Here are two things Ice Cube does on The Predator:
1) In a song called ''It Was a Good Day,'' over a partly melancholy, partly swaggering beat, he glories in good luck, South Central style. The police didn't bother him, the Lakers beat the Supersonics, ''nobody I know got killed.'' But suddenly, with a jolt, the music stops. ''What the f--- was I thinking about?'' Ice Cube asks and all at once we're in the midst of a song about the L.A. riots.
2) At the end of the album, he ostentatiously stages one of those notorious rap cop killings. He and his friends invite an officer to reach into their car for some doughnuts. Next we hear a noise like gunfire, followed by an echoing voice: ''What kind of cop killer are you?''
Ice Cube is going to get in lots of trouble for 2. We must note, of course, that it's not really Ice Cube killing the cop, any more than it was Ice Cube dying in ''Alive on Arrival,'' a song from his last album in which cops won't let him receive medical help. In his songs, Ice Cube plays a character that's not quite him, a furiously raging and very scared kid from the streets, an angrier version of the gang member he so harrowingly portrayed in Boyz N the Hood.
This bitterly self-titled ''predator'' plans violent revenge in ''Now I Gotta Wet 'Cha,'' a song about gang shootings that, in the style of Hollywood gangster films, manages to be grimly funny. ''You won the wet T-shirt contest,'' sneers Ice Cube at the other guy, just before he shoots. Should we condemn Ice Cube for the joke? Would we condemn Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Sometimes the line between rapper and role does get blurred; in the album's title cut, Ice Cube himself straps on the predator's gun, mouthing exaggerated threats against the editor of Billboard, which condemned epithets on Ice Cube's last record aimed at Koreans and Jews. Still, what's most striking here are songs Ice Cube's strongest, most cohesive work yet about the perils of everyday South Central life. These segue from one horror to another, culminating in ''Who Got the Camera?,'' in which cops beat Ice Cube up for no reason at all, and nobody nails them on videotape. In communities like South Central and this is Ice Cube's most crucial message there just isn't any peace.
So damn him, if you want, for waving the cop-killer flag. Ask him, as he should be asked, what happens if people start killing cops for real. No, rappers won't cause that; they only dramatize revenge fantasies already rampant among their listeners. But are they ready for a guerrilla war the black community would almost certainly lose?
No matter what, we shouldn't forget Ice Cube's key point. In a quasi-documentary interlude between songs, a white woman says she's afraid because Ice Cube seems violent. A black woman corrects her: ''We should be running down the streets screaming, because we're the ones dying.'' Hopes for rebuilding L.A., news stories tell us, are starting to dissolve into empty rhetoric. Maybe Ice Cube can shock us into wondering: How many more blacks and cops have to die before we take these problems seriously? A-