A case for Ice Cube as one of hip hop’s GOATs.
In this new series, we’ll be making the case for specific rappers to be included in “greatest of all-time” discussions. The more obvious choices (such as André 3000, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie, 2Pac) will be ignored in favor of artists who tend to get overlooked these days, for one reason or another. Previously, one of our writers made the case for Pusha T. Today, we’re going to bat for Ice Cube.
Here’s the only thing you need to know about Ice Cube to consider him one of the GOATs: he wrote about one-half to two-thirds of the immortal opening trio of songs on N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. On the title track, he raps the first verse and writes Eazy-E’s closing one; on “Fuck The Police,” he again has the opening verse; on “Gangsta Gangsta,” he has a full three verses, and again gets credit for the Eazy verse that closes the song out. Oh yeah, he also wrote all of Dr. Dre’s lyrics on “Express Yourself,” as well as Eazy’s on the “8 Ball” remix, the track that famously contains the lyric “Ice Cube writes the rhymes that I say.”
Those are the five best tracks (runner up: “I Ain’t tha One,” a solo Ice Cube joint) on one of the best and most revolutionary rap albums of all time. Big L only had one album, Lauryn Hill only has one solo album, Biggie only had two– if Cube left the game voluntarily or inadvertently after parting ways with N.W.A. in 1989, he’d still deserve to be in this conversation as much as any of them. When you get past the in-your-face imagery and Eazy-E’s sneery posturing, Cube’s rapping and writing are what made Straight Outta Compton the cultural flashpoint it quickly became. Dr. Dre and DJ Yella’s production was pitch-perfect, don’t get me wrong, but based around the basic funk and soul samples that had provided rap’s bedrock since the late ’70s, it didn’t push the envelope like the Bomb Squad’s abrasive work for Public Enemy or the big beat revolutions Rick Rubin made for Run DMC and The Beastie Boys. Cube’s lyrics were the aspect of the album that was undeniably new in 1988.
Right out of the gate, he’s confrontational: “Straight outta Compton, Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube/From a gang called N****z With Attitudes.” If you chronologically chart the usage of both of those swear words throughout rap music, you’ll notice a sharp upswing after the year 1989. From 1989 to 1990, the word “motherfucker” went from being used around 42 times per 10,000 words in rap songs to approximately 54 times per 10,000 words, the biggest one-year leap on record. According to another metrics site, 1989 was the first year the n-word averaged more than one appearance per rap song. Though virtually unprovable, the correlation is pretty clear: Straight Outta Compton, and more specifically Ice Cube, is probably the biggest single reason why rappers across the country started R-rated swearing (though props are also due to 2 Live Crew, Too Short, and Kool G. Rap). Cube, who later had a hand in the song that still holds the Guinness World Record for “most swear words in a song” (Lil Jon & The Eastside Boyz’s “Real N**** Role Call,” 295 swear words), didn’t even need to say anything particularly smart or rhythmically pleasing to change history.
But of course, Cube did rap many particularly smart and rhythmically pleasing things over the course of his career. Even when he was getting more attention for his provocative exploits with N.W.A., he was ensuring his bars would outlive the hype by cramming them with intricate rhyme schemes and social commentary. On Straight Outta Compton, he still kept his delivery within the framework of the more gimmicky, nursery-rhymed ’80s style he and his contemporaries inherited (sample: “I’m knocking n****s out the box, daily/Yo, weekly, monthly and yearly/Until them dumb motherfuckers see clearly”), but some passages transcend that and suggest a more narrative-driven future:
Fuckin’ with me ‘cause I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager
Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product
Thinkin’ every n**** is sellin’ narcotics
You’d rather see me in the pen
Than me and Lorenzo rollin’ in a Benz-o
Cube didn’t need to have a bright future after he left N.W.A. in December 1989– two years later, his hugely successful film career would begin in Boyz n the Hood– but he was the group’s only principle songwriter who improved after their landmark album. His next two albums, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate, were ferocious gangster rap epics that redefined the genre, and the following one, The Predator, stands as the bestselling solo album from an N.W.A. member not named Dre. As Cube’s film career took off in the mid-’90s with the success of Friday, his rap career got more uneven, but the damage had been done: if Straight Outta Compton got his foot in the door, then those first three solo albums solidified him as a legend.
