Judging by sales and air-play, lots of rap listeners still aren't tired of songs celebrating grills (gold teeth), ice (diamonds) and big booties--especially when shaken by pole-dancing strippers for Cristal-swilling playas. But one hip-hop hero is fed to the teeth (we don't mean grills), and he's here to tell you so. "It's all about a party now," says Ice Cube. "Rap goes through phases, and sometimes one phase can last too long. This phase has blinded a lot of the young cats from seeing what's really going on in the world.''
This may sound like one more oldster getting grumpy about young folks and what the world's coming to--and promoting a new album. In fact, Ice Cube, 36, is much more the young radical than rappers half his age, whose role models seem to be Frank Sinatra and Donald Trump. In fact, Cube (born O'Shea Jackson) has been fed up for years. He was a savagely angry (and wickedly witty) social commentator on N.W.A.'s late-'80s benchmarks "Straight Outta Compton" and "F--- Tha Police." He was no less angry on his solo albums in the '90s--even, on the harsh 1990 track "No Vaseline," with former N.W.A. colleagues he accused of selling out.
Cube's new album, "Laugh Now, Cry Later," is his seventh, and may be his best since the searing "Amerikkka's Most Wanted'' in 1990. He released it on his own Lench Mob label, to avoid major-label meddling. "They want to hear certain s--t so the radio will play it. I didn't want to deal with that. I wanted to say what I wanted to say." And it hasn't hurt him a bit: the first single, "Why We Thug," has been a top-10 hit for a month now, despite its take-no-prisoners politics. Why do they thug? "Cause there's drugs in the hood, thugs in the hood ... Since I was little not a damn thing changed/It's the same ol' same/Bush runs things like Saddam Hussein." Cube also targets California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger--and Interscope Records, for its posthumous Tupac Shakur releases ("Keep your a-- out the casket/Interscope will spend your money"). And a track called "Child Support" takes on the strip-hoppers: "M.C.'s is funny/All you can rap about is p---y and money."
Cube has released this album at the worst--or best?--possible time. The likes of Ludacris, Ying Yang Twins and Lil Jon rule the charts, and T-Pain's "I'm in Love With a Stripper" has become an anthem at sports bars, late-hour nightspots--and, of course, strip clubs--across the country. "For weeks that's all anyone would request when they came in,'' says Owen James, manager of L.A.'s Club Paradise. "It's the dream of young men spelled out. Strip clubs and strippers are so popular now, it's natural that the culture would reflect it.''
But Ice Cube isn't the only rapper who wonders why the music doesn't also reflect real life--from the war in Iraq to increasing hardship in the inner city to the unwelcome fact of aging. Snoop Dogg, whose 1999 video for "The Next Episode" was an early example of stripper-pole chic, still turns out such club hits as "Drop It Like It's Hot," with the usual pimps and ho's, champagne and weed. But his latest album also features a track called "Ups and Downs,'' which simply describes waking up each morning and facing a new day. "I'm getting older," he says, "and the world is changing in ways that's scary."
Snoop understands why younger rappers might "get stuck in a rut. They hear what others are doing and saying on the radio, and feel they have to do the same if they want to sell records." But the current chart-topping rapper TI--who grew up in Atlanta, center of the strip-hop universe--says he just has to look at his own life to keep from falling into that trap. "I just write about what's going on in my world," he says, "and what's going on isn't just parties, strippers and money. Yeah, I can have all those things. But I also have the same issues most people have. Taking care of my family, dealing with the death of people I love--that's what my fans can relate to. I'm not dissing those guys who do talk about ice and women, but I got to be proud of what I put out there.''
Ice Cube, of course, feels no need to be so circumspect. "We ain't got to put up with this brainless rap/May all your lungs collapse." That's another line from "Child Support"--which he's chosen for his new single. If young rappers take it personally ... well, call it part of their education. Cube belongs to rap's long tradition of politically righteous anger, from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to Public Enemy. "I came up on the music of the teachers of rap, like KRS-One and Chuck D," he says. "These days the kids have no idea about that period of the rap game." They're about to get schooled.