Friday, August 19, 2011

90's Hit Parade, #37

Ice Cube - You Can't Fade Me

I tried to pick a different Ice Cube song. I really did. I listened repeatedly to his three early 90's albums (not that that's any great sacrifice--AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Death Certificate and Predator comprise one of the best three-album stretches in history), but this song is just the epitome of Ice Cube-ness. Yes, this is the one with the line "What I ought to do is kick the bitch in the tummy." It's a disturbing song (although the line is not quite as harsh in the context of the song as when it's pulled out by itself), one that I'm not very comfortable with (which might be the point), and one that was controversial even among the hip hop community of the time for its seething misogyny and violence. I'm not sure it makes sense to talk about it in terms of "violence against women"--for Ice Cube's character, violence is an acceptable way of dealing with anyone, probably the ONLY acceptable medium of human interaction (or at least the only one worth writing lyrics about). This particular song at least sets up some tension: his instinct is to kill the woman, but he knows he can't get away with it. Cube casts himself as the victim here, and I don't doubt that grifters like his female nemesis actually exist (the song may even be based on first-person experience). I see it more as a portrait of an ugly world than an expression of misogyny, but I say that without trying to obscure the misogynist worldview that supports every line of the story.

Speaking of streaks, it's also worth noting that Most Wanted was produced by Public Enemy's production crew, The Bomb Squad, the same year as Fear of a Black Planet (my favorite album of all time). "Cant' Fade Me" is track 5 on Most Wanted, "Welcome to the Terrordome" is track 5 on Black Planet, both are the highlights of their respective albums, so it's perhaps worth comparing.

Fear of a Black Planet starts slow, the sample collage "Contract on the World Love Jam" slowly forming out of wind sounds, revealing a slow, funky beat that finally hardens as it transitions into the mid-tempo "Brothers Gonna Work it Out." Momentum builds through the James Brown funk of "911 is a Joke" and the taught collage "Incident at 66.6 FM," then the floodgates open up and the group lets loose with the full-speed "Welcome to the Terrordome." Chuck D is at his best when he's working at this car chase speed, throwing his complex lyrics at the listener faster than the ear can process them.

AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted starts out full speed, with (following the opening skit) "The Nigga You Love to Hate" and "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" back to back (you can tell the song changes from the brief skit that separates them). Cube is doing Chuck D a bit here (the line "(I'll) never tell you to get down, it's all about comin' up" is a classic bit of Chuck D-style wordplay), but Cube relates to Chuck roughly the same way young Mick Jagger related to Bob Dylan: Chuck's rhymes come from his frontal cortex, Cube's come directly from his dick. On track 4, "What They Hittin' Foe?" the beat drops down to a mid-tempo hard funk, and you feel Cube slide into his wheelhouse. This beat fits his voice. He can throw syllables like punches on the beats. The violence and swagger of Ice Cube comes out hard and percussive. In this mode, he sounds more like KRS-One than Chuck D. "What They Hittin' Foe?" goes by too quickly (1:22, to be exact), then Cube yells "Kick an old school beat," and "You Can't Fade Me" starts up. Now we're even further into the bucking beat, a little smoother, and even more suited to Ice Cube's voice (the next song, "Once Upon a Time in the Projects," goes even further into his territory, but I don't think he rises to the occasion quite as well). As Cube unfolds his ugly little story, we get a clear picture of his character, his violence, his pride, his world. And all the time, this incredible rhythmic performance, his raps functioning not only as the vocal but almost as another drum track. When he talks about kicking the bitch in the tummy, you feel the kick.


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