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Ice Cube's War and Peace

By Franklin Soults

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  The single most surprising thing about Ice Cube's return to the album racks after a four-year absence is that this gangsta-rap granddaddy isn't even 30 years old. War and Peace Vol. 1 (The War Disc) (Priority) seems all the more delayed -- and Cube all the older -- because his first four solo albums and accompanying EPs all came out in a flurry in the first four years of the decade, right on the heels of his seminal albums with N.W.A in the late '80s. Not that he was exactly snoozing after that. In '96 he formed the Westside Connection with rappers Mack 10 and WC and cut Bow Down, and throughout the "off years" he also churned out numerous tracks on soundtrack albums and other artists' projects. More important, he also dove headlong into moviemaking, with writing, producing, directing, and/or acting credits in more than half a dozen films.

Yet despite his untiring creative output and his undeniable vigor, there's a sense that Cube shouldn't have bothered trading the shooting stage for the microphone booth again -- his time as rap player seems to have long passed, even if the clock is still running on his time as a hip-hop "playa" ("Playa, playa, play on!" goes the morning chant on the great Tom Joiner syndicated radio show). Granted, some reviewers still feel obliged to give him props: Joe Gross closed his mixed review of War and Peace in SPIN with a tactful demurral: "Cutting him slack would be a mistake; writing him off would probably be a bigger one." But would Gross have said that if the impulse to write him off weren't so strong? Like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Public Enemy, all of whom put out impressive returns to form this year, Cube radiates "finished" no matter how hard he strives to get it started.

And he has striven harder to do that here than at most any time since his 1990 solo debut, Amerikkka's Most Wanted (Priority). Usually as lazily inconsistent with his beats as that other iceman, Ice T, he has made his various producers run through a variety of contrasting styles as if trying to replicate the rush -- if not the dense, explosive tone -- that the Bomb Squad gave him on Amerikkka. He also heightens the stakes with a neat gimmick, turning this into the first half of a sort of meta-double album. Early 1999 should see the release of Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc), which Cube recorded at the same time but which he claims is "a different record from any I have ever done." War, then, is just the tease -- a touch of his old-school wrath to whet the appetite for a brave new dawn.

Yet old school is, well, old school. The harsh tone that was once so gripping now sounds at times almost comical: suddenly his closest stylistic comparison seems to be that long-gone boob 'n' bootie freak Sir Mix-a-Lot. Except for a pyrotechnic opener full of clever threats ("Hand yo' mama a tissue/If I decide to kiss you"), the raps mostly come down to the usual literal-minded gangsta litany. By the time of the dragging "Limos, Demos & Bitches," the only thing you're left with is the urge to hit the stop button.

Perhaps it's the inevitable price of the hip-hop game. After all, rap is almost by definition an affair for very young men (and despite the likes of Lauryn Hill, "men" is still the right word). You can praise that precociousness as a sign of its creative vitality or curse it as part of the grotesque bias toward everything juvenile in modern popular entertainment. And if you want to swim off into deeper, darker waters, you can in turn ascribe some of rap's youth orientation to issues of race and class. Thirtysomething white acts can still sound fresh and young, but in the poor, black, urban demographic to which Cube originally spoke, a 30-year-old man simply is old. Think of the reduced life expectancies in the ghetto, or the teen pregnancy rates that have made more than a few 35-year-old men real-life granddaddies, or even the tremendous weight of day-to-day urban survival that just wears a body down.

Not so coincidentally, race and class have always been Ice Cube's main selling point -- he's "The Nigga Ya Love To Hate," remember? The irony is that this time out he has tried to escape the meaning of this role with a little shell trick of switching audiences without switching identities. In short, he's out to win the unfortunately named "wiggers" -- the huge base of young "white niggers" who now take to the cultural explosion from across the tracks as naturally as their parents took to that cultural explosion from across the pond (that would be the Beatles and the British Invasion, children). Although he never abandons his doomy West Coast sound, Cube even demonstrates his racial harmlessness with a track featuring fast-rising metal stars Korn, his latest touring partners on the sold-out rap and metal "Family Values" tour. The ploy just might work, too. As Billy Corgan fans have been proving for years, white kids really know how to appreciate an old fart.

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