A lot of hip hop fans consider 1993's Lethal Injection to be the final album where rapper O'Shea Jackson, better known today as 21 Jump Street's Ice Cube, actually said anything of substance: they look to the rest of his output, leading up to the present day, as an example of their former hero resting on his family-movie laurels and living a not-so-angry life, which deflates the integrity of his modern-day lyricism. I don't believe this to be true: Cube's third solo album, The Predator, is actually the end of that particular era: Lethal Injection contained some entertaining songs, but the politically-charged O'Shea had long been put to rest by the time he started recording that effort. But for those of you still holding out hope, I present to you the subject of today's post.
1994's Bootlegs & B-Sides isn't a true Ice Cube album: instead, it's a compilation Priority Records put together of remixes and b-sides from O'Shea's career up to this point. Although it was marketed otherwise, it didn't include any alternate versions of songs from the AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted or Death Certificate eras: instead, it focused solely on all of the extra material Cube recorded while he was working on The Predator and Lethal Injection. Priority put this package together as a way to keep O'Shea's fans satiated while he avoided our chosen genre in favor of his blossoming movie career: his next solo album didn't see a release until four years later, in 1998.
Bootlegs & B-Sides is not a cohesive album and shouldn't be looked at as such. Instead, it's simply a collection of random songs that Cube had in the vaults, and as is the case with these kind of projects, only a handful of the tracks on here are actually worthy of the man's solo catalog. However, he was kind enough to release his revisionist history to the masses, so why the hell not, right?
1. ROBBIN' HOOD (CAUSE IT AIN'T ALL GOOD)
Bootlegs & B-Sides kicks off with a song that I believe O'Shea recorded especially for the project (as I couldn't find any other information for it). Over a 88 X Unit instrumental that could double as the score to a 1980's cop show (that's supposed to read as a compliment), Ice Cube explains away how his robbing of the rich and his giving to the poor, the “poor” being represented by “himself”, can be justified in a sociological context. Besides, he hates rich people, and they deserve what they get, right? Ignore the fact that Ice Cube is, and has been for quite a while now, one of the rich guys he is rallying against, and you may find this song enjoyable, in a “I wish Cube still rhymed like that”-kind of way. Not bad.
2. WHAT CAN I DO? (REMIX) (FEAT. MACK 10)
The first single from this compilation is a reworking of a Lethal Injection album track that is far more successful than the original incarnation. (It was previously released as “What Can I Do (Westside Remix)”, not to be confused with “What Can I Do (Eastside Remix)”, which was produced by A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad in today's hip hop double take.) D'Maq and Lay Law's instrumental is much catchier than 88 X Unit's original track's was, and O'Shea sounds more invested in his performance, on which he describes a lifetime of malfeasance and the illegal activities that ultimately land him a life sentence. This remix is notable for introducing Cube's homeboy Mack 10, in a brief mid-song skit where he robs the McDonald's that Ice Cube just so happens to be working at (it was the only place that would hire him, given his prison record). His request for all the cash in the register and some food, “because [he's] Mack 10 'Foe Life!'”, is still funny to me, as it comes entirely out of left field . Speaking of out of left field...
Mack 10 - Mack 10 (June 20, 1995)
Dedrick Rolison, who records as the rapper Mack 10, is a California-based gangsta rapper who, for a time, was indistinguishable from his homey and mentor Ice Cube. Seriously, this is how I really felt about the guy: when he made his debut on Cube's "What Can I Do? (Remix)", I couldn't tell if he was an entirely different person, or if Cube had gone all Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon on us. It didn't help that both men rap about the exact same shit, although Dedrick has never really been able to pull off the politically-charged stuff.
