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You’re thinking: Does a second Vanilla Ice comeback attempt even deserve a response?
In 1990, Vanilla Ice, born Robert Van Winkle, virtually spit on the hiphop community with his hit single “Ice Ice Baby,” a boring, pseudo-rap version of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” Of course, many of you probably still remember the words. It was probably the worst rap song ever made, but also the first to reach Billboard’s No. 1. To the Extreme, the album on which “Ice Ice Baby” originated, has sold an unthinkable 15 million copies to date.
Soon after Vanilla Ice topped the charts, we learned that the funky white boy had lied to the public about his fashionably shady background. He had not grown up fighting in the streets of Miami after all (as if anyone with a blonde-streaked pompadour would last five minutes in a gang). Ice’s credibilitywhich had never been established by any actual talentwas destroyed in the collective half-brain of the pop world. True hiphop fans rejoiced when at long last Van Winkle, as Run-D.M.C. put it in a separate context, “fell the hell asleep.”
Vanilla Ice has just dropped his fourth album, Hard to Swallow. (To the Extreme, his only successful seller, was preceded by the independently released Hooked.) In 1994, a reconstructed, ganja-smoking Vanilla Ice, sporting wimpy blonde dreads, put out an infrequently mentioned sack of bricks titled Mind Blowin’. He has already had his comeback album, and the result was a resounding thud. Again, you ask, “Why bother?” Only the laziest critic would take a shot at something so obviously destined to failunless it were surprisingly good.
Not a chance. For his new project, the Iceman enlisted (bribed? bludgeoned?) up-and-coming producer Ross Robinson, who has worked with Korn and Limp Bizkit. The album builds on the same rap-rock-metal platform where those groups have staked their claimsat the forefront of an aesthetic that is clearly still rock but owes a great deal to harder-edged hiphop. This type of music draws heavily from the chaotic sampling experimentation of Public Enemy’s Terminator X, as well as from early Ice Cube’s parent-shocking, anti-establishment rants, and surpasses even gangster rap in its expressions of anger. Much of the music seems designed to accost rather than entertain. Hard to Swallow follows this formula faithfully.
All 13 songs carry one of two attitudes: seething or raging. Each track oozes out eerily and rises to a thundering crescendo of one sort or another. It’s predictable by the second song and annoying by the third. The guitars howl, groan, and scream at you unabated as a live drummer does his best to keep it moving. Fans of metal may find something appealing in such abrasive music, but even Vanilla knows where he stands artistically: “Lyrics might be simplistic/But I’m no simp on the strength ’cause I know how to pimp it.” The whore continues to babble on, illogically, with statements like, “Reality sucks, too much pain/I can’t explain why I want to bash brains.”
In 1991, he was as “cool as ice.” Nowadays, he’s “crazy like Prozac.” (What?) Suffice it to say that Vanilla Ice is struggling to show more emotion. His attempts are more often humorous than humanand far from genuine. Maybe Ice wasn’t listening to Korn’s “Daddy” when he penned his own “Scars,” but regardless, the sentiment rings more than a bit contrived. He shouts, “Father! Whoever you are/Beat my mother down all I see is scars” with the same calculated ferocity as he does every other lyric on Swallow. At times, he erupts into bizarre shouting matches with himself, as on “Fuck Me”: “Fuck Vanilla Ice! He sucks! He ain’t shit.” (Well, I kind of like that one.) During one outburst he bellows, “Where did I get this anger? Where did I get this hate?” Hard to say for sure, but I would have to guess that it’s all borrowed.
Even at his most pitiable, nothing on this album indicates that Vanilla Ice should be taken more seriously this time around than last. Ice is a style-appropriation specialist with less subtlety and integrity than either Madonna or Elvis. Ever since he began his career following in Hammer’s dancing footsteps, the bandwagon has been his preferred vehiclethrough his pop phase, his Cypress Hill-inspired blunt era, and now this. In the mid-’90s, Cypress Hill and Onyx led hiphop into a dark phase of gothic images and gloomy tracks. Within two years, this “horror-core” movement played out to a comical ending, courtesy of death-obsessed groups such as the Flatlinerz and the Gravediggaz. And the rap-rock-metal thing has already reached maturity. The Iceman can’t exactly be blamed for following trends, but his efforts are always late and never any good.
