Regardless of whether the album is becoming obsolete, the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for rewind.
There seems to be a common feeling that, as a culture, we’re gradually getting coarser, more irreverent, and—for a lack of a better term—edgier. For as long as I’ve been alive at least, people have believed this. And it really does seem to be true if you look only at the most simplistic signifiers of loosening standards: You can hear the word “vagina” on TV’s Whitney, or enjoy the most realistic robot violence ever depicted on film in Real Steel. But in terms of the ideas behind those gestures, we’re actually moving in a tamer, less challenging direction.
Take “Bitch Suck Dick,” the latest single from hip-hop’s current provocateur-in-chief Tyler, The Creator. An unpleasant burst of Tourette’s-aping misogyny, “Bitch Suck Dick” is another bit of acting-out by a young, immature guy who’s still polite enough to not go any deeper. Tyler doesn’t confront his audience; he pats them on the back for appreciating something that offends “other” people. And so it goes in the “Bitch Suck Dick” video, where Tyler prances his way through a Baywatch parody that looks like a sub-par Tim & Eric rip-off. (Tyler directed the video himself.) For a guy supposedly out to shake white America to its very foundation, Tyler sure seems to have a good grasp on what white Americans find funny.
Contrast the “Bitch Suck Dick” video with Ice Cube’s “True To The Game,” which was released to MTV in the fall of 1992 from the successful Death Certificate album. Ice Cube wasn’t much older than 20-year-old Tyler when he made “True To The Game.” But even at the ripe old age of 23, Ice Cube was made of much sterner stuff. A bomb-throwing rant against “uncle Toms,” “True To The Game” opens with an incredible sequence in which Ice Cube stalks an interracial couple and subsequently takes the black man hostage by bursting into his house, tying him up, and throwing him in his trunk. He doesn’t play the scene for laughs; it’s shot with the gritty realism of a low-rent ’70s exploitation movie. (Imagine Huey Newton remaking The Last House On The Left, and you get the idea.) Then Ice Cube dons a ski mask and kidnaps an MC Hammer look-alike and an emasculated business executive. The video ends with the targeted trio being forced to listen to what appear to be representatives of the Nation Of Islam.
The message of “True To The Game” is not subtle, nor is it intended to be. Whether you agree with Ice Cube or think this video is bordering on irresponsible propaganda—it’s possible to believe both—“True To The Game” is about more than its own shock value. Ice Cube had a point to make about American culture degrading the black experience to the point of self-nullification, and he’s being confrontational in service of that point. Ice Cube was selling millions of albums in the early ’90s, and he was purposeful about exposing a certain kind of reality that much of his audience wouldn’t be aware of otherwise. “These kids that are listening to my record are going to be the mayors and the senators until we get our act together,” Ice Cube told Spin in 1992. “So Timmy Wilson is up there and he knows what time it is with us. He might try to cut this racist monotony.”
Ice Cube was aggressive about letting Timmy Wilson know what time it is on all of his records, even his poppiest track and biggest hit, “It Was A Good Day,” from 1992’s The Predator. Arguably the peak of Ice Cube’s career from a commercial standpoint, “It Was A Good Day” was a built on a good-time Isley Brothers sample and pushed The Predator past 2 million copies sold, making it Ice Cube’s biggest seller ever. The song also marked the apex of one of the great five-year runs in hip-hop (and contemporary pop music) history. From 1988, when he was a pivotal contributor to N.W.A.’s game-changing Straight Outta Compton, up through the release of “It Was A Good Day” in early 1993, Ice Cube helped to shepherd hip-hop from the underground to worldwide prominence, all while pushing the music in socially and politically provocative directions. In the process, he influenced the look, sound, and ideology of the MC, all before he turned 24.
Ice Cube traveled east after leaving N.W.A. to work with the famed production team behind Public Enemy, The Bomb Squad, but his lyrics remained centered on the ghettos of Los Angeles. The specter of Rodney King, the L.A. riots, and the city’s legacy of bigoted and abusive cops are omnipresent in Ice Cube’s music, and he addresses it with a furious yet controlled eloquence that seems beyond his years. One of the things that distinguish the relatively light-hearted “It Was A Good Day” is that Ice Cube actually sounds like a young man for once. What he describes in the song sounds like a slice of life for most people in their teens and early 20s: You get up, you drive around, you hang out at a friend’s house, you get buzzed, and you stop for late-night burgers on the way home. Ice Cube doesn’t try to sound hard; the only time he’s “trouble” is on the basketball court. As a white kid from the Midwest who went to school with exactly four black people in the early ’90s, my mind was blown by the explosive rhetoric of “True To The Game.” “It Was A Good Day,” though, just seemed mundane.
Ice Cube prided himself on his ability to use language to paint pictures in listeners’ heads. “You can close your eyes and listen to an Ice Cube record and see, like 20 videos in your mind,” he told Spin. “I try to make it as visual and graphic as possible.” The appeal of “It Was A Good Day” lies in its specificity; the lyrics are a collection of photographic details. His mama cooks breakfast with no bacon. When he realizes the cops aren’t going to pull him over, he does a victory run through the intersection. Then he goes to Short Dog’s house to watch Yo! MTV Raps. (“True To The Game” plays on the TV in the “It Was A Good Day” video.) Later on, he hooks up with Kim, a girl he’s been trying to get with since the 12th grade. Before he has sex with Kim, he notes that the Lakers just beat the Supersonics.
(I prefer the “clean” version of “It Was A Good Day” to the album version, and it’s because of the part where Ice Cube has sex with Kim. In the album version, Ice Cube says his “dick runs deep, so deep, so deep put her ass to sleep.” But in the clean version played on MTV, he says his “jimmy runs deep, so deep, so deep put her butt to sleep.” In my opinion, “put her butt to sleep” just sounds more poetic.)
“It Was A Good Day” is not so much a happy song as guardedly (and probably temporarily) optimistic. The fatalism of Ice Cube’s other songs still exists in “It Was A Good Day,” it’s just been pushed to the background for a little while. Ice Cube only veers into fantasy at the end of the song, when he memorably looks at the lights of the Goodyear Blimp and it says (all together now): “ICE CUBE’S A PIMP.” (Cube is drunk on booze and weed at this point, so it’s possible that he’s hallucinating.)
The fleeting happiness of “It Was A Good Day” is driven home by the expert sample of the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps In The Dark,” one of the great ’70s soul slow jams that luxuriates in the sexiness of Ronald Isley’s vocals while surveying the wreckage of a romantic relationship ruined by infidelity. “Footsteps In The Dark” is a song that evokes the past even if you’re hearing it for the first time, while at the same time hinting at the desolation of the present. The song itself is about remembering a lost past: “My mind drifts now and then / Lookin’ down dark corridors and wonders what might have been,” Isley sings. Ice Cube draws on that quality for “It Was A Good Day,” relying on the nostalgia value of an old Isley Brothers hit to make his listeners feel happy, and the song’s inherent sadness to keep them grounded in reality.
While everything that happens in “It Was A Good Day” is unquestionably good—even the dog doesn’t bark at Ice Cube!—it’s good in a pretty ordinary way. Ice Cube is not talking about a great day, or a very good day. It’s not even a good day by Ice Cube standards. (I’m guessing he could afford something more extravagant than a Fatburger at the end of a long night in real life.) “It Was A Good Day” describes the sort of joy that only a regular schlub can appreciate, or reasonably hope for. Much of what’s “good” in “It Was A Good Day” involves the absence of something bad happening. The “jackers” aren’t trying to rob him, the cops don’t pull him over, the police helicopters aren’t looking for murderers—but all that stuff could very well happen tomorrow.