Mack 10 is the poorly-titled debut album from Mack 10, released by Priority Records in 1995 under the guiding hand of O'Shea Jackson, so it isn't very surprising that it sounds pretty much like an Ice Cube project. What is surprising is that it received a lot more attention than any of Cube's other offshoot projects (including his merry band of weed carriers in Da Lench Mob - whatever happened to them?). This was due to the instant success of Dedrcik's first single, "Foe Life", which became both his theme song and his personal mantra, and a catchy one to boot. In fact, that single reaching so many people (Mack 10 received a gold record for this effort) is possibly solely responsible for Ice Cube thinking that the supergroup Westside Connection, a trio consisting of himself, Dedrick, and West Coast stalwart WC, was a good idea in the first place.
Dedrick would later do his best to distinguish himself from Ice Cube, but for now, go ahead and pop Mack 10 into your CD player or onto your mp3 player of choice, and marvel at just how interchangeable the two men sound.
That's not a joke. Do it.
1. MICKEY D'S LICK (INTRO)
This rap album intro is almost like a director's cut of the brief interlude that introduced Mack 10 to Ice Cube's fanbase during the latter's “What Can I Do (Remix)”. It's silly, but not any more so than any other rap album intro in recent memory, so I'll let it slide.
2. FOE LIFE
Dedrick describes himself as “nutty as they come” on the first line of this song: while he doesn't sound especially deranged (this is still West Coast gangsta rap: there's only so far that he can go), he's still more than serviceable on this first single-slash-title track, which encapsulates absolutely everything Mack 10 is in our chosen genre. O'Shea steps behind the boards to supply an instrumental that is unquestionably West Coast (and a banger, at that), while Dedrick supplies three verses that seem to alternate between a first-person narrative of being locked up in prison and general shit-talking, but it all fucking works. Mack 10 isn't the best rapper, but this shit is his domain, and he rules his kingdom with an iron fist. He even made his bars catchy enough for me to immediately remember upon pressing 'play': if you can still remember the words to a song that is seventeen years old, and you first heard it upon its initial release, that's a sign of steady longevity. My favorite line on here, “I'm broke as a motherfucker, n---a buy my single!”, is especially funny to me, because I actually owned the cassingle for “Foe Life”. This was an enjoyable, nostalgic ride through Inglewood.
3. WANTED DEAD (FEAT. ICE CUBE)
Dedrick leads police on a car chase over a O'Shea instrumental that sounds appropriate for the cause (meaning that it sounds pretty fucking good). The listener isn't provided with many clues as to why Mack 10 is being pursued in the first place (our host implies at one point that the cops hate him because he's friends with Ice Cube, because if it's one thing that the boys in blue won't ever forget, it's N.W.A.'s “Fuck The Police”), but you don't really need the details, seeing as our host is an engaging-enough presence, even if his rhymes could be a bit better. The story also seems to just end without warning. Cube's quick cameo during the ending skit is kind of funny, but the pair's dialogue doesn't help prove that Ice Cube and Mack 10 are supposed to be two separate people; it sounds like O'Shea is having a conversation with his id.
4. ON THEM THANGS (FEAT. THE MARY JANE GIRLS)
There's nothing original about sampling Rick James's “Mary Jane” for a rap song, and it's even worse when the chorus alters the words in order to fit the newer track's title. (What is impressive, however, is the fact that Dedrick allegedly convinced three of the four original Mary Jane Girls to actually perform the hook on here. They don't appear in the liner notes, but they are in the video.) Mack 10's ode to his rims isn't all bad, though: the beat, which is relaxing enough, reinforces his flow, which is that of a thugged-out CL Smooth, as he sticks to his topic in an engaging manner. The track runs a bit too long, and I could have done without him reminding listeners of the chorus to “Foe Life” so soon (“On Them Thangs” was Mack 10's second single), but this held up surprisingly well today. Still, if you're looking for something fresh, you should look elsewhere.
5. PIGEON COUP
I don't know what kind of political statement our host was trying to make by misspelling the word “coop” in the title of this skit. All I know is that, even though its title hews closely to that of the next track, it has no connection to that song, and is, as such, useless.
