By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
N.W.A's first release for Priority--Straight Outta Compton--changed the rap world in one fell swoop. It wasn't the first long-player to offer up amoral tales of life in the ghetto: Boogie Down Productions' Criminal Minded predated it by a year. But whereas Criminal Minded, highlighted by the ultra-rugged vocals of KRS-One, remained a primarily underground phenomenon, Compton became a blockbuster big enough to get the attention of white America--and plenty of Caucasians were frightened by what they heard. "Gangsta Gangsta" begins with the sound of an automatic weapon spraying lead--a cliche now, but shocking at the time--and "Fuck tha Police" was such an irony-free invitation to attack the nearest cop that the FBI actually sent Priority a letter of complaint. Interviews with Cube and company that appeared in publications such as L.A. Weekly only added to the impact of the album. The five principals made a point of saying that they were merely reporting what they saw outside their doors every day and hinted broadly that they knew about drug trafficking and the like from personal experience.
Compton went on to move three million units, but Cube wasn't around to contribute to a sequel. Following a contract dispute, he went solo, and AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, from 1990, proved that he made the right decision. Assembled with the help of Public Enemy's production clique, the Bomb Squad, Most Wanted is a virtual blueprint for gangsta rap. "Better Off Dead," a cinematic intro (as he's being strapped to an electric chair, Cube tells his jailers, "Fuck all y'all"), leads directly into "The Nigga Ya Love to Hate," a fierce lyrical assault in which Cube shows why he's made such an impact on the hip-hop genre. "I heard payback's another fuckin' nigga/That's why I'm sick of being treated like a goddamn stepchild," he begins, and when a chorus shouts, "Fuck you, Ice Cube," he sounds practically gleeful--a man spoiling for a battle. There's plenty of uncomfortable material on the CD, including "You Can't Fade Me," in which Cube considers kicking in the stomach a woman who might be pregnant with his child, but the danger and pure power of the music are impossible to deny.
On Death Certificate, from 1991, Cube came up with enough relentless beats to compensate for tunes that even some boosters found objectionable (like, for example, the blatantly racist "Black Korea"). It was another astounding/disquieting display. But 1992's The Predator and 1993's Lethal Injection were notably short on freshness. "Bop Gun (One Nation)," from Injection, was typical--a nod to the Parliament-Funkadelic catalogue at a time when such grooves were being overused by every hack with two turntables and a microphone. The presence of P-Funk's George Clinton on the track couldn't mask Cube's creative problems. He was trapped by his own image--and this time, escape seemed impossible.
Fortunately, Cube had options. His excellent turn in director John Singleton's 1991 film Boyz N the Hood won him roles in six movies over the next five years, including Singleton's Higher Learning and Dangerous Ground, the latter of which cast him opposite English model Elizabeth Hurley, Hugh Grant's incredibly understanding partner. He also headlined 1995's Friday, made from a script he co-wrote, and while most reviewers treated the flick like something left behind by an incontinent house cat, enough of the faithful turned out to convince New Line to finance The Player's Club.
With Hollywood beckoning, Cube cut back on rap--and although Westside Connection's Bow Down was a commercially successful musical comeback, it has far less substance than his earlier efforts. Songs like "Bow Down," "Gangstas Make the World Go Round" and "All the Critics in New York" are hardcore, sure, but they're mainly about proving that Cube and company have bigger dicks than their competition. The sound and fury are entertaining, but they don't signify much. Still, Cube rejects the contention that he's betraying his past by putting out songs like "We Be Clubbin," a party-hearty track from The Player's Club soundtrack.
"I still have strong beliefs that there's a lot of fucked-up stuff that's going on in this country, and I stand behind that," he says. "But I'm not a person who's going to repeat himself over and over again. The records are recorded, and you can go get them, you know what I mean? When you're in a Death Certificate mood, you can pick up Death Certificate. I've been around so long that I don't have to tie myself in and just be a hardcore artist. I can be any kind of artist and I can do any kind of record I feel I want to do, as long as it's good, as long as it's not garbage.
"Rap moves in cycles. When rap first came out, it was basically about bragging, and then it grew and grew and grew and it became a political vehicle. You could be able to say what you wanted to say and talk about social things that were going on. But as people got wore down by that and got tired of feeling like they were in school whenever they picked up a record, it went back to where we are now, which is back to the bragging thing. But there'll be another phase of political rapping in the future. You can already see it coming, led by the women, like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who sometimes aren't even doing rap. They're putting a social message back into the music, and the rappers are definitely going to start reflecting that."