29 October 1991
Ice Cube’s second solo effort is essential listening. A friend introduced me to this album in my early 20s. My initial reaction was, “What does this gangster rap have to do with me? I’m a soft white boy from a town where the biggest industry was the apple orchard.” He clued me in that I didn’t have to relate to it, but I could learn from it. Cube was talking about racial inequality in both the streets and the courtroom while telling the story of growing up black in LA, split between The Death Side and The Life Side.
It starts strong with “The Wrong N*gga to F*ck With,” a mixture of street braggadocio and a screed against institutionalized racism, and it doesn’t let up from there. It segues into “My Summer Vacation” a nightmare road trip discussing the spread of gangs and drugs across America. “Heavy Mobbin’” is all about a young black man trying to earn in the ghetto – “Bustin’ caps in the mix / Rather be judged by twelve than carried by six…”
There’s the misogynist “Givin’ Up The Nappy Dug Out” and “Look Who’s Burnin’,” dealing with sex and the dangers inherent therein when you’re in the hood. “A Bird In The Hand” and “Man’s Best Friend” explore the failure of government and other organizations to take care of the underprivileged and the need for self-reliance no matter what form it takes. The Death Side ends with a commentary on street violence and the inaccessibility of proper healthcare for the poor in America in “Alive On Arrival.”
The Life Side begins with “I Wanna Kill Sam,” a diatribe against the way The US military-industrial complex uses black men to feed their war machines while “Horny Lil’ Devil” lashes out at white men trying to “steal” black women.
“Black Korea” is a quick racist attack on Asians encroaching on traditionally black neighborhoods. “True To The Game” is a dis track that rails against black sell-outs and white fans & businessmen appropriating hip-hop for their own purposes. “Color Blind” ruminates on the senselessness of gang violence. “Doing Dumb…” is the most lighthearted track on the album, goofin’ on bein’ a kid coming up in LA.
“Us” is a call for solidarity within the black community while the closer, “No Vaseline,” is another dis track that straight-up calls out his former N.W.A. crew members in the rudest way possible.
It took a lot for me to wrap my head around this album but over time it has become not just a favorite of mine, but indispensable in the pantheon of hip-hop. Of course, nearly 30 years on, so many of the social issues that Ice Cube addresses here remain headlines, with very little progress or national conversation. But this is a music page, not a politics page, so I’ll stick to the music and just say, if you don’t know this record, you should get to fixing that oversight.