6. CHICKEN HAWK (FEAT. ICE CUBE)
On which the listener receives a hint as to why Mack 10 may not be very well-liked by the authorities: Mack 10 brags about being a menace to society, even boasting about kidnapping and murdering someone's girlfriend (or wife, or whatever). Up to this point, you picture Dedrick as a petty thief, but he cements his status as a potential homicidal maniac on here. Disturbing subject matter aside, this song was merely alright: Dr. Jam's beat is decent and non-intrusive, and our host adapts well enough. Thanks to Cube's appearance on the hook, though, I couldn't help but think of him as the Tyler Durden to Mack 10's anonymous narrator. That can't be just me, right?
7. HERE COMES THE G
I couldn't get into this track, as Crazy Toones's work behind the boards sounds so generically Left Coast that it was probably used in a television commercial for the California tourism board. Mack 10's bars aren't exactly special, either: everything about “Here Comes The G” comes off as paint-by-numbers gangsta rap. Sure, it would sound inoffensive enough at a backyard barbecue, but is this what gangsta rap has come to? Not exactly: as evidence, I present to you two the very next track, which is the antithesis to this horseshit.
8. WESTSIDE SLAUGHTERHOUSE (FEAT. ICE CUBE & WC)
This monster collaboration, possibly the best song in Mack 10's solo catalog, is responsible for two things: (a) the formation of the rap supergroup Westside Connection, and (b) Ice Cube's beef with Common (a battle he unanimously lost to the Chicago poet-slash-actor-slash-rapper-slash-Drake's biggest fan), which was instigated after Cube took offense at Lonnie's ode to hip hop, “I Used To Love H.E.R.”. O'Shea's first verse contains the obvious potshot (“Used to love H.E.R. / mad 'cause we fucked her / pussy-whipped bitch with no Common Sense”), but Mack 10 shows signs of solidarity with his employer, as his opening salvo could also be interpreted as a dis (“When you see her she's a goner / moved to California / blew the bitch up and put the gangsta twist on her”). WC, who gained wider exposure because of this very song, avoids direct confrontation but still bests his peers behind the mic, winning all of the Interweb for one full week mainly because of the way he pronounces the word “vagina” over the banging Madness 4 Real instrumental. Listen to the track and you'll see what I mean. This song is the shit, even with Cube's ill-advised extended OJ Simpson metaphor toward the end.
9. N----S DOG SCRAPING
Another skit with a misspelled title? Sigh.
10. ARMED & DANGEROUS
Our host sounds oddly younger on “Armed & Dangerous” than he does on every other aspect of this project, and I'm even stretching as far as to include the album artwork and all of the promotional material Priority Records could come up with. Since our host's self-produced beat sucks cock, I'd be willing to believe that this was an early demo remastered for inclusion on Mack 10, even though it doesn't actually show even the most minute amount of promise like a normal, decent demo reel would. It's probably best that we skip ahead to the next track...now.
11. H-O-E-K (FEAT. K-DEE)
Mack 10 and guest star K-Dee spend the length of an entire song going out of their way to disrespect women (or, more specifically, “hos”), although Mack 10's verse is more focused on dissing groupies who fuck famous people because they can. K-Dee is more obsessed with fucking, but as this is a gangsta rap record, that was to be expected. The title is a bit disturbing if you actually believe that any of these guys would actually murder their various sources of potentially disease-free pussy, I suppose. Cube's beat is actually pretty fucking good: it isn't exactly wasted on this track, since both rappers sound decent enough, but one if left wishing that it saw better days. The title also unintentionally spells out the last name of the chihuahua half of Ren & Stimpy, which always make me chuckle.
