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POP MUSIC : ALBUM REVIEW : A Crucial Message, a Crude Delivery From Ice Cube

November 03, 1991|ROBERT HILBURN

*** ICE CUBE "Death Certificate" Priority

Ice Cube, who rivals Public Enemy's Chuck D. as rap's most commanding figure, continues to make albums that spark debates over just how far pop music should go in chronicling frustration and rage.

As a member of N.W.A in 1989, Ice Cube wrote the key song in the "Straight Outta Compton" album that many observers--including an FBI official--branded as incendiary and exploitative because of its vicious anti-police sentiments.

Yet the Rodney King incident earlier this year in Los Angeles made it possible for even some of the detractors to see that the N.W.A track was a powerful, if troubling, reflection of the degree of resentment and tension growing out of some police actions in the black community.

More complaints were voiced last year over Ice Cube's first solo album, "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted"--a brutal and disturbing series of descriptions of life in the projects. However, there was the compensating factor in the album--the feelings of a young artist who seemed genuinely struggling to better understand himself and his community. The album was named one of the year's 10 best in a Village Voice poll of the nation's pop critics.

In his second solo album, Ice Cube is now likely to ignite a new debate over what's proper in pop as the young rapper makes a significant move from the youthful confusion and uncertainty of "Wanted" toward a more concrete plan of action.

Loosely siding with Public Enemy, Ice Cube points to greater self-reliance in the black community as a more realistic strategy than further dependence on what he suggests is an indifferent and morally bankrupt white power structure.

"Death Certificate" has two themes: conditions in the inner city as they are now (death) and a vision of how it should be (life). Some of the "death" selections, which make up the first half of the album, are as tough and unsettling as anything on "Wanted," including tales of gang warfare, sexual degradation and blind macho posturing.

But Ice Cube also finds room amid the fury for humor (a Robin Leach parody about the lifestyles of the poor and unfortunate) and warnings about safe sex. He, too, warns how social indifference--as reflected in lack of economic opportunity or even adequate medical care--can turn people to drug dealing or to carrying guns for self-protection. "We don't want to drug push/But a bird in the hand/Is worth more than a Bush," he quips at one point.

There are moments in the second half of the album where Ice Cube lives up to the promise of the album's concept and even stands as a role model for the young rap fans. "Us" isn't polite language-wise, but summarizes his unity message with a street sizzle. The rap is doubly effective because it follows a track where Ice Cube recounts some of the sex 'n' vandal activities common to youngsters and brands them "dumb" things.

Yet elsewhere he succumbs to the rage in ways that are indistinguishable from the attitudes contained on the "death" side, including "Black Korea," with its warning to Korean merchants to show more respect to black customers or maybe see their stores burned down. Elsewhere, stinging references to gays, Jews, Asians and women are clearly misguided.

Still, it would be wrong to dismiss "Death Certificate." Rap is one of the few ways mainstream America can plug into the frustrations felt by many in the inner city--and few rappers express that rage as powerfully as Ice Cube.

Unlike N.W.A these days, Ice Cube, however crude his language, aims for social realism rather than exploitation. He's an important voice and much in this album is powerful and affecting, which makes it all the more discouraging that he doesn't use his position and his skills more thoughtfully.

The rapper argues that his music is aimed at his inner-city peers, and that the confusion over language occurs only when outsiders misunderstand the nuances of his words--words that are used, in effect, as literary devices, not as racial or ethnic slurs.

But Ice Cube's music will--and should--be heard by a wider audience, and it's unrealistic for him not to recognize that his terminology is going to be offensive to many people.

That's a lesson Chuck D. learned in the wake of allegedly anti-Semitic remarks by former sidekick Professor Griff. In Public Enemy's new album, Chuck D. shows he can speak with passion and effectiveness without resorting to demeaning language and bigotry--intended or otherwise.

By failing to follow a similar path, Ice Cube undercuts his impact. Instead of focusing our attention on the paramount inner-city issues that obviously trouble him--from education and crime to jobs and the family--the language in the album will take many listeners on a detour. The issues they'll raise will be about Ice Cube himself: Is he a racist? Is he anti-Semitic? Is he a misogynist?

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