In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Ice Cube’s The Predator, which went to No. 1 on December 5, 1992, where it stayed for one week.
The story of how Nevermind snuck up on the world and threw Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard charts in early 1992 has become as legendary as the record itself. It’s a fun, David vs. Goliath type of narrative. Much like how The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show ushered in the British Invasion, Nirvana’s besting of the King Of Pop let the world know the pop music landscape was turning on its ear.
While Nirvana deserves the lion’s share of the credit for dictating much of the direction popular music would take over the course of the ’90s, it’s easy to forget that wasn’t the only act helping to push mainstream music down edgier avenues. While rock fans hungering for something fresh and real gravitated toward Seattle, a movement of a different kind was happening at the opposite end of the California coastline. South Central Los Angeles hardly struck anyone at the time as the backdrop for massive Billboard success. But gangsta rap was about to do for hip-hop what grunge was already doing for rock music.
By November 1992, Ice Cube was more than three years removed from scaring the world straight with N.W.A. His solo albums AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, released in 1990, and its 1991 follow-up, Death Certificate, were solid efforts that helped solidify Ice Cube’s post-N.W.A. career, but they were just prelude to his biggest solo strike. The Predator was a blunt, confrontational commentary on life in inner-city Los Angeles told from the front lines. Cube talked a big game on his past records, barking his rhymes with enough conviction to back them up. But what carried The Predator head and shoulders above its predecessors was the unsettling cultural backdrop against which it was released. Arriving some seven months after the infamous Rodney King verdict and the L.A. riots that soon followed, Cube spit months’ worth of swallowed anger and frustration back in the face of the American public. Rather than cautiously picking his targets, he takes aim at everything: police brutality, racial stereotyping, sociopolitical double standards, and most of all the growing divide between black and white America.
Admittedly, these were already fast becoming gangsta rap talking points, and it would be but a matter of months before Compton would become the epicenter of the hip-hop universe thanks to the breakthrough success of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. But while those records occasionally got carried away by their bravado, Ice Cube comes at The Predator with the kind of raw aggression that can’t be faked, channeling the tension of inner-city L.A. into a blistering record of indignation. The Predator’s blood runs hot with immediacy. It’s there in the extracted news clips from the King verdict and the sounds of newscasters and experts trying to fake their way through conversations about race. “When Will They Shoot?” lays Cube’s suspicion of the police out bare for the world to see, and his anger lands with all the subtlty of a fist to the gut (“Ice Cube is outgunned,” he belts. “What is the outcome? Will they do me like Malcolm?”). The same goes for equally hard-boiled tracks like the self-explanatory “We Had To Tear This Mothafucka Up,” and “Who Got The Camera?,” which tackle racial profiling head on.
Even the record’s smoother, more relaxed tracks rattle with nervous energy. Everyone knows the story of “It Was A Good Day”: Mama cooked the breakfast with no hog, Cube fucked around and shot a triple-double, and he didn’t even have to break out the AK? But even the celebration of these small victories spoke of a world where violence and unrest lurked around every corner.
The Predator, if nothing else, plays like a nervy emotional release, a personal record designed first and foremost as a means of getting something off of its creator’s chest. Though Ice Cube clearly exercised some serious frustration with the record, audiences jumped in line behind it as well. The Predator moved 193,000 records in its first week of release, enough to land it at No. 1 atop the Billboard charts in the first week of December 1992. The stay was short, but the fact that it rose to such heights spoke to how mainstream audiences were starting to angle for something new. In a year where the charts were dominated by the likes of Kris Kross, Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, and The Bodyguard soundtrack, The Predator hung around just long enough to put the rest of the world on notice that real, street-bred hip-hop was on the rise. For a record that white-knuckled its way through the pains of racial strife and cultural warfare, its validation by mainstream audiences showed that sometimes even the saddest stories can find a chance at vindication.