For such a revolutionary figure, Cube (born O'Shea Jackson) came from a surprisingly straight background. Raised in South Central Los Angeles, where both of his parents had jobs at UCLA, Cube didn't become involved with b-boy culture until his late teens. He began writing raps while in high school, including 'Boyz-n-the Hood'. With his partner Sir Jinx, Cube began rapping in a duo called CIA at parties hosted by Dr. Dre, and he eventually met Eazy-E, then leading a group called HBO, through Dre. Eazy asked Cube to write a rap, and he presented them with 'Boyz-n-the Hood', which was rejected. Eazy decided to leave CIA, and he, Cube, and Dre formed the first incarnation of N.W.A. Cube left to study architectural drafting at Phoenix, AZ, in 1987, returning the following year after he obtained a one-year degree. He arrived just in time for N.W.A.'s breakthrough album, Straight Outta Compton. Released late in 1988, Straight Outta Compton became an underground hit over the course of 1989, and its extreme lyrical content -- which was over-the-top both lyrically and politically -- attracted criticism, most notably from the FBI.
N.W.A. may have been rivaling Public Enemy as the most notorious group in Hip Hop, but Cube was having deep conflicts with their management, resulting in him leaving the band in late 1989. He went to New York with his new posse, da Lench Mob, and recorded his first solo album with Public Enemy's production team, the Bomb Squad. Released in the spring of 1990, his debut AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted was an instant hit, going gold within its first two weeks of release. While the record's production and Cube's rhythmic skills were praised, his often violent, homophobic, and misogynist lyrics were criticized, particularly by the rock press and moral watchdogs. Even amid such controversy, the album was hailed as a groundbreaking classic within Hip Hop, and it established Cube as an individual force.
He began his own corporation, which was run by a woman, and he produced the debut album from his female protégé, Yo-Yo. At the end of 1990, he released the EP Kill at Will, which was followed in the spring by Yo-Yo's debut, Make Way for the Motherlode. That summer, his acting debut in John Singleton's acclaimed urban drama Boyz 'n the Hood was widely praised.
AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted may have been controversial, but it paled next the furore surrounding Cube's second album, Death Certificate. Released late in 1991, Death Certificate was simultaneously more political and vulgar than its predecessor, causing more outrage. In particular, 'No Vaseline', a vicious attack on N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller, was perceived as anti-Semitic, and 'Black Korea' was taken as a racist invocation to burn down all Korean-owned grocery stores. The songs provoked a public condemnation from the trade publication Billboard. It was the first time an artist had been singled out by the magazine. The furor over Death Certificate didn't prevent it from reaching number two and going platinum. During 1992, he toured with the second Lollapalooza tour in a successful attempt to consolidate his white rock audience. He also converted to the Nation of Islam during 1992, which was evident on his next album, The Predator. Upon its release in December of 1992, The Predator became the first album to debut at number one on both the pop and R&B charts. The steady-rolling single 'It Was a Good Day' and the Das EFX collaboration 'Check Yo Self' made the album Cube's most popular.
However, Cube's hold on the mass rap audience was beginning to slip. His former colleague, Dre, was dominating Hip Hop with his stoned G-funk, and Cube tried to keep pace with 1993's Lethal Injection. While the album debuted at number five and went platinum, its funkier sound wasn't well-received. Lethal Injection was Cube's last official album for several years. In 1994, he wrote and produced da Lench Mob's debut, Guerillas in tha Mist, and produced Kam's debut, Neva Again, releasing a remix and rarities collection Bootlegs & B-Sides at the end of the year. In 1995, he kept quiet, appearing in Singleton's film Higher Learning and making amends with Dre on their duet 'Natural Born Killaz'. The following year, he acted in the comedy Friday, which he wrote himself. He also formed Westside Connection with Mack 10 and WC, releasing their debut album, Bow Down, at the end of the year. It went gold within its first month of release. In the spring of 1997, Cube starred in the surprise hit horror film Anaconda. War & Peace, Vol. 1 (The War Disc) followed in 1998; its sequel, The Peace Disc, followed two years later.