12. 10 MILLION WAYS
I understand this track is almost universally hated by Mack 10's fans, but I don't know why: this shit actually sounds much better today than most of the fucking album. Our host's (dope) instrumental is the most experimental of the entire project (as it sounds as though it was shipped directly from New York), and Mack 10 certainly seems game, spitting three verses that are much more lyrical than everything else on here (aside from maybe “Westside Slaughterhouse”). Although the hook is fucking terrible, and the singing toward the end is both disorienting and downright offensive to the ears, this song still bangs today. Maybe I'm in the minority (as I am on a lot of these things, apparently), but I thought this shit rocked. I'm interested in hearing your opinions.
Because his audience apparently demanded it, Mack 10 finally gets to the mandatory sex rap with this ode to promiscuous sex in one of those motels where you can rent a room by the hour. Our host doesn't sound natural in this environment: nowhere is this more obvious than when he actually pronounces the song's title. Reducing women down to what he believes to be their “very last compound” (on all fours, ass up and face down) probably did him no favors with the female audience (and, later, with his now-ex-wife T-Box, but I digress), but it's a sex rap on a West Coast gangsta rap album: it's exactly what you would expect to hear. I'm not saying the song is any good, though.
14. MACK 10'S THE NAME
88 X Unit's beat is pretty fucking sweet: it sounds like something Ice Cube's old N.W.A. partner MC Ren might have used right after that crew's breakup. Too bad our host's lyrics fucking suck: for some reason, he devoted this track to his rap name, and at the very end he even advises other up-and-coming rappers to find a different handle, because he's got this. I've heard dumber reasons to write a rap song (have you heard what gets played on rap radio today?), but Mack 10's bars don't even come close to vindicating this decision. This phenomenon hasn't happened on this project up until now, though, so I'll give the man credit: Mack 10 has remained fairly consistent behind the mic even when his beats failed him. Still a weird way to close things out, though.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Although it isn't a very challenging debut, Mack 10 succeeds in its primary purpose, in that it's actually entertaining. The music presented on here is wholly representative of what the West Coast sound was perceived to be back in 1995, and Dedrick's flow, although not great by any means, fits over most of them like a glove. Mack 10 rarely strays from what he knows: indeed, pretty much every single one of the songs on here talks about the exact same shit. But he sounds fairly convincing on the majority of Mack 10, spitting his street rhymes and braggadocio with confidence and with a healthy dose of (possibly unintentional) humor. Mack 10 shouldn't be looked at as a gateway album for anybody to use when trying to get into gangsta rap, but for what it is (essentially a recounting of a day in the life of our host), it's interesting enough.
BUY OR BURN? If you can find it for cheap, I would recommend a purchase. Only a handful of tracks are must-hears, but the rest of Mack 10 is fairly entertaining, so at least it won't be a waste of your money or time.
BEST TRACKS: “Westside Slaughterhouse”; “10 Million Ways”; “Foe Life”; “Wanted Dead”
(*clears throat, straightens necktie, continues*)
3. 24 WIT AN L
I remember liking this song when I first got Bootlegs & B-Sides (on cassette tape!), but today I found Cube's self-produced instrumental corny as fuck. Regardless, this track, which began its life as a b-side to The Predator's “Check Yo Self”, is much bleaker today than the goofy instrumental may lead you to believe. O'Shea runs down the details of living in South Central Los Angeles, an area where a vicious, violent cycle plays out between its residents and the LAPD on a daily basis. Cube glamorizes the criminal aspects of this life even as he admonishes his opponents who are trying to steal from him, even after he explains that all he owns is “a fat bunch of nothing”; I guess Jerry Heller and Eazy-E really did a number on his finances. This still sounded alright enough, but the beat and sampled vocal on the hook alleviate the tension in the worst kind of way.
