Monday, 8 June 2015

Groove Theories: Ice Cube's Last Great Song

by Sean Morris

If you ask me “who’s in your Top Five?” Ice Cube is the first or second name that I will blurt out. If the man ever does a “Death Certificate performed in its entirety” tour, I will be front and center. However, given the perpetual sneer plastered on his music-based promotional materials since 1995, it’s painfully obvious that Cube the vapid ignorap caricature will get more stage time than Cube the incendiary urban griot. His pioneer status and historic early output justifies the fact that he’s one of the few rappers who deserves to headline arenas (unlike, say, J. Cole). However, he hasn’t recorded a great song in twenty years. 

O’Shea Jackson is celebrating several important anniversaries this year. Landmark solo debut Amerikkka’s Most Wanted turns 25, stoner comedy classic Friday turns 20, and XXX: State of the Union turns 10. Just kidding about that last one. 

Another milestone came and went with no hoopla whatsoever: the 20th anniversary of John Singleton’s Higher Learning. While the movie began aging horribly the second time I watched it, its electric soundtrack holds up extremely well. It featured everyone from Me'Shell NdegeOcello and Zhané to Tori Amos and the girl who would be Vitamin C. It was the world’s first glimpse of OutKast’s sonic shift to the cosmos and my first exposure to Liz Phair and Rage Against the Machine. But Ice Cube’s “Higher,” the opening track, remains the weightiest of them all. 

“walkin’ through campus with my backpack
bailin’ to orientation, so I can change the nation
see many faces, but none of them mirror me
show my ID to the punk ass security”

It has always interested me that Cube decided to write not from the perspective of his supporting role, the pontificating “super duper senior” Fudge, but from Omar Epps’ quasi-idealistic protagonist Malik. Part of that stems from Malik being one of the few characters in the movie with more than one dimension, but it also helps the lyrics navigate the “empire” known as Columbus University with wonder, not to mention with worry. Or perhaps Cube secretly wished he was still young enough to play Malik. Either way, the voice of the jaded tour guide from “How to Survive in South Central” finds college as perilous as the average Bloods and Crips-populated street corner, only more perplexing. It doesn’t help that our humble narrator seems to have enrolled in the most inflammatory and intolerant college in the United States.

“white boy in the room with me
who never saw BET, what the fuck?!
he’s about to erupt and turn red
start hangin’ with the muthafuckin’ skinheads”

Remy’s tragicomic descent into neo-Nazism felt more tragic than comic thanks to the emotional investment of Michael Rapaport, but Cube’s second verse reminds us that this is a John Singleton joint, which always means no moment is without humor, be it intentional or not. It also gave the rapper a chance to rattle off every racial slur that he had used on his previous albums without having to be concerned with controversy. Cube reaffirmed the notion that his polemics were more about revealing humanity’s ugly flaws than reveling in them.

“he regrets that
his school is filled with niggas, Jews, and wetbacks
plus chinks, now he drinks, hour after hour
screamin’ ‘White Power!’”

Possibly by accident, “Higher” added gravity to Higher Learning’s B-stories by not dragging them out as the movie did. “A girl gets date raped just like that at a frat, now she chase the cat” is much more potent as two bars in a song than as too many scenes involving tertiary characters in a 127-minute movie. As much as horny teenaged me couldn’t wait to see Kristy Swanson and Jennifer Connelly make out, it had nothing to do with anything else going on at Columbus University. His writing as fluid as ever, Cube handled transitions in scene and tone better than most scripts of his era, especially the one he summarized here.

“down to kick the asses of the fascists
who wanna put me in the oven and
turn me to ashes but I’m not burnin’
world keeps turnin’, and nobody learnin'
'cause college is fulla shit
teachin’ me to memorize nothin’ but the lies”

At the time, it was a typical “Cube tells a story that also happens to be the plot synopsis for the movie he’s acting in.” It was also a bit of a return to form after Lethal Injection, which had a couple NOI-inspired tirades about separatism but mostly sounded like Doggystyle Lite. Little did we know at the time that he would never again employ this device so masterfully in his music career.