Cube spent the next few years devoting his time to film. Three Kings, Ghosts of Mars, and the big hit Barbershopall appeared in theaters before the rapper returned to music with Westside Connection's sophomore effort,Terrorist Threats, which appeared in 2003. Three years later he revived his barely used Lench Mobb label for his solo comeback album, Laugh Now, Cry Later. In the Movies, a compilation of soundtrack cuts, was put together for a 2007 release. A year later he returned with Raw Footage, an album filled with Cube's observations on politics along with the single 'I Got My Locs On' featuring special guest Young Jeezy. His 2010 effort I Am the West was a family affair, with his sons Doughboy and OMG making guest appearances.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
When Ice Cube split from N.W.A after the group's seminal Straight Outta Compton album changed the world forever, expectations were high, too high to ever be met by anyone but the most talented of artists, and at his most inspired. At the time Cube was just that. With AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted the rapper expanded upon Compton, making a more full-bodied album that helped boost the role of the individual in Hip Hop. Save the dramatic intro where a mythical Ice Cube is fried in the electric chair, his debut is filled with eye-level views of the inner city that are always vivid, generally frightening, generally personal, and sometimes humorous in the gallows style. Ripping it quickly over a loop from George Clinton's "Atomic Dog," Cube asks the question that would be central to his early career, "Why there more niggas in the pen than in college?," while sticking with the mutual distrust and scare tactics N.W.A used to wipe away any hopes of reconciliation ("They all scared of the Ice Cube/And what I say what I portray and all that/And ain't even seen the gat"). "What I'm kicking to you won't get rotation/Nowhere in the nation" he spits on the classic "Turn Off the Radio," which when coupled with the intoxicating Bomb Squad production and Cube's cocksure delivery that's just below a shout, makes one think he's the only radio the inner city needs. The Bomb Squad's amazing work on the album proves they've been overly associated with Public Enemy, since their ability to adapt to AmeriKKKa's more violent and quick revolution is underappreciated. Their high point is the intense "Endangered Species," a "live by the trigger" song that offers "It's a shame, that niggas die young/But to the light side it don't matter none." This street knowledge venom with ultra fast funk works splendidly throughout the album, with every track hitting home, although the joyless "You Can't Fade Me" has alienated many a listener since kicking a possibly pregnant woman in the stomach is a very hard one to take. Just to be as confusing as the world he lives in, the supposedly misogynistic Cube introduces female protégé Yo-Yo with "It's a Man's World" before exiting with "The Bomb," a perfectly unforgiving and visceral closer. Save a couple Arsenio Hall disses, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted is a timeless, riveting exercise in anger, honesty, and the sociopolitical possibilities of Hip Hop.
Words: David Jeffries
If Ice Cube's debut was a shocking attack that proved the N.W.A legacy would be stronger divided, his sophomore effort was a new kind of superstar pulling off the miraculous, a follow-up that equals its classic predecessor and tops it in some people's books. With a million copies of Death Certificate preordered, Cube was no longer the rock critics' darling. A million people listening was dangerous, especially since he was now slithering his influence into the suburbs. If the black rage didn't get you, the misogyny of "I'm gonna do my thing, with your daughter" probably would. Here, one of rap's greatest storytellers is able to draw hatred in under a minute with the short and direct "Black Korea," an angry protest song concerning Korean grocers that got him dubbed "racist" and "Ice KKKube" by some. The track is an extreme representation of how a much sharper and cutting this album is when compared with his debut, and even though the intro announces the full-length is divided into a "Death Side" and "Life Side," both are equally bleak. With the CD format, the two sides are indistinguishable and run over the listener with fast tales of drug dealing, drive-by shootings, and women who go from "Ms. Thing to Ms. Gonorrhea." This would be numbing if it weren't for the rapper's amazing lyrics, ground-shaking delivery, and insight like when "A Bird in the Hand" deals with the irony of selling crap to buy diapers ("Gotta serve you food that might give you cancer/Cuz my son doesn't take no for answer"). A bit of sweet relief comes with the brightness of the great single "Steady Mobbin'" and with the nostalgia and slow tempo of "Doing Dumb Shit." "True to the Game" ("Ain't that a bitch/They hate to see a young nigga rich") is arguably the quintessential Cube track and if all this weren't enough already, the N.W.A diss "No Vaseline" hangs off the album like a crowd-pleasing, Brick-sampling encore. Although next year's Predator would be a bigger hit, Death Certificate brings to a close the man's trilogy of perfect albums that began with N.W.A's Compton and explodes into a supernova right here.
