Never underestimate Ice Cube. When he left the controversial (but very successful) L.A. hip-hop outfit N.W.A two years ago over a financial dispute, he teamed up with Public Enemy's Bomb Squad to create his solo debut, 1990's platinum AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. This past year, he confounded conventional wisdom by taking the potentially cartoonish role of the troubled, violent Doughboy in Boyz N the Hood and infusing it with depth and humanity. And now, producing his newest album with no help from Public Enemy (or, of course, from N.W.A), he emerges from two of hip-hop's largest shadows to unleash Death Certificate, 20 tracks of the most visceral music ever allowed in public.
Here Ice Cube voices young black anger and tries to redirect it in a productive direction beyond blaming the white man. But no, it's more than that: He puts often perplexing outbursts of black rage in a larger context, making what often seems irresponsible or wrongheaded into something we can understand. This is not a tame, detached explanation, though: It's more of a warning shot or a battle cry. Next to Ice Cube, Public Enemy's Chuck D the only other rap artist to approach the breadth and emotional pitch of Ice Cube's vision sounds almost tepid. If this were another time, Chuck D would be a compelling preacher, arguing for racial justice; Ice Cube would be slave-revolt leader Nat Turner, ducking in and out of the woods under the cover of darkness, doing anything necessary to survive.
Kicking off with a funeral scene, complete with a sermon from the Nation of Islam's Dr. Khallid Muhammad, the ''Death Side'' of Ice Cube's album (its first half) presents a portrait of his community, including rampant gang violence, omnipresent venereal diseases, and armed responses to every perceived slight. The ''Life Side,'' which begins with a simulated birth, outlines Ice Cube's ''vision of where we need to go.'' Looking back at his youthful exploits (let's just say that he was no Tom Sawyer), Cube regrets that his younger neighbors try to play copycat and destroy themselves. With a little help from guest-rapping friends, Cube explains ways to stay out of gang life while still staying alive, and in ''True to the Game'' assaults the black middle class for abandoning the community. Addressing his peers after much angry finger pointing, Cube sounds like a foulmouthed Horatio Alger: ''Don't point the finger, you jiggerboo/Take a look at yourself, you dumb nigger you.''
Let's not forget that this is a pop album. Many critics treat rap solely as an academic text, forgetting the magic of simply experiencing a rapper as skilled as Ice Cube. His mid-tempo delivery punches rather than jabs, stomping with urgency, grabbing you by the throat rather than dazzling you with tricks. The same is true for the beats, which, however, can be a little too seamless (although turning up the volume will thankfully make you forget that).
Sometimes Ice Cube's rhetoric gets truly alarming: N.W.A's manager Jerry Heller, for example, is damned as a ''cracker'' and a ''Jew'' (for which the album was denounced by a Jewish organization the day after its release). And in the record's finale, Ice Cube hangs N.W.A leader Eazy-E from a tree and lights his greasy Jheri curl on fire, killing him for allegedly taking advantage of his group-mates and moving away from Compton, the gang-ridden Los Angeles-area community his group came from. What bothers me most, however, is the homophobic undertone that pervades this record: Ice Cube believes that you can't be black and gay, and that you can't be gay and be a real man.
He's wrong. But I'm not arrogant enough to wag my finger at someone for stridency or incorrect language when many of his friends are dead and many of the rest are either in prison or standing on the corner surrounded by burned-out buildings and dying dreams. These people don't get to write magazine articles, don't get elected to political office, and don't get appointed to the Supreme Court. They do riot, turning over police cars and breaking windows; they kill each other over gang colors, and drink or smoke themselves into oblivion. Even if you disagree with Ice Cube, the rage and anger he channels is very real. We may try to ignore it, but Ice Cube won't let us forget. A-