Death at an early age is never an easy sight. Time was when Ice Cube, more than any of his verb-spitting contemps, seemed to have a heavy finger on the pulse of the weary ghetto masses, when a Cube-penned NWA classic like Straight Outta Compton could go multiplatinum without radio airplay. Time was when Ice Cube was hailed as a foul-mouthed wise man who predicted the 1992 L.A. riot months before it actually went down. But, alas, times done changed.
Count Ice Cube among the blessed number of artists to survive more than a decade in a field where patricide is considered a prerequisite. The body of work he produced between 1990’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and 1992’s The Predator established him as Stagolee’s response to urban decline; as Bigger Thomas, reincarnated and equipped with a 12-gauge scowl and a record deal. Wedding his trademark South Cali flow and asphalt reportage to the sonic anarchy of noise architects Bomb Squad, Cube created a hybrid, bicoastal sound that elevated the genre above its petty East-West sectionalism. And way before Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac went public with his existential angst, Cube’s elegiac “Dead Homiez” poured a metaphorical libation for the young, black, and departed. Quiet as it’s kept, Cube was the earliest of the Cali verbalizers to demand—and receive—his due respect from hiphop’s East Coast establishment.
The way of the gangsta, once the dominant mode of the genre, has faded in the face of a new set of iced-out playas and countrified hot boys. The lines of descent have led to the public embrace of the gravel-voiced DMX as the manchild of the moment, and Ice Cube is now that cat from the John Singleton flicks. And it is in this fallow field that Ice Cube has sown War & Peace: Vol. 2.
This release, the second installment of a “concept double-album,” is subtitled “(The Peace Disc),” but be forewarned: Ain’t nothin’ peaceful about this foray into Cube’s world. Times may have changed, but Ice Cube’s version of South Central—peopled with would-be hustlers, crooked cops, and treacherously endowed ghetto femmes fatales—is damn near the same as it ever was. And therein lies the flaw in War & Peace. Cube is on some straight retro trip, but in the Darwinist world that is hiphop, being retro is merely inches from being played out.
Check the archival funk on the lead-off track, “Hello,” and you’re prone to believe that the brother ain’t lost a step. Built around an unholy bass loop supplied by Cube’s former NWA bandmate Dr. Dre, “Hello” raises hope that an old hand in the game is doing what he does best: running roughshod over bottom-heavy, funk-descended tracks. Had the brother enlisted Dr. Dre for more than just the introductory track, the result might’ve been more ear-friendly. By midpoint, one thing has become clear: This is not 1992. And if you wanted evidence that the self-proclaimed “nigga you love to hate” might just be negro non grato in the house he helped to build, dig the whiny hook on “Hello,” where Cube and Dre complain, “I started this gangsta shit/And this [is] the muthafuckin’ thanks I get?”
Cube’s boulevard parables once echoed in the brain like a type of urban gothic; now, the tales of ghetto misdeeds—coming from a married father of three—carry a been-there-heard-that vibe. And what’s with the bitch/ho references? No pretenses: It isn’t as if Ice Cube built his career on advanced ideas about gender relations, but War & Peace had me asking “Damn, bro, ain’t you, like, 30?”
The irony in this effort is that Cube, who started out as the antithesis of the media-friendly crossover rapper a la Will Smith, continues to exist in the hiphop world as a result of his multimedia success as an actor and director of film and music videos. In short, War & Peace needs hype in a way the vintage Ice Cube never did.
Several cuts on War & Peace stray into a nebulous zone of funkless, electronic sounds that simply refuse to make your head nod. On “Until We Rich,” Cube enlists the vocal assistance of Krayzie Bone for a somnolent cut laced over a snippet jacked from “Show Me.” The catchy sex-talk chorus of “You Can Do It” is wasted with tinny, underseasoned production work. Not until the final track, “Nigga of the Century,” does Cube turn in another gem. His testosterone-driven hyperbole meets its match in a sinfully effective number built over a descending keyboard and an aural collage of background samples. But, by this point, War & Peace has established itself as the stepchild in the Ice Cube discography. If the goal of this release was to raise the stakes for the hotheaded young guns looking to knock off their elder rappers, it ain’t happening. Cube has lost a step. And the children are sharpening their knives. CP