“Higher” is literally the borderline in Ice Cube’s discography. One one side, we have every noteworthy song he ever recorded, from the irresponsible to the prophetic to the crowd pleasing. The strong-willed and unjustly forgotten “You Ain’t Gonna Take My Life” should be blaring from #BlackLivesMatter protests across the country.

On the other side of "Higher," well, we all know what happened. The very next song Cube released was another opening track to a soundtrack, but “Friday” is little more than an amiable listen while the credits roll. There is no plot synopsis, no Craig and/or Smokey character analysis, just a “Dre Day”-sampling “Steady Mobbin’” redux that confirmed many hip-hop heads’ suspicions that Cube was just aping The Chronic. Then, the helium-voiced lunatic from “Natural Born Killaz” calmed down just enough to piss everyone off for good.

While the original version of “What Can I Do,” Lethal Injection’s most mournful tale, ends with Cube dejectedly employed at McDonalds, its more bounce to the ounce remix provides an epilogue that is both silly and chilling. After Mack 10 barges in to rob the restaurant, Cube asks him “can I roll wit’ you?” and leaps over the counter to meet his doomed fate. I never would have expected this to be Ice Cube’s final prophecy, and of his own rap career no less.

Mack 10 may not be entirely at fault, but any time that they were on a song together, Cube did not sound like a social commentator, he sounded like a disruptive nuisance. The most commercially successful version of Cube 2.0 was of course Westside Connection’s “Bow Down,” but the unofficial first song from the so-called supergroup appeared on Mack 10’s debut album. “Westside Slaughterhouse” featured the first of many indefensible Ice Cube lines.

“'Used to Love H.E.R.', mad 'cause we fucked her
pussy whipped bitch, wit' no Common Sense”

This song, also “celebrating” its twentieth anniversary, was the moment when every remaining Ice Cube zealot’s heart sank. The man who gave us one of the greatest dis records of all time now left himself wide open to be eviscerated by one of the other greatest dis records of all time. Mid-1990s hip-hop will be forever tarnished by the East Coast-West Coast beef, and the reputations of the artists who fanned its flames have never fully recovered. Even the increasingly paranoid, incessantly combative 2Pac saw Westside Connection as a disingenuous ploy for Cube to stay in the spotlight by assuming Pac's place in it. 

From here, Cube dissolved into studio gangsta self-parody, becoming more of an actor on his albums than in any of his movies. He still could get a handful of halfway decent beats thrown his way, and WC saw his stock rise as the only Westside Connection member not saying anything facepalm-worthy, but there is not a great song in the bunch. 1998’s “Ghetto Vet,” a cautionary fable about a wounded gang war soldier, is the closest Cube ever came to his former glory, and like Snoop Dogg during this period, it only got exposure because it was featured on a No Limit record. This left plenty of time for gangsta rap’s once great author to become more known as the producer of a string of mediocre action comedies. Don’t sleep on First Sunday though.

Ice Cube is spending most of 2015 further mythologizing N.W.A. with Straight Outta Compton. The biopic could be good even though the trailer makes it look like CB4 if Chris Rock & Tamra Davis had misguidedly taken themselves seriously. Cube recently tweeted “Tell me your top 3 tracks on Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” and one of the replies was as painfully honest as it was dead on accurate. As a rapper, Cube’s influence is undeniable, but said influence stops just as “Higher” screeches to a halt.

“they wanna take me… they wanna take me…

them muthafuckas’ll never break me…”


Zestyverse's resident Music Geek Sean Morris is an SF Bay Area native with a photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture. He is a graduate of UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television, a former Los Angeles Slam Team member, part of the collective Art 4 A Democratic Society, and a music blogger for The Owl Mag. Find him on TwitterSoundCloud, and YouTube.

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