Ice Cube has grown from being an angry young gangsta rapper to become a mature artist and powerful filmmaker. Figuratively speaking, Ice Cube and I have grown up together.
I was first introduced to Cube in the late 80s by a friend who was a fan of the seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A. Gangsta rap was an acquired taste, but I came to appreciate Ice Cube’s ability to write and rhyme (some considered him to be the best lyricist in rap history). Ice Cube left N.W.A. and released the outstanding CD AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. He followed this with the strong EP Kill at Will.
Ice Cube firmly established his place in American popular culture in 1991. He made his acting debut, starring as Doughboy in Boyz ‘N the Hood. He also released Death Certificate, an angry, insightful and bigoted portrayal of life in South Central Los Angeles. Death Certificate was controversial but prescient. Death Certificate examines the rage felt by many African-Americans who felt betrayed by “the system.” Los Angeles was a hotbed of racial tension in the 1990s, punctuated by the Rodney King beating, the riots following the Rodney King verdict, and the O. J. Simpson trial.
In the early 90s, I was exploring my identity as a young, African-American man. This exploration was heavily influenced by the music of rap group Public Enemy. I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (a book which should be read by every literate person on the planet). I was angry about the King beating, disillusioned by the acquittal of the officers who beat King, and stunned by the L. A. riots.
I appreciated Death Certificate as a work of art, but struggled with its racist elements. I grew tired of being angry. Cube released The Predator in 1992. It was a weak effort. My interest in gangsta rap died as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic simultaneously brought the genre into the pop music mainstream and ended the golden age of hip-hop.
I stopped listening to Ice Cube’s music, but I kept an eye on his film career, which blossomed as his CDs lost critical acclaim and cultural impact. He co-wrote, produced, and starred in Friday, which catapulted comedian Chris Tucker to Hollywood’s A-list and made Ice Cube a bankable actor and writer. No small accomplishment.
Dangerous Ground was a flop but I appreciated Ice Cube’s willingness to experiment. The Player’s Club was a pleasant surprise, despite being panned by critics. Three Kings increased Cube’s profile as an actor. Cube dared to film a sequel to Friday, and Next Friday was well-crafted and funny.
The CD that broke my 10-year Ice Cube musical boycott was his Greatest Hits collection. Critics point out that the compilation is lean on material from AmeriiKKKa’s Most Wanted. I think this was a smart decision by Priority Records, intentional or not. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted stands alone as a classic. It is Ice Cube’s best CD; a must-have in any complete hip-hop CD collection.
Currently, Ice Cube appears in Barbershop, a good movie with humor and backbone. Cube plays Calvin, the reluctant manager of a barbershop he inherited from his father. As anyone who’s been to an African-American barbershop knows, the conversation flows freely. The fictional barbershop provides the perfect context for discussions of morality, reparations and the deification of civil rights leaders.
Barbershop will appeal to audiences looking for a “family-oriented” comedy. Cedric the Entertainer’s portrayal of a bumbling, wise old man is not convincing, but his character sparks the more noteworthy conversations in the barbershop.
In an article written by Bob Strauss, Ice Cube discusses Barbershop and his more mature outlook on life:
“I’ve got more understanding about things now, so I’m not so angry about why things are the way things are,” he says. ‘”I’ve got more perspective, and that gives me more of a try-to-change-the-status-quo thing than just be mad at the world. You do things that you can do to help change the plight of people behind you so they can have it a little easier in a way. I feel like the best thing I can do to combat the condition that black people find ourselves in is just to be an example of what can be done with a little bit of determination and ambition.”
Some people will read the quote and look at Ice Cube’s career and conclude he epitomizes the word “sellout”: he became the suburban black man he ridiculed in Death Certificate’s “True To The Game.”
To me, he represents the best of humanity. He is a talented and respected artist. He is a self-actualizing person. And, like Malcolm X, he responds honestly to the truth of his life as it is presented to him. His life and art reflect his current state of being and he has the courage to change accordingly, regardless of popular opinion. This was true as he endured criticism for Death Certificate, and it is true today.
Currently, life is presenting a lot of opportunities to Cube, and he maximizes them for the benefit of his ever-expanding audience. Here’s to Ice Cube: a true renaissance man.