Wednesday, July 19, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1031: Ice T

I’ve had a lot on the go tonight, but I’m determined to squeeze in a music review before I hit the hay.

Disc 1031 is…The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech…Just Watch What You Say
Artist: Ice-T

Year of Release: 1989

What’s up with the Cover? A gentleman has a rough day, on account of a variety of guns stuffed into various orifices. Clever viewers will deduce that said gentleman is a Los Angeles Raiders fan (the Raiders played in LA from 1982 to 1994). I don't like the Raiders either, but this seems to be an overreaction.

How I Came To Know It: I first heard this album while having dinner with my friend Chris and his first wife Jennifer. I believe we played it pre-dinner, before eating some sushi. So yeah, an odd pairing of food and music, but I was impressed with Ice-T and began seeking out his music. Sushi, not so much.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Ice-T albums (his first four). I like all of them, but competition is tight. “The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech…” is a good album, but I like two other ones better. That puts it in at…third.

Ratings: 4 stars

In 1989 rap was still coming into its own, but Ice T was already a giant of the industry. With his raspy delivery and edgy narrative rhymes, he had a style that demands that you pay attention.

The Iceberg” covers a lot of ground, ranging from political and social commentary all the way to traditional “I rap the best” raps. There are even some sex songs that would make LL Cool J blush.

The album’s overarching theme revolves around the freedom of expression, and its cornerstone role in democratic society. Ice T approaches this both directly, through raps like the title track, and indirectly, by laying down rhymes that were deliberately antagonistic to the forces of censorship.

When Ice T raps about sex on songs like “The Iceberg” and “The Girl Tried to Kill Me”, he makes sure that sex is as dirty as possible. Dicks freeze off, whips are deployed and angry cuckolded husbands threaten violence.

When he about life on the streets, Ice T brings an element of violence that was relatively new to the style at the time. On “Peel Their Caps Back” rival gangs unleash violence on one another. When rapping about his skills on the microphone, his rhymes evoke the violent imagery of nine millimeter pistols and broken limbs. On “Lethal Weapon” he walks the line between the metaphorical violence and actual violence. Often you can’t tell which is which and I think that’s how he wants it.

The scratches and beats laid down on the record vary between furious and fast (“Hit the Deck”), rock-riff driven (“The Girl Tried to Kill Me”) and funk (“You Played Yourself”). Evil E is brilliant regardless of his source inspiration, and the DJing is as big part of the album’s aggressive energy as Ice T’s delivery.

You Played Yourself” also demonstrates that while Ice T clearly enjoys the idea of offending the Tipper Gores of the world, he is there to do more than shock. This song is about making smart decisions, staying in school, and avoiding drugs. Best of all, Ice T knows his audience – he doesn’t preach about the dangers of drugs and violence, he ladles scorn on those who make bad choices, and demands they take ownership of them.

Ice T uses “This One’s For Me” to defend Public Enemy; picking one of rap’s most controversial acts at the time to underscore that freedom of speech is for everyone, or it isn’t for anyone. It is on topics like this that the record shines brightest.

Ice T is best when he is direct. “Freedom of Speech” (the song) is one of my favourite raps of all time for this reason. Profane and daring and a direct attack against organizations like the then-influential Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC). Nowadays the efforts of Tipper Gore seem silly, but in 1989 attempts to censor music were very real.

Freedom of Speech” is a clarion call for action. Is the song profane? Yes, deliberately so. It is designed to offend, because Ice T is reminding us that sometimes art has to offend to have an impact (like his message to youth on “You Played Yourself”; they offend with a point). But if that is still too subtle for your average censor, Ice T lays it all out for you later in the song:

“Freedom of speech, let 'em take it from me
Next they'll take it from you, then what you gonna do?
Let 'em censor books, let 'em censor art
PMRC, this is where the witch hunt starts”

The album ends with “My Word is Bond” a collection of rappers one upping each another with creative exaggerations and outright lies. It is all done tongue-in-cheek and in a way that makes it clear that despite all his strong opinions, Ice T can still make fun of himself.

This record isn’t perfect. Some of the rhymes lack imagination, and at 55 minutes it felt a little long, but its combination of dope beats and furious unapologetic raps make it an iconic album of its generation nonetheless.

Best tracks: Lethal Weapon, You Played Yourself, The Girl Tried to Kill Me, Hit the Deck, Freedom of Speech

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