Ice Cube's Seamless Crossover
ED GORDON, host:
What happens to a gangster rapper's street cred' once they crossover into the mainstream culture of commercial endorsements and kid-friendly films?
Commentator Todd Boyd looks at one artist he says successfully made the leap, there and back.
Mr. TODD BOYD (Professor of Critical Studies, University of Southern California's School of Cinema Television): When Ice Cube's most recent film, the family comedy Are We There Yet, was released last year, my phone was ringing off the hook. I fielded tons of media calls, all asking the same question - how was it that Ice Cube, one of the pioneers of hardcore hip-hop, had made the transition from gangster rapper to now being the star of a PG-rated family film?
These reporters wanted to know how was it that a man who once described himself as the, quote, nigger you love to hate, had made the transition from his infamous scowl to playing a lead role in a mainstream farce intended for children. In a culture like that of hip-hop, a person's reputation is based on the often misunderstood concept of street credibility. As you might imagine, starring in a kiddy movie is generally not the way to gain the respect of the streets.
So many people believed that upon the release of Are We There Yet that Ice Cube had severed his ties with the hood once and for all. But this could not be further from the truth. With the release of his latest album, Laugh Now, Cry Later, Ice Cube has demonstrated that he hasn't strayed from his roots. If anything, he's come back with a vengeance.
Ice Cube made his name in hip-hop with the influential group NWA in the late '80s. Cube's writing and rapping with NWA on their legendary Straight Outta Compton album in 1988 introduced the world to the thoughts and sounds of what came to be known as gangster rap. A few years later, Cube made history again when he starred in the film, Boyz 'N the Hood.
Though it is now commonplace for rappers to become actors, Ice Cube was one of the first to make the successful transition into film. Yet over the years, many in hip-hop, especially those of the younger generation, seemed to have forgotten about Cube. They see him only as an actor and producer, and don't take him seriously as a rapper. The fact that several of his more recent albums prior to Laugh Now, Cry Later seemed to suffer from a lack of focus aided in this regard for his efforts as a lyricist.
But on Laugh Now, Cry Later, Cube takes it back, as they say. Here, he reemerges as a conscious gangster, and this allows him to tackle pressing social issues like police brutality, the prison industrial complex, racism at large. And he even takes a few jabs at the current political situation, stating at one point that, they ain't looking for Osama, ask Biggies' mama.
Comments like these were routine back in the early '90s, but have been few and far between since that time. Cube reminds us that hip-hop can still be political.
How does Cube maintain what at times appears to be the contradictions of his competing images in two different arenas? How does he get away with being a family man on screen and a gangster on record? He is able to do both because he always keeps it real. Having earned his stripes as an OG, having predicted that Los Angeles would explode in urban unrest as it did in 1992, and by being one of the early adapters in making the rap-to-acting transition, Cube established his street cred' a long time ago, and he has evolved since that time.
What Laugh Now, Cry Later demonstrates is that though a lot has changed since the late '80s and early '90s, Cube has only gotten better and wiser with age. Like Madonna, Cube manages to redefine himself and make moves in two different worlds without missing a beat. As they say in the 'hood, that's gangsta.
GORDON: Todd Boyd is a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema Television.
This is NPR News.