A week and a half before the release of Laugh Now, Cry Later, Ice Cube's seventh album, I was at a friend's apartment, digging through some old tapes I had stupidly given away. I found a copy of The Predator, Cube's post-Rodney King/L.A. riots manifesto from 1992 that stands as his last brave record. In the liner notes read the following:
"Ice Cube wishes to acknowledge white America's continued commitment to the silence and oppression of black men ... the failure of the public school system to teach all of its students about the major contributions made by our African-American scientists, inventors, artists, scholars and leaders ... America's cops for their systematic and brutal killings of brothers all over the country. ... You say Ice Cube is a problem. Well, you're right. He's two people in the same body: one African, one American."
It's pretty impossible to imagine Ice Cube feeling the same way today, let alone sharing these thoughts with every person who buys his album. He's a bankable movie star, for fuck's sake, and not just an R-rated one. He's embraced nice-guy roles with such unflinching charisma that people can now write of Ice Cube, the actor, without feeling obliged to mention Ice Cube, the rapper, nor the pivotal hip-hop he made in the late '80s and early '90s and the controversy that went with it. Two people in the same body? Easily.
Starting with N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Cube made four albums between 1988 and 1992 filled with the most viciously offensive and uncompromising social commentary this side of Oliver Stone. By 1991, he hated everyone: cops, politicians, record labels, Hollywood, women, whites, Koreans, Jews, ignorant blacks, blacks who sold out, blacks who were trying to sell out, his old group. The Rodney King/LAPD verdict gave The Predator a focused target and proved Cube's earlier work to be eerily prophetic. Everything that's come out since has been an entertaining waste of time.
It's been fun, though, celebrating Cube's remarkably serious attempts at resurgence. You could argue, especially with the Westside Connection records, that he's never stopped making hardcore hip-hop; despite adopting the pseudo-mack alias Don Mega and pooping out bass-bubbled dance hits such as "You Can Do It" along the way, he still destroys on the mike and makes one of the most believable scowls anywhere. War & Peace was an anticipated two-volume set -- a "peace" disc and a "war" disc, released separately -- that, looking back, had a lot of strong moments and great production but ultimately felt spotty. Any talk of a return to form was quickly hushed. And then Cube made the Barbershop movies, and it felt like Friday all over again.
Laugh Now, Cry Later comes after the second of the War & Peace albums (Peace) by more than six years. There's no reason for the delay; it's not like Cube was recruiting Dre and Ren for another mini-N.WA. reunion or compiling retaliatory attacks in light of, oh, all the terrible shit that's happened since 2000. Cube's backdrop has always been the cultural furnace that is Los Angeles (the ominous cover of Laugh Now, Cry Later has him looking over the city, head bowed and disappointed against a blood-red sky), and, in that respect, the new record picks up where most of his "recent" stuff has left off: fearless reality checks, painfully trite street nods, menacing and surprisingly non-rusty mike control, mostly good beats, welcomed guest appearances by people you've forgotten (the great W.C., Kokane). To expect anything else is wishful nostalgia. Like Scarface -- one of the few real peers Ice Cube has -- Cube's been rapping in this pronounced, almost pastorly tone since around the time of Lethal Injection (1993). Where once he could believably include himself among the victimized, he now has to settle for the role of narrator. To make things worse, we all know he's out of the loop. On Laugh Now, Cry Later, quips about smoking weed ("Smoke Some Weed") and not snitching ("Stop Snitchin'") automatically make those subjects dated and unexciting; imagine your dad digging the new Red Hot Chili Peppers CD then asking about the Liars album.
But a huge part of Laugh Now's appeal is that, going into this album, Ice Cube no longer elicited expectations as a rapper. He didn't have to do this, and the fact that he not only did, but did so without losing all self-respect (see: J, LL Cool) -- in fact, he made a blistering triumph of a record -- positions Laugh Now, Cry Later as a staggering achievement. The incredible production -- some of the best Cube's ever had in his corner -- is quintessential L.A. hydraulic rap: bright and loud, heavy on synths and dark piano chords. But it's updated, devoid of retread. The Green Lantern-produced "The Nigga Trapp" and Scott Storch's "Steal the Show" are the best of the pack, lots of bounce for Cube's rhythmic swagger and not at all self-conscious. A bridge between Cube's rap selves becomes apparent, sometimes to shocking effect: "Click, Clack -- Get Back!" is Westside Connection-throwback-hard; the hazy title track is O.G.-reserved. Even the Lil Jon tracks get in where they fit in, with "You Gotta Lotta That" and "Holla @ Cha' Boy" giving Cube simple yet funky groundwork to flex his muscle.
This is all baffling because in rap, there are few successful comeback stories. Every once in a while, a dude like Rakim or Big Daddy Kane re-emerges, seemingly from the dead, and makes every young rapper look horribly unprepared. Or Common will find new life after creative risk-taking falls short, or a long overlooked rapper such as Bun B will get his due. But Ice Cube is different. He raised hell from the start and got on a roll that looked unstoppable. Then he did the same thing with movies, and now he's entered television. So I guess that's his secret: options. And while it means he'll never be able to make another Predator, it's good to know he won't run out of fascinating ideas, either.
Ice Cube Web site