Who knew Ice-T was a role model? Ice Loves Coco, E!’s new reality show about the rapper/actor and his model/fashion designer wife, makes them look like such a perfect couple that you almost expect them to turn into anime characters and see little cartoon hearts popping above their heads as they kiss. Even more surprisingly, it shows Ice—you know, “Cop Killer” Ice—as a benevolent influence on those around him. He tells a friend that he shouldn’t lie to the woman he’s dating, helps his wife calm down at a photo shoot by expressing his confidence in her, and, in the most recent episode, rescues his ill-trained bulldog Spartacus from bombing at his own photo shoot. (The shoot is for a dog calendar; Spartacus is wearing a devil’s cape and red horns; and, if anything, the scene is somehow even more adorable than this description might suggest.)
How did we get here? Ice’s whole career has cast him as a kind of cultural antihero, from Original Gangster to “Cop Killer” and beyond. Sure, he’s had the role on Law and Order: SVU, but that was an acting gig, and there’s no reason he couldn’t still be real underneath the detective costume. Ice Loves Coco is Ice-T IRL, though, and it turns out he’s aged into basically the dad from That ’70s Show—gruff but lovable, a softy underneath his hard exterior. Nor is he alone, what with fellow OGs Ice Cube and Snoop displaying their own variations of this persona. It’s not that it’s soft, but it’s not really hard, either. It’s more like a fundamental grumpiness, a sense of perpetual but mild annoyance at the world in general. And in Ice’s case, it’s crossed the line into outright cuddliness. Does this mean rap is softening, too?
Hip-hop, after all, only shed its initial novelty in the pop marketplace when its practitioners emphasized the malice inherent in both the music and the personae of the people making the music. The bumper crop of hardcore MCs in the ’90 emphasized their criminal pasts, made the gang references in their lyrics explicit, and sprinkled the actual sound of gunshots through their tracks. Consequently, they became the focus of intense national controversy over lyrical content, and with the possible exception of 2 Live Crew no one experienced this phenomenon more acutely than Ice-T, who got called out by President George H.W. Bush for the sentiments he expressed in “Cop Killer” and who eventually yanked the track from Body Count’s debut, swapping it out with a rock-tinged remix of his 1989 song “Freedom Of Speech.”
As easy as it is to make jokes about this sort of thing—suburban white kids wanting to feel like inner-city black men, etc.—the association with a more intense lifestyle has been key to the success of every genre of pop music. Blues and rock have their association with sex and ancient powers (Elvis’s hips, Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil, Led Zeppelin’s occultism), country and folk have their image as outlaw activities (Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie), and jazz and dance were seen as encouraging substance-fueled hedonism when they first emerged (flappers in the era of big bands, Studio 54 in the era of disco). Pop music offers a safe taste of the forbidden, and rap was no exception, even as it became a multi-billion-dollar industry. Three of its major practitioners (Eazy-E, Tupac, Biggie) died young, and in ways that confirmed the idea that the danger enacted in songs wasn’t fake. (See also: rap labels’ foundations in drug money, rappers going to jail, etc.) It was for real, and this emphasis on realness was what allowed rap to sustain a feeling of danger and vitality.
But these things fade. The rise of rock in the ’50s created a national furor, complete with Congressional hearings and riots, although after rock passed through its political period, the act of picking up a guitar started to somehow seem a lot less threatening. Punk tried to pull it back, but it never caught on enough to seem truly dangerous. These days, it’s hard to start a rock band and feel menacing when your dad has a $3,000 Les Paul hanging on the wall, Elvis is in Disney cartoons, and Ozzy Osbourne is shuffling around a mansion yelling at tiny dogs. And so what is left is almost aggressively unthreatening. Arcade Fire and Animal Collective, two of the most widely celebrated recent bands, operate implicitly or explicitly as collectives, a mode of creation that emphasizes mutual respect, group consensus, concern for others, and an awareness of the global impact of your actions. This is directly opposed to the implicitly selfish hedonism and lawlessness of pop genres in their infancy; Robert Johnson is not going to make a deal with the devil to form a really well-run collective.
Theoretically, there’s nothing preventing a new rock band from being as threatening as Elvis was at first, but there’s too much history to the genre to make that a real possibility. Rock is too accepted to really be dangerous anymore, even if its practitioners do wear clown bondage masks. And this is the situation rap finds itself in now with Ice Loves Coco.
Ice is very much following the dictates of the genre: he is keeping it real, living in Jersey while filming SVU (a role he once described as a kind of “fuck you” to white America for the “Cop Killer” affair), directing his various business affairs, and hanging out with Coco. The show’s depiction of their relationship is compelling because it’s so real, which is to say that it’s so mushy. They seem to really like one another, and they each support the adventures the other comes up with. This is great, but it’s about as far away from menacing as you can get. In a recent episode, Ice celebrated Coco’s birthday by having her record a house song about her shoes, and rather than being cynical about the whole thing, Ice seemed really into it. Rap can be threatening, and house can be dangerous, but a rapper doing a house song with his wife about her shoe collection is the opposite of edgy.
But so is rap now, in a way. The genre has taken an unmistakably emo turn, with Drake, Kanye, Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco, Eminem, and occasionally Lil Wayne offering downbeat, reflective tracks. Where there would have been bragging and threats, now there is sadness and doubt. This may or may not be a bad thing, but it seems inevitable—after all, genres can’t be both successful and dangerous when they gain both acceptance and influence.
And so Ice-T is, once again, a trendsetter. He can’t offer the kind of adolescent self-doubt that rappers now cultivate. But he can provide a glimpse into what it’s like to be a rapper who is happy, stable, and operating entirely within the law. (Or, as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues, the show might herald the welcome death of mystery in music.) The Ice who appears on Ice Loves Coco doesn’t seem like an outlaw, but he does seem compelling, even if he isn’t engaged in gang-related activities anymore.
Rap is having a hard time aging—see Jay-Z—but that doesn’t mean it can’t figure out a way forward. Ice may end up being the pied piper of old-dude rap. Or he might just keep trading bon mots with Richard Belzer on SVU and being goofy with Coco. Either way, he seems like he’ll be happy. And that makes him really, really likable.