To 'G' or not to 'G' is the question."
When Ice Cube makes that statement early on in his new album, "Lethal Injection" (Priority 53876, arriving in stores today), he cuts to the heart of the problem facing gangsta rap. "To 'G' " means to act like a gangsta, and it's easy to see the appeal in playing that role. Particularly if you've made your living at gangsta rap, a style that owes its reputation and popularity to gat-packin' brutality and f-tha-police attitude -- a combination Cube helped perfect in N.W.A.'s 1988 album, "Straight Outta Compton."
the same time, though, it's becoming painfully obvious that urban violence -- much of it in the form of black-on-black crime -- is killing our cities.
And no matter how often rap's stars rationalize their work with the excuse "we're just reporting what we see every day," even the hip-hop community is growing uneasy at the degree to which life is imitating art.
All of this leaves Ice Cube walking a treacherously narrow path. On the one hand, he's done a lot over the last few years to distance himself from the mindless criminality glorified by the shallowest gangsta rap, including a tremendous amount of charity work within his own community; on the other hand, he can't help but be aware that a large part of his audience listens to his albums because they're so uncompromisingly hard-core.
So how does Cube answer the question?
In the affirmative, but not the way you'd think.
He is, as the chorus to "Really Doe" proudly puts it, "a ---- G." His protagonist in "Ghetto Bird" spends most of the day being dogged by an LAPD chopper, while the narrator of "Down for Whatever" explains that "When I was little, I didn't want to be like Mike/I wanted to be like Ike" -- a reference to legendary pimp Ice
Yet even as he talks of robbing and pimping, Cube never allows "Fatal Injection" to be defined by the usual terms of gangsta rap. What he offers here isn't cheap titillation, but something that's as much manifesto as it is amusement.
Not every listener is likely to buy what he's selling, though. Because instead of waxing rhapsodic over gats, chronic and 'hoes, the way other gangsta rappers do, Cube uses his album to preach against police oppression, white domination and the uselessness of Christianity.
Frankly, some folks may end up wishing he stayed with sex and violence.
Take the album's opening sketch. A man turns up at a doctor's office saying he's there "to get my shot." So he's ushered into a waiting room, where Dr. Cube joins him. "Mr. White, huh?" says Cube. "This won't hurt a bit." After swabbing him with alcohol, Cube says, "Brace yourself," and a gun goes off.
How's that for a "Lethal Injection"?
Then there's "What Can I Do?" It starts off with a tale about a crack dealer who gets busted and ends up in the pen.
But rather than play this saga for gangsta glory, the man Cube describes turns out to be just a dumb "G" with no education and a baby to support who ends up working at McDonald's because, as a convicted felon, "What else can I do?"
But before ending the song, Cube steps out of his narrative role to offer a little commentary. "The white man has broke every law known to man to establish America," he says. "But he'll put you in the state penitentiary, he'll put you in the federal penitentiary, for breaking these same laws." And he rattles off a laundry list of offenses -- ". . . rape, racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder, extortion . . ." -- before pronouncing sentence: "Guilty on every charge."
Cube's point is simple: If criminality breeds criminality, then Americans need only look at their own history to understand why the cities are crawling with drug dealers and trigger-happy thugs. After all, he argues, it's hard for citizens to have respect for the law when their government clearly doesn't.
"Lethal Injection" isn't all politics and polemics. Cube's duet with K-Dee on "Make It Ruff, Make It Smooth" is more a verbal competition than a serious discussion of rap style, while "Bop Gun" makes no bones at all about being a straight-up tribute to guest star George Clinton (though it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to infer some utopianism from the inclusion of "One Nation Under a Groove").
But what's likely to get the greatest attention for this album are tracks like "Cave Bitch," in which Cube disses white women, or "When I Get to Heaven," a savagely satiric attack on Christianity that describes black churches as "nothin' but a fashion show."
Is he a white-baiting racist? Has his association with the Nation of Islam turned him into an unforgiving revolutionary? Certainly, some listeners (and many more who won't listen) will end up thinking so.
But rather than see this album in such black-and-white terms, it might make more sense to see it less as a racist attack on whites than an attack on a racist social structure. Because the scariest thing about "Lethal Injection" isn't the anger beneath Ice Cube's rhymes and rhetoric -- it's the fact that most of his anger is easily justifiable.
CATCH THE CUBE
To hear excerpts from Ice Cube's newest album, "Lethal Injection," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, 836-5028 in Harford County, 848-0338 in Carroll County), and punch in 6189 after you hear the greeting.