CLASSIC ALBUMS features ROCK THE BELLS writers getting together to discuss some of the greatest albums in Hip-Hop history. A track-by-track breakdown of the essentials; what we like, what we don't. We explore Hip-Hop's canon without pretension or prejudice.
In 1989, Ice Cube had just split from N.W.A., the hottest (and most controversial) act in Hip-Hop.
No longer a member of "The World's Most Dangerous Group," Cube wound up in New York City upon the suggestion of Lyor Cohen of Rush Associated Labels. Cohen had urged Cube to meet with producer Sam Sever about working on Cube's first solo album. Sever was fresh off of producing The Cactus Album, 3rd Bass's successful debut. But Cube wound up meeting with Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, who led him to The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy's in-house producers.
Cube and his production partner Sir Jinx wound up working with The Bomb Squad on what would be Cube's debut album. The result was a firebomb of explosive lyricism; a level of depth that had only been hinted at in N.W.A., and an incendiary new voice in Hip-Hop.
Alec Banks and Stereo Williams look back at Ice Cube's landmark debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted.
Better Off Dead
Stereo: It's such a classic intro and it sets the stage for how cinematic the album is. The thematic qualities of the album are why I used to compare Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city to it all the time.
Alec: When I talked to Sir Jinx, he made it clear that he LOVED movies. His skits are one of the things I'll always remember about Cube's work. Speaking of skits...
The Nigga Ya Love To Hate
Stereo: A fucking banger. You can really hear the moments where Cube and Jinx were in their bag and this is one. For an album known for the Bomb Squad's production, it sets things off on a decidedly Cali-sounding note.
Alec: Ice Cube's anger is what really stands out for me here. When I first heard it I couldn't believe the chorus was, "Fuck You, Ice Cube." No one was addressing their own perceived negativity at the time like Cube was.
AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted
Stereo: The Bomb Squad's style was perfect for Cube's fury, and this shows how well the two worked together. They brought some of his best and most inventive lyricism; his rhyming was sharper here than it had been on Straight Outta Compton, even.
Alec: For me, this is a quintessential Bomb Squad production. The horn stabs and drum patterns stick with me to this day. It doesn't feel like Cube was just taking beats that Chuck D didn't want either.
What They Hittin' Foe?
Stereo: I love this song so much. This is one of Cube's best story raps, hands down. He puts you right in the middle of a craps circle. Detailed, hilarious -- one of my favorite moments on the album.
Alec: You gotta understand, I had no idea what playing dice was at the time. Lyrics referencing "points" and "ivory" had me completely confused. As I got older, this was one of those songs that I revisited and came to appreciate that much more.As you said, he puts you right in the middle of a dice game.
You Can't Fade Me/J.D.'s Gafflin'
Stereo: The story of a hookup gone very wrong. One of Cube's best story raps and whew -- it is definitely "problematic" by 2020s standards. But hey, that's what made Ice Cube who he was. He could be funny and disturbing all in the same song.
Alec: Problematic, yes. Entertaining, completely. These songs laid the blueprint for revenge-slanted songs we'd see from artists like Eminem. This is Ice Cube's "What if..."
Once Upon A Time In the Projects
Stereo: Another classic story rap and evidence that early Ice Cube would've been trending on social media every time he dropped anything. This is quintessential Cube.
Alec: It's funny you mention social media. That's what came to my head also. In an era where there's visuals for EVERYTHING, I really appreciate how Cube doesn't need a video to paint the picture. His songs are like a good book; there's plenty of details, but you can fill in the rest.
Turn Off the Radio
Stereo: That Pino snippet from Do the Right Thing was and still is so potent. But it says a lot about how hard rappers had to fight R&B stations -- which were the status quo for Black radio in most of the country.
Alec: Do the Right Thing...enough said. But for real, I really think Cube was ahead of his time when it came to asking for Hip-Hop to have a seat at the table. Who knows if he forecasted how big the culture would grow, but he was talking about it on this album.
Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside) feat. Chuck D
Stereo: It's the most wildly chaotic track on the album; and with the Bomb Squad producing, you knew Chuck D was going to make an appearance. It's almost Cube's "Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos."
Alec: It's depressing that the themes of this song are as relevant today as they were back in 1990. There were a ton of folks who labeled this music "gangster rap." It seems like such an antiquated term for music documenting the Black experience in America.
A Gangsta's Fairytale
Stereo: It's interesting that rappers tackling fairy tales and nursery rhymes weren't rare. Run-D.M.C., Too $hort, lots of people did it. Most of those songs aren't as clever and hilarious as Cube is here.
Alec: I know it's kinda embarrassing to admit, but this was the song I played most off the album when I was a kid. I couldn't believe Cube was taking these well-known characters and placing him in his own world. I felt like Neo after taking the red pill in The Matrix.
I'm Only Out for One Thang feat. Flavor Flav
Alec: I know I'm in the minority here, but this is probably the weakest song on the album. It seems like a rush job and Flavor Flav didn't seem as committed as he was when he was on PE songs. Just my two cents.
Stereo: Nah, that's fair. It's the only track on here I'd call throwaway, but I think it's fun. And me and my friend Keyon used to rap Flav's opening lines at the lunch table. So it holds sentimental value for me!
Get Off My Dick and Tell Yo Bitch to Come Here
Stereo: It's so hard and so messed up. It's brief but it's one of the toughest beats on the album. Is he dissing women? Is he dissing dudes? Sounds like he's dissing everybody.
Alec: Is it an interlude? Song? I love that there was a time in Hip-Hop where you could do something that was less than a minute long. Cube obviously wasn't worried about "singles." That's why this album feels so cohesive.
Stereo: So influential. It feels like these sketches became a West Coast standard.
Alec: Jinx told me a story that they used Young MC as the background music as a commentary against so-called "gangster rap." They thought it was funny that someone listening to "clean" rap would be doing a drive-by.
Rollin' Wit' the Lench Mob
Stereo: You had to have your clique on the track near the end of the album. Lench Mob was always an underrated crew. "'Self Destruction' don't pay the fucking rent?" Shots fired.
Alec: "Faces of Death on wax?" I mean, come on. That just screams early '90s wordplay.
Who's the Mack?
Stereo: Cube is one of Hip-Hop's best storytellers and I think this was his first solo single. It was definitely his first solo video, and it shows you immediately who Cube as sans N.W.A.: Thoughtful and real.
Alec: This is going to blow your mind: Alex Winter from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure directed it!
It's A Man's World feat. Yo-Yo
Stereo: The beat switch on this track is so dope. Yo-Yo makes her debut here and it's fire. She and Cube go bar-for-bar in one of the best examples of "battle of the sexes" in Hip-Hop.
Alec: This is another example of Cube willing to sorta "diss" himself on his own record. You just didn't see that self-deprecation at the time. You've gotta think Cube's style played a big part in what we'd see with Geto Boys.
Stereo: Nobody ever ranks "album closers," but if we did, this has to be near the top. He goes ape shit on this track and that final "So what that Lench Mob like?" is some fucking gangsta shit.
Alec: I like the idea of "album closers." People don't think in those terms anymore. They're skipping around to find "songs." You've got to give a lot of credit to The Bomb Squad. They made "gumbo."
AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted
Label: Priority Records
Producer: The Bomb Squad, Sir Jinx, Da Lench Mob