The most striking thing about AMW is its marriage of East and West. Fresh out of N.W.A., Cube tapped the Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s production team, to do the vast majority of the album. He even recorded it in New York. It was a powder keg– the most virulent rapper on either coast freed from the limiting palette of N.W.A.’s production, the most abrasive producers on Earth working with the most aggressive MC on Earth. That bi-coastal bond was what made headlines, but similarly to N.W.A.’s provocative stance, none of it would’ve mattered if the music wasn’t knocking.
AMW found Ice Cube leaning even further into social issues in South Central. Despite never making as big of a fuss as “Straight Outta Compton” or “Fuck The Police,” songs like “Once Upon a Time in the Projects” and the Chuck D-assisted “Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside)” were perhaps even more realistic and shocking depictions of inner city life. Even if they weren’t, Cube’s rapping had definitely improved. Here’s an excerpt from the latter song that illustrates his ability to lace important social commentary with intricate rhyme schemes:
Every cop killer goes ignored
They just send another n**** to the morgue
A point scored, they could give a fuck about us
They rather catch us with guns and white powder
If I was old, they’d probably be a friend of me
Since I’m young, they consider me the enemy
They kill ten of me to get the job correct
To serve, protect, and break a n****’s neck
Cube’s solo debut wouldn’t equal the impact of his work with N.W.A. or his next two albums, commercially speaking, but it was crazy ahead of its time. East and West simply did not mix in those days, with the much-publicized conflict coming to a head five years later at the ’95 Source Awards, and of course, in the murders of Biggie and 2Pac. What’s more, the songs that directly addressed police violence against minorities would gain new relevance to those not experiencing such conflicts firsthand after Rodney King was savagely beaten by police a year later. And even today, recent events prove that the spelling of America with three K’s is an evergreen critique.
Released a few months after the rest of the world began to take note of the injustices brought upon the people of South Central, Death Certificate was an even angrier, more political album. Some of it, such as the brutally racist anti-Asian stuff on “Black Korea,” and the tones of homophobia and anti-Semitism on vicious diss track “No Vaseline,” has not aged well at all, but presented alongside the rest of the concept album, and set amid one of the biggest sites of urban upheaval in the last half century, it’s clear to see that Cube was trying to fight himself out of a tight corner. Even with those slights against it, the album stands as one of the most powerful statements in music history, completely unafraid of speaking its mind and telling it like it was. I’ve always thought that one crucial component of being consider the Greatest Rapper of All-Time is having a near-perfect album to your name– which substantially narrows the playing field– and with that in mind, Death Certificate is what fully secured Cube’s legacy.
Everything after this point in Cube’s career is a victory lap– a well-earned one, but one that only held a fraction of the world-conquering furor and talent that preceded it. The Predator is a solid album, but even its best track, “It was a Good Day,” sounds like the work of a different artist. It’s the charming, lovable Cube that would light up the screen in Friday a few years later– his Will Smith move, if Will had a past as the most feared rapper in America.
Cube’s last 25 years are a fascinating rollercoaster of multimedia success: headlining Lollapalooza in ’92, collaborating with everyone from David Bowie to Dr. Dre to Korn to Insane Clown Posse, advertising for Coors Light, starring in over 30 movies, and more recently, producing the Straight Outta Compton biopic. He’s omnipresent. Even if your grandma has never heard a rap song, or was horrified by a news story about “Fuck The Police” 28 years ago, odds are she recognizes Cube as the father from Are We There Yet? or some other comedy flick. In this landscape, it’s sometimes easy to forget that for three or four solid years, Cube was the Best Rapper Alive, but he most certainly was.