Ice Cube: Best Rapper Ever?

icecube.jpgShotgun bullets are bad for your health

Ice Cube + Dogg Pound May 12, 2006 BB King Blues Club

Let's talk for a second about the Ten Greatest MCs of All Time list that MTV put out a little while ago, just the latest revision in a canon that people are constantly tinkering with. It's not perfect (um, Scarface?), but we can still talk about it. More specifically, let's talk about where all the guys on the list are in 2006. Two are dead guys. One is a semi-retired rapper who has become a successful record label exec and an uber-flashy man about town, a new sort of modern royalty. One is a semi-retired rapper who has become a successful record label exec but who has constant problems with drugs and failed marriages and friends getting shot. Two aren't retired, not exactly, but they haven't released any records in years and they've mostly limited themselves to coming through town every once in a while and putting on impressive live shows. One is a universally respected rapper with a new label deal and a pending comeback, and right now he's exactly as good as Pitbull, which is to say really good. One was rap's fiercest young lion before hitting drinking age but who has become a completely embarrassing manifestation of the cheesed-out ladies'-man archetype. One is crazy.

And then there's Ice Cube, who has maybe the weirdest in this string of weird stories. Fifteen years ago, he was the scariest guy in pop music, a near-perfect realization of the politicized-gangsta thing that Dead Prez keeps shooting for. After making it cool to cuss and talk about shooting people, he ditched his crew, hooked up with Public Enemy, and released about three classic albums' worth of righteous bile, uncompromising roars of half-articulated hatred that absolutely captured the imaginations of an entire generation of white kids who he would've probably hated if he'd met, right around the time when racial tension was hitting a national fever-pitch and everyone was trying to figure out what the LA riots meant. He somehow figured out a way to translate this time-bomb persona into a stock movie character in Boyz N the Hood and Trespass and Higher Learning before tweaking it and turning it into a persecuted-everyman thing in Friday. And now he's a mid-level movie star, and no one bats an eye when he makes a family comedy like Are We There Yet? He hasn't had to make an album in years, which is just as well because his last couple of albums were complete garbage. But he won't leave rap alone. Over the last couple of years, he's been popping up again, and his verses on the Lil Jon and Scarface albums have been just painfully clumsy and out of touch, all forced hardness and context-free snarl ("Because I'm insane in the brain / Yes, I got Rick James in my veins," urr). None of this has been particularly well-received, but he's about to release another rap record even though he doesn't need to, and now he's touring clubs. Usually when movie stars do club-tours, it's some misguided vanity-project Dogstar shit, but Ice Cube is unquestionably one of the greatest and most important figures in rap history, and it's not impossible that he has another great album in him.

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"A lot of niggas don't think I should still be in the game," said Cube from the stage at BB King's on Friday. "I'm not doing it for the money; I'm doing it because I'm a goddam B-boy in my heart." I had absolutely no idea what to expect from an Ice Cube club show in 2006, but it didn't turn out to be anything too surprising. Cube is a veteran and a professional, and he has hours' worth of old favorites. It wouldn't make sense for him to say anything shocking from the stage; it only made sense for him to do a really solid show full of classics, a standard rap-nostalgia thing, and that's exactly what he did. The only real goosebump moment came before he walked onstage, when the lights went low and spotlights swooped out over the audience and helicopter/siren sound-effects played and the beat from "Natural Born Killaz" dropped in. After that, he did everything you'd expect. He did a mini-set of N.W.A songs, "Straight Outta Compton" and "Fuck the Police" and "Gangsta Gangsta," just doing his own lyrics and not the Eazy-E ones he wrote. He did the clubby War & Peace stuff, "You Can Do It" and "We Be Clubbin'." He talked about how he started gangsta rap but then made sure to big-up Schoolly D and Boogie Down Productions. He did that one song from the Lil Jon album, and Lil Jon, who had been standing stoically at the back of the stage for the whole show, jumped up front and did some guest-yowling. Ice Cube was a pro, and that was maybe the weirdest thing about the whole show. Last week, I dug out my copy of The Predator, one of the first rap albums I ever bought, to see if it was as tense and furious as I remembered. It was. A song like "It Was a Good Day" is totally fraught and poignant; part of the reason it was a good day was that he didn't have to use his gun, that nobody he knew got killed that day; he just tosses the lines off like asides and lets the force of the implications resonate that much harder. But the song doesn't quite sound the same when a couple thousand people are waving peace signs and yelling along with the "Ice Cube's a pimp" part. Once upon a time, he was something more than a pro.

As for the new stuff, it sounded pretty good, hard and streaky in a meat-and-potatoes West Coast rap sense. But then so did "Gangsta Nation," the dud-ass Westside Connection single from a couple of years ago, so I don't know how it'll sound when the album actually comes out and I don't have a club full of cheering people skewing my perception. WC played hypeman, which was weird, since WC is a legend in his own right. Cube didn't make a big deal out of him being there, and I wasn't even sure it was him until he did his "Gangsta Nation" verse; either he's shaved off his trademark twisty goatee or I wasn't standing close enough to the stage to see it. Cube and WC didn't do "Bow Down," which made sense even though it's Westside Connection's best song. They were in New York, and "Bow Down" wasn't an explicit East Coast dis, but it was a loud declaration of West Coast pride that came at a time when things were a little tense between the two coasts. Right now, both coasts are struggling for relevance, but the song probably still wouldn't play too well here. Instead, Cube made a strong and impassioned speech about how regions didn't matter, how hip-hop is the only thing that can bring races and cultures together and how we should all united.

The Dogg Pound also had to deal with the same lingering tension. Kurupt and Daz are two truly underrated rappers, and they're finally back together after years of entanglements with Suge Knight kept first one and then the other from ever reaching their potential. But they still might be more famous for knocking over skyscrapers with Snoop Dogg in the "New York, New York" video than for anything else. They were already onstage by the time I walked in, which meant I missed openers Clipse because I had to wait for the gas guy to show up at my apartment two hours late (fuck Keyspan). Still, I can't imagine DPG got anywhere near "New York, New York." Instead, they kept their heads down and did all the Chronic and Doggystyle songs that everyone wanted to hear while their huge bodyguard/hypeman danced around in a porkpie hat with a black bandanna over his face. The winding G-funk keyboards and burbly bass of those old songs still sound amazing, and they kept the crowd happy. They're older, and they've got bills to pay; they don't have time to be lightning rods anymore. I'm sure Cube could relate.


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