4. YOU KNOW HOW WE DO IT (REMIX)
Although this remake uses the same pounding drums from The Mary Jane Girls's “All Night Long” and the same Evelyn “Champagne” King vocal sample from “The Show Is Over” that the original version of this track employed, this remix is far more upbeat. I preferred Cube's slower, more menacing delivery on the original: on here he recites the same bars, but it almost seems like he's trying to run through them as quickly as he can so that he can go see a girl about some pussy. O'Shea throws listeners for a loop, however, when, immediately after completing his third verse, he launches into some exclusive new lyrics that celebrate the overall remix-iness of the whole affair. The new bars aren't great, and they don't prove that Ice Cube is the voice of his generation or anything, but this reimagining could have been worse.
5. 2 N THE MORNING
This b-side to the original “You Know How We Do It” is a guilty pleasure dedicated to the type of woman who agrees to come over to your house for a booty call during the titular timeframe. Lay Law's instrumental is funky in all the right ways, while O'Shea sounds as lecherous as ever: one of his pickup lines (for a woman he meets at a backyard barbecue, whose main descriptors are having both a big ass and twenty dollars' worth of pot on her person) is actually, “What's up with these nuts in your mouth?” Seriously? And, of course, this being his song, he's banging that same chick within four bars. Our host even manages to sneak in a warning to those in the audience who were most likely to date-rape a chick before hearing Cube's words cautioning otherwise. I liked this as a b-side back in the day, and I still found it enjoyable enough today, although O'Shea the horndog fails to say anything significant on here. In fact, our host's lyrics are fucking terrible on here. Still, though, entertaining. Sue me.
6. CHECK YO SELF (REMIX) (FEAT. DAS EFX)
Unless you're been living under a rock for the past twenty years or your only exposure to Ice Cube's music is from the shitty Todd Phillips film Due Date (where the original version of “Check Yo' Self" plays), then this is probably the version of this song that you're most familiar with. Producers DJ Pooh and Cube himself swipe liberally from the instrumental to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's “The Message”, and Cube obliges by cleaning up his rhymes a bit (this was the version used for the music video, if you'll recall) and aping that classic song near the end. Guest stars Das EFX work the chorus just as they did before, with the exact same results: when they don't really say all that much in the first place, it's easy for them to sound like professionals. I like the album version more, but this remix became popular for a very good reason.
7. YOU DON'T WANNA FUCK WIT THESE (UNRELEASED '93 SHIT)
The timeframe described in the title would place this track in the Lethal Injection era, so it makes sense that the lyricism on here isn't as barbed as one would like. Still, this is the angriest Cube has sounded on the compilation thus far. Over a Dr. Jam / Madness 4 Real beat that wouldn't sound out of place on a Kool G Rap album, O'Shea Jackson lays out his mission statement for the listeners who still haven't figured out what he's (apparently) all about, and he does a pretty good job with it, even if some of the insults seem to come out of nowhere.
8. LIL' ASS GEE (EERIE GUMBO REMIX) (FEAT. N.O. JOE)
I used to love this track, a reworking of a Lethal Injection track which was the second single from Bootlegs & B-Sides, but I couldn't really get into it today. N.O. Joe's remix is much eerier than the album cut, which is appreciated, and the subject matter remains dark and depressing (this track is about the kids who grow up into a violent gang-related lifestyle because that's all they know, and the children entering the life keep getting younger and younger). Cube's dedication at the very end is also to the point: why would any straight male want to risk going to prison and see “more assholes than pussy-holes when they get you into the system”? That's the least appealing description of gangbanging that I have ever heard. But the song itself doesn't hit me as hard as it used to. I remember the potency of this track getting diluted even further on the silly, unnecessary radio edit, though.
9. MY SKIN IS MY SIN (FEAT. WC)
Ice Cube has always been a better rapper when he points out flaws in today's society, such as the blatant racism that permeates our culture even today, let alone when “My Skin Is My Sin” was released as a b-side to Lethal Injection's “Really Doe”. Over a Dr. Jam / Madness 4 Real instrumental that bangs, O'Shea unleashes two verses of fury, and then, without any warning, guest star WC, the only other rapper to actually lend a verse to this entire compilation, swoops in and destroys the proceedings with one of the most racially-charged performances I've ever heard from him. The only weak link on here was the shitty hook, but as an avid fan of rap music, I'm willing to let that slide when the rest of the song is this good.
