(Editor's note: Some of you two may remember this review as having erroneously been posted for a short time in December. Well, what you actually saw was an incomplete edit that I was still working on. However, the only part of the write-up I was still tweaking was the introduction: the actual track-by-track review is exactly the same as it was on the “original” version. So for the two of you who think this is a rerun, it isn't, but you're not completely crazy. Enjoy!)
Recently, while waiting for the rest of his party at the bar of a midscale restaurant in Los Angeles, rapper Ice Cube was asked by one of the other patrons what it was like to have fallen the fuck off in the music industry, why he believed that his new family-friendly persona had any right to exist, and how it felt to know that, no matter what he did, he would never make as much of a cultural impact as he did back in the early 1990s. A drink was thrown, security was quickly called to action, and I was promptly thrown out of that establishment.
O'Shea Jackson's fourth solo album, Lethal Injection, is generally seen as the point when the man's career in hip hop began to implode. Ice Cube's Jheri curl was long gone at this point: many of his fans point to the loss of that particular hairstyle as the reason why his lyrics faded in potency. However, that isn't truly the case: after his acclaimed work with West Coast gangsta rap forefathers N.W.A. and the runaway success of his controversial solo debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, he changed his look and tried his best to retain the political rhymes that made him a critical darling, if a bit of a divisive one.
Lethal Injection is the first Ice Cube album to focus almost exclusively on gangsta rap, both the violent facets and the rewards, as evidenced by the G-Funk influences on the project, almost certainly a result of the success stemming from former rhyme partner Dr. Dre's The Chronic a year prior. He doesn't stray far from serious subjects, though: Lethal Injection covers racism and religion with equal fervor. But he also doesn't exclusively focus on them, either: it's safe to say that a song such as "Bop Gun (One Nation)" probably turned the majority of his older fans away, since positive messages and odes to parties aren't what hip hop heads look for when they look in O'Shea's general direction.
Unsurprisingly, Lethal Injection took a pounding from music critics, and Cube took a break from rhyming afterward, deciding to focus instead on his blossoming film career. (Judging from the sheer amount of success he has had in that particular media, it's clear that he made the right choice.) This project still had a fair number of hit records (two of which, the aforementioned "Bop Gun (One Nation)" and "You Know How We Do It", garnered regular airplay on MTV, which was still something of an anomaly back in 1993), but most hip hop heads casually dismiss this effort as easily as they would a marathon of Two and a Half Men or yet another Tea Party rally.
1. THE SHOT (INTRO)
A useless rap album intro that doubles as a passive racist statement? Oh fuck, this album is going to suck.
2. REALLY DOE
After a brief snippet from the film American Me, we get to the actual song. The beat (from Lay Law and Derrick McDowell) is really fucking good, and it mixes in a Slick Rick vocal sample with ease, but O'Shea takes up too much of the listener's time with a useless intro that leads nowhere. He may as well have been reading his grocery list. When he finally decides to grace our ears with some actual verses, you'll quickly notice that his flow has been tamed by the trappings of success, both in the music industry and in Hollywood. He comes off as alright on “Really Doe”, but this just cannot compare to his first two full-length albums or even his N.W.A. contributions. Apparently this track was also a single, but I don't remember it ever getting any burn on the radio around my way.
3. GHETTO BIRD
O'Shea's ode to police helicopters has a truly funky QDIII instrumental as its support, but Cube's socio-political stance has waned throughout the years, and his delivery suffers: there are so many blank spots during the bars themselves that you one could drive Cube's Impala effortlessly between the words and parallel park the motherfucker, too. This being a rap song, of course this story ends with O'Shea somehow scoring some ass while being chased by modern aviation technology. While the beat is banging, the song itself is pitiful.
4. YOU KNOW HOW WE DO IT
Back in 1993, I really liked this smooth declaration of Ice Cube's victory over his opponents, but in listening to it again today, there appears to be a soul missing. QDIII's beat doesn't need to exert any sort of dominance, as O'Shea attempts to do so himself, but while his lyrics sound better on here than they did on “Really Doe” and “Ghetto Bird”, this is still indicative of Cube's new direction in his career, one in which he feels that he doesn't need to prove anything to anyone and spouts lazy gangsta threats just to fill the time between family-friendly film roles. Sigh.
5. CAVE BITCH
Ice Cube resorts to his old trick of trying to piss off an entire race by declaring white women (who universally have “stringy hair and no derrière”, apparently) inferior to...well, just about any woman of color. The overt hatred prevalent on this track may have been a representation of how O'Shea felt back in 1993, but when compared to his anger against other groups, he doesn't have much of a case: he seems to hate white women for solely superficial reasons. Given that there are a bunch of white women today who now do actually have more curvaceous bodies, do you think Cube has reversed his stance yet? This song was ridiculous.
6. BOP GUN (ONE NATION) (FEAT. GEORGE CLINTON)
This song is actually over eleven minutes long, unlike the edited version Cube shot a video for: I don't think anybody was ready to see Cube dance at a house party for that long. The length of the track is supposed to pay homage to guest star George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic roots. The music on here is easily the most mainstream that O'Shea has rhymed over thus far, and it's also the most obvious nod to the G-Funk that was taking over the West Coast's rap scene at the time (although calling it P-Funk would probably be more accurate). The song itself is alright, I suppose: there's nothing threatening about it, but one grows weary of it around the seventh minute, since Cube is the only guy spitting sporadic verses. This track might have worked better with the assistance of several guests. Back when the video used to play all the time on BET and MTV, I laughed every time at Cube referencing the year the single was released (1994) versus the year Lethal Injection dropped (1993); it's not the funniest joke in the world or anything, but the level of self-awareness is amusing. I also wanted to show appreciation to the chick in the red and white-striped bikini who dances in the video. This review could have used more of her.