Words: David Jeffries
Even if Ice Cube is a little devoid of substance here relative to his rabble-rousing past, he's still a talented rapper, and he has one of the West Coast's premier producers, QDIII, joining him for almost half the album. Unfortunately, much of what made Ice Cube's early-'90s albums so electric -- his thoughtfulness, wit, hostility, energy, and social consciousness -- is sadly in short supply. For compensation, Ice Cube offers a few standout singles, namely "You Know How We Do It" and "Bop Gun (One Nation)." The former follows the successful template that worked a year earlier with "It Was a Good Day" -- a laid-back G-funk ballad laced with an old-school funk vibe; the latter clocks over 11 minutes, an epic ode to George Clinton's P-Funk legacy. These two songs undoubtedly rank alongside Ice Cube's best work ever. There are a few other songs like "Really Doe" and "Ghetto Bird" that also stand out, but even these songs sound rather lackluster relative to Ice Cube's previous work. He's obviously not interested in making an album as daring and ambitious as The Predator again, and you can't really blame him. After all, Ice Cube had delivered three brilliant albums, and a similarly brilliant EP as well, Kill at Will (1990), in just three years, not to mention his then-burgeoning role as an actor. He deserved a break. But at least he took the time to craft two standout singles that alone make this album worthwhile for fans.
Words: Jason Birchmeier
Released in the aftermath of the 1991 L.A. riots, The Predator radiates tension. Ice Cube infuses nearly every song, and certainly every interlude, with the hostile mood of the era. Even the album's most laid-back moment, "It Was a Good Day," emits a quiet sense of violent anxiety. Granted, Ice Cube's previous albums had been far from gentle, but they were filled with a different kind of rage. On both AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted (1990) and Death Certificate (1991), he took aim at society in general: women, whites, Koreans, even his former group members in N.W.A. Here, Ice Cube is more focused. He found a relevant episode to magnify with the riots, and he doesn't hold back, beginning with the absolutely crushing "When Will They Shoot?" The song's wall of stomping sound sets the dire tone of The Predator and is immediately followed by "I'm Scared," one of the many disturbing interludes comprised of news commentary related to the riots. It's only during the aforementioned "It Was a Good Day" that Ice Cube somewhat alleviates this album's smothering tension. It's a truly beautiful moment, a career highlight for sure. However, the next song, "We Had to Tear This Mothafucka Up," eclipses the relief with yet more calamity. By the time you get to the album-concluding "Say Hi to the Bad Guy" and its mockery of policeman, hopelessness prevails. The Predator is a grim album, for sure, more so than anything Ice Cube would ever again record. In fact, the darkness is so pervasive that the wit of previous albums is absolutely gone. Besides the halfhearted wit of "Gangsta's Fairytale, Pt. 2," you won't find any humor here, just tension. Given this, it's not one of Ice Cube's more accessible albums despite boasting a few of his biggest hits. It is his most serious album, though, as well as his last important album of the '90s.
Words: Jason Birchmeier
Produced in the main by O’Shea Jackson alongside collaborators N.O Joe, E-A-Ski and Bud’da, this ambitious 1998 album was Cube’s first since 1993’s Lethal Injection. Sonically, it is one of the LA vets loudest statements, as evidenced by the rap-metal collaboration with Korn (‘Fuck Dying’) and the menacing, minor chord melodies of ‘Ask About Me’. Even softer moments, like the No Doubt looping title track were still quietly sinister with Cube intoning in his eponymous growl ‘The man in me is ready for war/ Like Holyfield, Tyson IV’. A fast and furious return to form, Cube’s unbridled lyrical prowess was as forceful as the beats.
