasn’t come close yet — but go back and listen to AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted again and tell me you don’t think he just might have it in him. –JG

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  • http://www.bastardradio.com steed

    Yeah, Yeah! If I had known it was this kind of party, I’d have stuck my dick in the mashed potatoes.

    Anyway – always been partial to Death Certificate and “Givin’ up the Nappy Dugout” myself, but some of his later hits were really great too – “We Be Clubbin'” from the Players Club is his best track, so I still do think he has something in him that can crank out at least a hit or two now and again. These days it’s just hard to see him as a thug after watching Are We There Yet?

  • jamesballenger

    I pretty much agree with you across the board. I fell on the side of EAZY E when they split (hey I was a teenager!) and wasn’t interested in AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Now that I’m older I guess I fall on the side of the musicians. Anyway although Ice Cube has become a pop icon, I can still separate Cube the actor from Cube the musician. I have always thought of his music in particular more as a audio play; not that HE did what he’s rapping about but that someone did. His anger was that of the people he was “representing” not just his personal anger. I would like to call attention to the track Growin Up on Laugh Now Cry Later. Not banging or anything like that, just personal and honest. If he could craft more from that perspective I suspect he could crank out that next level you are looking for.