7. WHAT CAN I DO?
O'Shea's story, detailing his own drowning in a sea of crime without any way to escape, sounds like it was performed by a completely different rapper. It's certainly not a bad story, though: it isn't as good as his past work, but you share Cube's frustration with the limitations of his life, the pressures of his surroundings, and the restrictions of the system. The 88 X Unit beat isn't very helpful, though: it makes “What Can I Do?” sound like a melodrama airing on Lifetime than the character study it actually is. Most Cube fans will be more familiar with its remix, which I will discuss when I get to Bootlegs & B-Sides. The skit at the end of this track is also an understated commentary on using religion as a crutch, which was nicely played.
8. LIL ASS GEE
I've owned Lethal Injection for about seventeen years now (fuck, I feel old), and I'm still more familiar with the remix to this track, too. (Probably because Cube shot a video for the remixed version, but I'm not judging.) Cube inhabits another persona to describe the life and motivations of a child entering the fun and prosperous world of gangbanging. The beat is funky, but not a good match for the subject matter: it sounds like it wants to be played in the background of a house party that the titular character would attend after committing his twentieth drive-by and winning a free toaster for his troubles. O'Shea suffers from a strain of Ras Kass syndrome on here. Oh well.
9. MAKE IT RUFF, MAKE IT SMOOTH (FEAT. K-DEE)
Ice Cube, who refers to himself as “Chocolate Thunder” on this song (which tells you everything you need to know about this song straight away), if only fooling himself if he really thinks that Lethal Injection is “devoid of pop”. This K-Dee-featured track, which is supposed to be about how much they love to
make sweet love fuck anonymous bitches, devolves into a festival of boasting (most of which comes from the guest, who O'Shea even makes fun of during the first verse) and complaining about the music industry. Because there's nothing that will get a woman's panties dropping faster than bitching about how the label wants you to record a radio-friendly single. Talk about losing your way in the forest.
10. DOWN FOR WHATEVER
This sounds nothing like an Ice Cube song, but for once, that trait is its main strength. O'Shea slows his roll down to a crawl, riding the beat like a drunk driver white-knuckling the steering wheel, trying his best to not draw attention to himself as he swerves between lanes and runs stop signs. The instrumental, from Madness 4 Real (a great producer name, by the way), fucking bangs, but Cube's performance is damn near laughable: in his quest to move as many units as possible, he's forgotten his roots, running with a drawl that somehow moves even more slowly than the lackadaisical beat. Here's the thing, though: I kind of like this song. Cube rides that fine line between serious and self-parody, but the important thing is that he never crosses it, so it's easy to enjoy his performance, especially if you think of him as an actor first and not a rapper at this point. I still think that the beat should have gone to someone more deserving, but it is what it is. This track was also hilariously used on the soundtrack to the Mike Judge classic Office Space.
For one track only, Ice Cube unearths his political views and attacks his enemies over this East Coast-sounding Madness 4 Real production. (Okay, now that producer name is getting annoying.) He sounds more comfortable on here than he has on all of Lethal Injection, perhaps because he's actually saying something worth hearing, as opposed to lazily proclaiming that he's the king of the West Coast without any real justification to back it up. This is the first song on Lethal Injection where both the beat and the lyrics mesh well: I wonder if O'Shea's return to a East-ish beat had anything to do with that.
12. WHEN I GET TO HEAVEN
After revisiting the skit from earlier (and changing the point of the original entirely), O'Shea goes after organized religion in a much calmer manner than one would expect, considering that countries have declared wars over this bullshit. The Brian G beat is weak and almost causes the track to fall apart on more than one occasion, but Cube opines in an effective manner, hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel, and essentially trading roles with the guy from the skits. This was a relatively thoughtful way to end the evening.
There's also a reissued version of Lethal Injection that includes some additional remixes. I don't have that version, so I can't really say much about it.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Although a couple of the songs serve as flashbacks to a simpler time in the career of O'Shea Jackson, Lethal Injection mostly blows donkey dick. Ice Cube aims for the cheap seats, embracing G-Funk and discarding any of his personal opinions, making one of the most generic gangsta rap albums in existence. A few of the instrumentals are really fucking good, but Cube tries to alter his public persona to that of a seasoned veteran (which he kind of was, admittedly) with nothing more to prove, but he doesn't earn those accolades on here: not for nothing is Lethal Injection widely known as the first album in Cube's catalog on which our host started to drift away. Can't say I blame him, though: I get bored of hip hop too, at times. But it is a shame that the guy who recorded AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted also managed to record this shit, instead of simply gracefully bowing out and focusing on his successful movie career. And I haven't even really gotten to his later output yet (except for Laugh Now, Cry Later, which makes Lethal Injection sound like Liquid Swords). Groan.
BUY OR BURN? A burn is sufficient. Ice Cube apologists will be far more lenient than I am, but I was sorely disappointed during this revisit, as Lethal Injection doesn't really hold up.
BEST TRACKS: “Enemy”; and “Down For Whatever”, depending on my mood, I suppose