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Classic Albums: 'AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted' by Ice Cube

Classic Albums: 'AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted' by Ice Cube

In 1989, Ice Cube had just split from N.W.A., the hottest (and most controversial) act in Hip-Hop.

No longer a member of "The World's Most Dangerous Group," Cube wound up in New York City upon the suggestion of Lyor Cohen of Rush Associated Labels. Cohen had urged Cube to meet with producer Sam Sever about working on Cube's first solo album. Sever was fresh off of producing The Cactus Album, 3rd Bass's successful debut. But Cube wound up meeting with Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, who led him to The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy's in-house producers. 

Cube and his production partner Sir Jinx wound up working with The Bomb Squad on what would be Cube's debut album. The result was a firebomb of explosive lyricism; a level of depth that had only been hinted at in N.W.A., and an incendiary new voice in Hip-Hop. 

 

"Better Off Dead" is such a classic intro and it sets the stage for how cinematic the album is. The thematic qualities of the album are highly influential (you can hear the son of AmeriKKKa's Most... in Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city), and Sir Jinx's love of films informs his skits. And "The Nigga Ya Love To Hate" is one of the moments where Cube and Jinx were in their bag. For an album known for the Bomb Squad's production, it sets things off on a decidedly Cali-sounding note. Cube's anger really stands out: a chorus of "Fuck You, Ice Cube." No one was addressing their own perceived negativity at the time like Cube was.

 

The Bomb Squad's style was perfect for Cube's fury on the title track, which shows how well the two worked together. They brought out some of his best and most inventive lyricism; his rhyming was sharper here than it had been on Straight Outta Compton, even. This is a quintessential Bomb Squad production. The horn stabs and drum patterns stick with me to this day. It doesn't feel like Cube was just taking beats that Chuck D didn't want. "What They Hittin' Foe?" is one of Cube's best story raps. He puts you right in the middle of a craps circle.

 

"You Can't Fade Me" is the story of a hookup gone very wrong. Another one of Cube's best story raps and it is definitely "problematic" by 2020s standards. Cube could be funny and disturbing all in the same song. Songs like "...Fade Me" laid the blueprint for revenge-slanted songs we'd see from artists like Eminem. And "Once Upon A Time In the Projects," yet another classic story rap, is further evidence that early Ice Cube would've been trending on social media every time he dropped anything. Cube doesn't need a video to paint the picture. His songs are like a good book; there's plenty of details, but you can fill in the rest.

That Pino snippet from "Do the Right Thing" was and still is so potent. But it says a lot about how hard rappers had to fight R&B stations—which were the status quo for Black radio in most of the country.

"Turn Off the Radio" is a clear shot fired at radio programmers at the time. R&B was still king of Black music around the country, and Hip-Hop was still fighting for a seat at the proverbial table. The elders didn't take it seriously, so the only rap you would hear in many rotations was poppy stuff like Heavy D and Salt-N-Pepa. There was no Ice Cube at all. Not yet, anyway.

 

 

"Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside)" is the most wildly chaotic track on the album; and with the Bomb Squad producing, it should be expected that Chuck D was going to make an appearance. It's almost Cube's answer to "Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos." It's depressing that the themes of this song are as relevant today as they were back in 1990. This is music documenting the Black experience in America.

 

The novelty humor of "A Gangsta's Fairytale" is interesting; in that rappers tackling fairy tales and nursery rhymes weren't rare. Run-D.M.C., Too $hort, lots of people did it. Most of those songs aren't as clever and hilarious as Cube is here. Cube was taking these well-known characters and placing him in his own world. And "I'm Only Out for One Thang" continues the most lighthearted stretch on the album, a showcase for P.E. hypeman Flavor Flav. It's the only track on here one could call throwaway, but it's fun. "Get Off My Dick and Tell Yo Bitch to Come Here" is one of the toughest beats on the album. Is he dissing women? Is he dissing dudes? Sounds like he's dissing everybody. Is it an interlude? Song? I love that there was a time in Hip-Hop where you could do something that was less than a minute long. Cube obviously wasn't worried about "singles." That's why this album feels so cohesive. 

 

"The Drive-By" is so influential. It feels like these sketches became a West Coast standard. Jinx has said that they used Young MC as the background music as a commentary against so-called "gangster rap." They thought it was funny that someone listening to "clean" rap would be doing a drive-by.

 

Rollin' Wit' the Lench Mob" is the obligatory you-have-to-have-your-clique-on-the-track-near-the-end-of-the-album hat trick, but The Lench Mob was always an underrated crew. "'Self Destruction' don't pay the fucking rent?" and "Faces of Death on wax" keep things firmly referential to 1990, but the attitude is forever timeless.

 

 

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"Who's the Mack?" is further proof that Cube is one of Hip-Hop's best storytellers and this was his first solo single. It was also his first solo video, and it shows you immediately who Cube as sans N.W.A.: Thoughtful and real. Alex Winter from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure directed the famous video.

 

Yo-Yo smashes "It's A Man's World" to smithereens and the beat switch on this track is one of the musical highlights on the album. Yo-Yo and Cube go bar-for-bar in one of the best examples of "battle of the sexes" in Hip-Hop. This is another example of Cube willing to sorta "diss" himself on his own record. You just didn't see that self-deprecation at the time. "The Bomb" has to be near the top of all-time great album closers. He goes ape shit on this track and that final "So what that Lench Mob like?" is some fucking gangsta shit.  People don't think in those terms of "album closers" anymore. They're skipping around to find "songs." You've got to give a lot of credit to The Bomb Squad. They made "gumbo."

When Ice Cube split from N.W.A., there were precious few examples of a rapper launching a successful solo career after spurning an established act. Kool Moe Dee and Spoonie Gee had emerged from the Treacherous Three, but that was more or less the only predecessor Cube had for what he was attempting to do. With AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Ice Cube made it clear that he was more than just 1/5th of The World's Most Dangerous Group, he was a formidable artist in his own right.

And he was just getting started.

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