Words: Hattie Collins
It took two years for the War follow-up, and as promised by the South Central native, this was a calmer affair compared to the unbridled rage of its predecessor. This isn’t to say the Peace disc wasn’t hard; there’s still plenty of Cube’s powerfully delivered political missives underscored by wall-shaking bass. Joining up with his former N.W.A bandmates Dr. Dre and MC Ren on the album opener ‘Hello’, the three reminded listeners of their OG credentials, while the lyrical dexterical ‘Record Company Pimpin’’ proved Cube had lost none of his inimitable wordplay. The album also featured Cube’s club smash, the old-skool Hip Hop sampling ‘You Can Do It (Put Your Back Into It)’, though it would take four years before it hit No.4 in the UK, the biggest hit Cube has enjoyed overseas to date.
Words: Hattie Collins
As Ice Cube's 2006 Laugh Now, Cry Later was landing in stores, all the chatter was about whether or not Cube was back, and whether or not he could recover from a couple of lackluster solo albums that came out years ago. Did his major contribution to Westside Connection's satisfying 2003 album Terrorist Threats slip everybody's mind and do we have to consider that release "slept on"? Laugh Now picks up right where Terrorist Threats left off, and while Cube does a little "this is why I'm important" posturing on the excellent "Child Support," this isn't a forced "I'm back" effort in the least. After a short intro, Cube goes right for the upper classes' throats with "Guns and Drugs," a track that acknowledges that there was a George Bush in office when he began his solo career, there's a George Bush in office as he returns to it, and he doesn't much care for either. Switching gears, the following club track "Smoke Some Weed" gives everyone the finger in a much less socially conscious manner. The track's rain stick and East Indian vocal loops constructed by producer Budda give the album its most riveting beat, the competition supplied by various upstarts and, surprisingly, Lil Jon, who upstages the heralded Scott Storch and his underwhelming contributions. Lil Jon tweaks his usual crunk juice and blends some West into his South for the low-riding "Go to Church" and "You Gotta Lotta That," both with Snoop. Just as satisfying, "Doin' What It 'Pose 2 Do" is a modern banger that's well aware of the 2006 success of folks like Bun B and Z-Ro. It's only when Cube jumps on the "Stop Snitchin'" bandwagon that he sounds the least bit unnatural. He also scores a lyrical triumph with the title track, but unlike his early classics, Laugh Now stumbles occasionally and fails to keep the momentum going through the whole fourth quarter. This is his first effort on his own independent label, so if the album lacks a little final product-minded polish, it trades it for a homegrown feel that's distinctively direct. Strip a couple redundant tracks and you've got that bitter, edgy, and sharp Cube album you hoped for.
Words: David Jeffries
Dealing with the good, the bad, and especially the ugly, Raw Footage is an appropriate title for Ice Cube's eighth album. Some kind of subtitle that mentioned the yin and yang of life would have made it perfect because the tracks here are as inclined to paradoxes as the man himself and offer just as few excuses. If you want insight into how a man justifies making family fun movies by day and hardcore rap by night, the only answer offered is that you grow up in this cruel world and you deal any way you know how, something that drives the great "Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It." This key track may not be "fair and balanced," but it's honest and revealing as Cube embraces what he wants from the good -- a literate life that damns those who "read your first book in the penitentiary" -- and the commonly accepted bad as he attacks Oprah and everyone else who has a problem with hardcore rap using the "N" word. The 187 in "Why Me?" could be a metaphor for the attacks from Cube's detractors ("You want to take the life God handed to me/Send it back to him 'cuz you ain't a fan of me") while "Jack in the Box" suggests he's already won the war with "Fool, I'm the greatest/You just the latest/I'm loved by your grandmamma/And your babies." The album's guiding principle, "only thing I expect is self-check," is dropped in "Get Money, Spend Money, No Money," but the great news is that all these standoffish and self-serving rhymes are written with that whipsmart wit and sit on a bed of wonderfully minimal beats from lesser knowns like Young Fokus and Emile. The only time things sound slick are when an Eddie Kendricks sample meets Angie Stone's vocals on "Hood Mentality," or when the so-big-in-2008 Young Jeezy shows up for the disappointing and out of place "I Got My Locs On." The bombastic intro and interludes with Keith David could go too, but otherwise this no-answers, gritty ego trip will satisfy his fans while pushing everyone else away even further.
