The Predator, by Ice Cube
Reviewed by Matteo Orsini-Jones
If I were to pick a take-home message from this project thus far, it would be the fact that Craig loves, and I mean loves, rap. So it came as no surprise that my assigned album was The Predator, a solo work by Ice Cube, a godfather of the genre whose hip hop pedigree is second to none.
To the casual observer, this should be good news for me, a proudly open fanatic of Kanye West. But there are two broad eras of hip hop, which for the sake of simplicity I’ll call pre-Kanye and post-Kanye, and Ice Cube is very much of the former. I love Kanye for his modern and digitally sophisticated production value: sparse, clean beats, digitally distorted into a form of poetry that sounds nothing like the busy, intentionally lo-fi production that wove its way through the early days of hip hop. That said, Ice Cube’s affiliations with Dr Dre—an NWA bandmate and the man who pretty much wrote the playbook for the modern hip hop style that Kanye later perfected (think The Next Episode, or Eminem’s My Name Is)—leads me to hold out hope that Cube’s style might be more progressive than the 1992 release date of The Predator may suggest.
Musical style aside, I know very little of Ice Cube beyond his membership of NWA and his occasional big-screen acting spots. Unlike fellow 1990s West-Coast rapper Snoop Dogg, who has featured in this project already, I get the impression that Ice Cube’s persona comes with no sense of irony. He wants to think he’s a true gangster rapper, and he wants you to think that too; even those with no interest in this genre of music will be familiar with NWA’s seminal F*** tha Police which, to put it politely, isn’t exactly mincing its words.
I therefore enter this album with the notion that Ice Cube is a proudly thuggish and anti-establishment figure, and this notion is only strengthened by the album intro, First Day at School, which turns out to be something of a misnomer – this isn’t just any school, but the School of Hard Knocks. The University of Life, if you may. A man, presumably Ice himself, is being checked into prison, cavity searches and all.
But then we move to the second song, and suddenly everything changes. When Will They Shoot?, despite its dark title, has a surprisingly cheery and up-tempo beat. It’s a million miles from the Kanye I love, with its fuzzy drum hook, seemingly random record scratches, and a looped melody sample that sounds as though it’s been bootlegged from a cassette tape with an entry-level microphone. But I don’t hate it. In fact, I like it. I no longer want to punch a police officer and raise my fist in defiance of The Man. Instead, I’m transported to an office party dance floor, where I’m drunkenly bouncing arm-in-arm with my colleagues to House of Pain’s Jump Around, in a time before we knew or cared about exactly how viruses are transmitted. My drink’s run out, but the bar’s far away and this half-empty bottle I just found is still cold enough. PACK IT UP PACK IT IN, LET ME BEGIN, I shout, before realising that’s as far as my lyrical knowledge of this song extends.
The theme of heavy lyrics juxtaposed against a jolly and repetitive beat seems to continue throughout the album. Now I Gotta Wet’Cha, a song ostensibly about shooting somebody such that their shirt gets soaked in blood, is carried by a brass-heavy sample that wouldn’t be out of place in a Berocca advert. ‘It’s on like Donkey Kong; You wanted that fast buck; Now I gotta light that ass up’, chimes the backing track, as the advert’s protagonist strides boldly through his day, hoisted by a deadly cocktail of caffeine, high-dosage vitamin C, and the innate confidence of a mediocre white male.
The standout track for me is the perhaps boringly safe choice of It Was a Good Day – a song that the majority of people will know if not for the song itself, but at least for its heavy influence in early Internet meme culture. The song stands out not just in its quality, but also in its style – it’s not necessarily the best track, but it’s definitely the most unique and thus the most memorable from the album. In an album otherwise filled with fairly homogeneous hip hop beats, the more laid-back melodic hook of It Was a Good Day is the only one I’m able to play back in my head after a couple of listens through.
One downside for me is that the album contains skits (or ‘Inserts’, as it calls them), which I’ve never found to add much to an album – if you can’t tell a story through the songs, don’t tell it at all. But Integration, which sits as the penultimate track, served me a stark but meaningful reminder that stuck with me well after the fact: the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the skit, an interview of Malcolm X is played over a subtle hip hop beat. The interviewer plays the role of devil’s advocate and baits Malcolm into lashing out, with the implied goal that Nice White Americans watching at home can go back to their cushy belief that black people are just out there making it difficult for themselves. If it weren’t for the dated talking style and the low-grade recording quality, you could be forgiven for thinking this was from a Fox News segment at the height of Trump’s power.
Overall, the album is listenable, and a nice contrast to what I’d normally enjoy, but it’s also a little too samey for my personal taste. I’ll probably listen to it again, and I might even seek out some more Cube to try, but ask me again in a month and I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to name any of the tracks. As it’s Craig’s birthday, I’ll give it an optimistic 7/10, but the Kanye on my shoulder’s not too pleased. ‘I’m real happy for Cube and imma let him finish, but this album didn’t deserve more than a 6.’