Once Again It’s On: Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted Rings True At 25
A quarter of a century ago today (May 16, 1990), Ice Cube released his solo debut. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted signaled his post-N.W.A. career, and the acrimonious split left fans eager to hear Cube’s perspective. However, what those supporters received was more dynamic than one man’s tale of anger and revenge, and the album remains one of the most complete, well-rounded debuts in Hip-Hop history. Produced almost entirely by Public Enemy’s beat-making team the Bomb Squad (with supervision from his longtime affiliate Sir Jinx), the album allowed Cube to step outside of the West Coast sound in which he had been so deeply entrenched and its release just one month after Fear Of A Black Planet made its themes of racism and disenfranchisement particularly apropos.
25 years later, it maintains the eerie prescient quality it did in 1990, two years before the Rodney King riots plagued Los Angeles. Today, on the heels of nationwide protests sparked by events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and Baltimore (just to name a few), AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted could very well be a contemporary release, with its criticism of police, allusion to the Ku Klux Klan, and tales of hardships faced by the institutionalized subjugation that leads to and exacerbates life in the hood. With the names Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray (by no means an exhaustive list) still sitting on the tip of our collective tongue, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted is simultaneously a musical time capsule reminding us of dark days past and a sobering reminder that, for many, not much has changed.
Almost immediately, our ears are assaulted with the in-your-face delivery of Ice Cube’s signature bravado. On “The Nigga You Love To Hate,” he leaves no stone unturned, railing against all those who have or think about getting in his way (“When I’m shooting let’s see who drop / The police, the media, and suckers that went pop”). He offers up the basis for all that aggression, referencing disproportionate incarceration rates between minorities and whites, one of racism’s most insidious side effects, which remains prevalent today (“They say keep em on gangs and drugs / You wanna sweep a nigga like me up under the rug / Kicking shit called street knowledge / Why more niggas in the pen than in college?”). Even before that, the intro track encapsulates what is perhaps the album’s strongest message: Based on how they’re treated, Black Americans are apparently best kept out of sight, whether in a cell or (as the title suggests) “Better Off Dead.” Playing a death-row inmate whose last words are “Fuck all y’all,” Cube takes on the role of an archetypal symbol of the Black criminal, America’s most wanted and feared villain of all.
Arguably the most searing piece of cultural criticism on the album comes in the form of “Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside),” a Chuck D-assisted condemnation of American society. Word-for-word, the track could have been released yesterday, with phrases like “They kill 10 of me to get the job correct / To serve, protect, and break a nigga’s neck” uncannily applicable to the deaths of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, both of whom suffered fatal neck-related injuries at the hands of police. Images of hoodie-clad Trayvon Martin are conjured up with “Nobody knows, but I suppose the color of my clothes matches the color of the one on my face, as they wonder what’s under my waist,” a young man of color killed in an altercation, blamed for looking menacing in his attire. The track’s title, reinforced in the song’s opening when the news anchor states “Young black teenagers are reported to be the oldest, and the newest, creatures added to the Endangered Species List. As of now, no efforts have been made to preserve the blacks,” carries with it much of the same message as does today’s Black Lives Matter movement and hashtag. In another example of the White Media interpreting the issues affecting Black America, Tom Brokaw can be heard saying “Outside the South Central area, few cared about the violence because it didn’t affect them” at the end of the “Drive-By” interlude, underscoring the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that makes it difficult for any lasting change to be implemented.
Also predominant on the album is the omnipresent dichotomy prevalent on countless rap albums, that of the MC criticizing the sociopolitical system while also glorifying a life of crime. While Cube has made it clear that White America places obstacles and distractions in the lives of minorities in an effort to keep them subordinate, he also champions the life of the hustler on tracks like “What They Hittin Foe?” and “Rollin’ Wit’ The Lench Mob.” On the former, Cube regales us with a dice game, a familiar site in neighborhoods where any opportunity to make a quick buck is too difficult to pass up. On the latter, he boasts about his posse’s dominance, including an affinity for guns, willingness to get locked up, and a readiness to “peel your cap.” While neither track deliberately references the institutionalization of racism in economic strata, it would be short-sighted to take the songs at face value; they, like so many songs being released today, speak to the lack of opportunity and motivation suffocating cities across the country.
Ice Cube was 19 years old when AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted was released, around the same age as Wendell Allen, Michael Brown, Ramarley Graham, Ervin Jefferson, Trayvon Martin, Kendrec McDade, and countless other young, Black Americans were when killed by police or other authority figures.
In the 25 years since the album’s release, Ice Cube’s career trajectory has taken him from an inner-city rapper who condoned the murder of police to a Hollywood heavyweight, making family-friendly films—even playing a cop on screens. Now a multi-millionaire whose cultural cache stands to grow upon the release of Straight Outta Compton, Cube represents that elusive urban hero, the one who got out of the hood and made something for himself. While surely a positive message to those who remain shackled by poverty and violence, recent events remind us that for far too many of us, the trajectories in life apply only to bullets.
Amanda Mester is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @CanEye_KickIt