Words: David Jeffries
While his 2008 effort Raw Footage brought aggression and bitterness, I Am the West leans back a bit, assured in its status and wisdom, showing hip-hop how to grow old both gracefully and gangsta. Ice Cube’s first album since turning 40 masterfully lays it all out on key track “No Country for Young Men.” This witty, rapid-fire damnation of the ringtone rapper generation and their foolishness declares them “bitches” with “Rappers go to jail like Oprah go to Gayle/Stedman’s policy: Don’t ask don’t tell," along with a laugh-out-loud Redd Foxx line that shouldn’t be spoiled. Making the case that his generation fought the power while the 2010 crew was just fighting itself happens elsewhere, and when you combine this with the “we’ve got a bigger problem now” attitude of “Hood Robbin’” -- high-tech and high-finance corporations are widening the gap between the classes -- and the sage advice of “Your Money or Your Life” -- “This world, so trife/Your money or your life/Keep your kids, keep your wife/Your money or your life” -- you’ve got a layered argument against misdirected priorities and their devastating consequences. Cube suggests there are more choices than burning out and fading away when he dedicates a song to his wife of 21 years and explains how she’s enriched his life on “Nothing Like L.A.,” but the real proof is in all the vital yet lighter cuts that keep the message-filled album from being ponderous. Flashy production drives the infectious "She Couldn't Make It on Her Own," featuring fine contributions from Cube’s sons Doughboy and OMG, while big daddy himself has put an entertaining, Kool Keith-like spin on his punch lines this time out, dropping odd stingers like “Internationally known/You about to smell my cologne” (“Soul on Ice”) and “You about as lethal as a mojito/Be my amigo, eat my burrito” (“Too West Coast”). Add the usual Keith David narrations and the hard-hitting, full-bodied production the West Coast favors and the album is anchored by tradition, becoming an unassailable cocktail of talent, experience, and growth. Most won’t have the skills to follow his playbook, either on or off the field, but Cube’s utterly unique I Am the West shows the younger generation how to cross 40 while retaining their freedom and baller status. Middle age Hip Hop is born here, and if the game follows his lead, it will be one monster of a genre.
Words: David Jeffries
Although the 17-track Greatest Hits covers all phases of Ice Cube's solo career in an extremely balanced fashion, it isn't quite the last word on one of the most seminal figures in hardcore and gangsta rap. It is definitely a worthwhile purchase, since it collects all the best singles from Cube's more uneven latter-day efforts; there are also two new cuts (although "In the Late Night Hour" has a lot of rewritten N.W.A. rhymes) and a couple that have never appeared on an Ice Cube album: the soundtrack contribution "We Be Clubbin'" and the Westside Connection single "Bow Down" (which are nice for collectors but not all that essential). That occasional filler makes it all the more frustrating that the classic "Dead Homiez" is inexcusably nowhere to be found, and that it apparently wasn't possible to license Cube's duet with Dr. Dre on "Natural Born Killaz." Selection issues aside, the singles from the post-Predator era prove that in his best moments, Cube could be a credible radio-crossover artist and keep up with contemporary production trends. As a storyteller (a facet of his work that's underrepresented here), Cube had a knack for keenly observed detail, as evidenced on "Once Upon a Time in the Projects" and his laid-back masterpiece "It Was a Good Day." Still, it doesn't quite add up to a truly classic compilation. Perhaps the problem is that while Greatest Hits is a fine, listenable portrait of Ice Cube the sometime hitmaker and full-time Hip Hop celebrity, it doesn't completely capture the provocative, incendiary qualities that made him an icon in the first place (for that, listeners will have to go back to AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and Death Certificate). For a fully fleshed-out picture of Cube's career, though, Greatest Hits is a very good place to go.
Words: Steve Huey