10. IT WAS A GOOD DAY (REMIX)
For the most part, I believe that, in hip hop, a remix has to have a reason to exist. It has to explore the same material in a new and exciting way, or it has to answer underlying questions that the listener didn't even know they had, or it has to feature Busta Rhymes. (Oddly, this rule applies just as much today as it did back in the mid-to-late 1990s.) This self-produced remake of Cube's most mainstream single “It Was A Good Day” achieves none of these feats: the backing music is a blander sample (from “Let's Do It Again!” by The Staple Singers, which is a good song otherwise) looped to holy hell, and the general feel of the track is downgraded to “generic”. This remix is also for the clean radio edit, so there aren't even any curses in Cube's classic tale, a grueling ordeal that ends in victory when the Goodyear blimp acknowledges his existence in a career field that he didn't even realize he was a part of. In sort, this remix should never have been recorded. Especially when the original song was fucking perfect.
11. U AIN'T GONNA TAKE MY LIFE
Cube held this one back from the studio sessions for The Predator, marking it as a b-side for “Wicked”, and after hearing it again for the first time in a while, the decision makes perfect sense: the chorus apes En Vogue's “My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It”, which is both really fucking stupid and nonsensical for a track on which O'Shea blatantly goes after crooked Caucasian police officers. The contrast is jarring, so much so that you will sit there waiting for the song to just fucking end already. This was fairly awful, but hey, this is only the second truly terrible song on the project, so whoever sequenced Bootlegs & B-Sides deserves a medal. Or a cookie. Or a cookie-shaped medallion. One of those.
12. WHEN I GET TO HEAVEN (REMIX)
Apparently our host decided that the overall message on Lethal Injection's “When I Get To Heaven” needed to be heard by absolutely everybody, since Mr. Woody's remix aims for pop radio even with the inclusion of a goofy chorus with one too many n-words for white people to feel entirely comfortable. Did this song need a remix? It's arguable, but I ultimately believe that the first version of this material served its purpose just fine. So, yeah, I found this to be a waste of data stored on a plastic disc.
Bootlegs & B-Sides ends with a curious inclusion, a mix of most of Cube's most well-known past tracks blended together for no real reason. It's interesting to listen to once, but it's much more fun to listen to the source materials in their respective entirety. And with that, we're done.
FINAL THOUGHTS: It's unfair to look at Ice Cube's Bootlegs & B-Sides as a full album, as that was obviously not Priority's intention: this project is a cash-in first and a document of an artist's achievements in an alternate reality second. But for what it is, it starts off very strongly, as Cube's performances skew more heavily toward his angry, observant persona than they do toward his more current pop leanings and family-friendly alter ego. Only the first half of Bootlegs & B-Sides is worthy of any real attention, though: the back end (save for one track, “My Skin Is My Sin”) is overloaded with missives that are as subtle as a sledgehammer to your teeth. I get it, Ice Cube: you hate cops and refuse to hide your racism in a society that you feel chooses not to accept you as simply another human being! That's fine and all, but there are other things you can write about, especially since you had already mastered this particular sub-genre and left these versions off of your albums for very valid reasons. Bootlegs & B-Sides is nonessential, but there are some gems on here that hold up, so that was nice.
BUY OR BURN? This project was designed for Ice Cube completists, but if you can find it for a buck or two, you may as well pick it up, as the highs of the first half completely obscure the shit bringing up the rear.
BEST TRACKS: “My Skin Is My Sin”; “What Can I Do? (Remix)”; “You Don't Wanna Fuck Wit These (Unreleased '93 Shit)”; “”Robbin' Hood (Cause It Ain't All Good”; “Check Yo' Self (Remix)”; “2 N The Morning”