I confess: When I first heard House of Pain’s song “Jump Around” back in 1992, I thought the MC was black. Armed with a forceful delivery and hot tracks courtesy of Cypress Hill’s Muggs and the House’s own DJ Lethal, Everlast was immediately in contention with Third Bass’ MC Serch for the coolest white boy in hiphop. In 1990, Everlast, aka Erik Schrody, released a solo LP as part of Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate cartel. Even then, surrounded by African-American West Coast rappers, Everlast appeared natural, not slick and gimmicky like the Iceman.
Everlast was never the greatest lyricist; his rhymes were simplistic and his punch lines obvious (“I’m the cream of the crop, I rise to the top/I’ll never eat a pig ’cause a pig is a cop”). He never said anything important or riveting, but he always seemed confident and genuine. Sure, he rappedwhich was still a “black thing” back thenbut he and House of Pain proudly referred to their Irish heritage at every opportunity. Their anti-wigger tactics were refreshing and pretty cool, allowing Everlast to pull off his ambitious solo project three House of Pain albums later. It is also his “coolness” that makes his return at least as insulting to hiphop as Vanilla Ice’s minstrel show.
Continuing in a long tradition of white MCs calling unnecessary attention to their race (Vanilla Ice, Snow, Milkbone), Everlast has re-dubbed himself Whitey Ford and picked up his guitar for Whitey Ford Sings the Blues. Trading his Lucky Charms imagery for a cowboy hat, he endeavors to merge the blues and a hint of country with hiphop. As it turns out, Everlast plays a mean six-string, and his gruff voice is well-suited to singing the blues. There are a couple of traditional hiphop battle hymns, but for the most part, Everlast has done what rappers without guitars apparently cannot: He has released his aggression. The self-professed “peckerwood”‘s attitudes toward the root of all evil (“Ends”) and women (“The Letter”) seem to have matured since his Mickey’s Malt Liquor-swigging days in House of Pain, but nothing Everlast has to say is particularly thought-provoking or original. His musings vary between the obvious (“rock bottom hurts when you hit it”) and the obtuse (“Yesterday is just a dream I don’t remember”). “Today (Watch Me Shine)” poses as philosophical, but lyrically, it’s little more than a string of meaningless clichés. Still, Whitey Ford goes down smoother than Hard to Swallow, thanks in part to help from friends.
From Ice-T to Cypress Hill, Everlast has always known to surround himself with the right people. Whitey Ford was produced by the faceless underground super-production team the Stimulated Dummies. E-Swift of Likwit Productions lends his knob-turning prowess to the minimalist “Praise the Lord.” Brand Nubian’s Sadat X and the Hieroglyphics’ Casual show up momentarily to completely obliterate Everlast’s toddler flow with their distinct forms of verbal unpredictability. Throughout, driving drum loops and much old-school scratching add muscle to Schrody’s meandering strumming. It feels like Morcheeba, with more testosterone and none of the painstaking lyricism.
Tommy Boy publicity insists that “Hip Hop purists may wonder what the hell’s going on here, but Everlast deserves props for coming up with some deep material…” What the hell’s going on here? Good intentions and live instruments do not make a rapper deep, nor do they make for progressive hiphop.
Critics have been praising the Beastie Boys for years for their rap-punk fusion, but the fact is that if you were to compare an a cappella of one their first songs to their newest release, you would find no lyrical development. As KRS-One said, “rap is still an art,” and as such, it has more to do with building original concepts into complex, challenging rhymes than it does with live instruments and crossover marketing. Groups like the Beasties, 311, Barenaked Ladies, and Beck, among others, subliminally advance the notion that for rap to be relevant or potent it must be crossbred with a more “legitimate” form of music. White musicians are not the only ones guilty of this prejudice. Lauryn Hill, one of the most gifted female rappers of our generation, turned to singing rhythm and blues to get her message across with this year’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. By portraying traditional hiphop as stagnant, this trend heralds the genre’s eventual creative extinction. In fact, if Vanilla Ice is involved again, it may already be dead.CP
Everlast appears Nov. 6 at the Bayou.