Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted Turns 30 As A Film In An Album’s Body

IMDB has it wrong. Ice Cube’s first film was released on May 16, 1990. At 20-years-old, the most volatile lyricist from America’s most dangerous music group, N.W.A., branched out on his own for the first time with Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, a visceral depiction of life as a Black man in America.

Ice Cube doesn’t rap, he directs on the album.

Every line doesn’t always rhyme with the next, but each line builds upon the last until Cube’s bigger picture is revealed. The album is essentially a collection of short stories with few traditional rap songs not anchored by a story narrative. Choruses are sometimes used as transitions between scenes and Cube never lets you think you’re only listening to a rap album.  

“Storytelling is always the most-clever form of rhyming. It’s rap at its finest, telling an interesting story,”

Cube said in the 2014 book Check The Technique Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-hop Junkies.

Great art is often an act of great deception. When Ricky is baptized by bullets in the Ice Cube-starred, John Singleton-directed Boyz In The Hood, you’re nowhere near, but you feel as if you are. Suspending disbelief is central to a classic piece of art and Amerikkka’s Most Wanted rarely allows listeners to feel as if they are listening to an album.

Before a single song is heard, the album starts with prisoner Ice Cube being led from his cell to the electric chair for his execution on “Better Off Dead.” The sights of Cube being escorted from his cell, the execution audience, and his death are crystal clear when listening to the metal clank of the doors slamming, the faint but distinguishable chatter and the sound of electricity ripping through human flesh. Songs like the subversive “A Gangsta’s Fairytale,” controversial “Once Upon A Time In The Projects,” and “What They Hittin’ Foe” are what give the album its cinematic feel.

Film being a visual medium affords directors the ability to explain without telling. John Krasinski ensconced people in overwhelming terror with only 90 lines of spoken dialogue in A Quiet Place. Music only has the ears to manipulate the audience’s imagination so artists opt for minutia lyricism; detailing every aspect of a story to spur deeper immersion. Ice Cube’s wrecking ball flow belied the most unheralded aspect of Amerikkka’s Most Wanted’s brilliance: the subtleties in his narrative writing.

On the album’s titular track, Cube narrates, “Here’s what the poster read..‘Ice Cube Is Wanted Dead’…That’s all it said.” On first listen, the line is an unremarkable lyric meant to reinforce the album’s overall conceit of Ice Cube being a wanted man. Then, Cube ends the song with “every motherfucker with a color is most wanted,” leaving an easter egg for the more attentive listeners. The spacing between the three sentences earlier in the song about the wanted poster is tantamount to a director leaving the audience in a scene when the dialogue is over, signaling there’s more to what you’re experiencing. Cube wants listeners to stay with the poster, investigate its contents, and realize the poster only tells people Ice Cube is wanted dead. No criminal offense listed, no details about the man, and not even info on who wants Ice Cube dead. It’s a hunt to take out Black people because “every motherfucker with a color is most wanted.” 

Questionable business practices by Ruthless Records and the label’s founder Jerry Heller led to Cube leaving N.W.A. and prevented Dr. Dre from providing any production. For his solo introduction to the world, he traveled to New York City to spend time with The Bomb Squad, the sonic architects of the rebellious sound that powered Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation… and Fear of A Black Planet, the latter of which was created simultaneously with Cube’s debut. Comprised primarily of Keith Shocklee, Hank Shocklee, Erc “Vietnam” Sadler and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, the foursome taught the upstart lyricist how to sequence an album and helped him piece together the album film with Cube’s role more akin to a director than the star contributor. 

Instead of Cube simply rapping on whatever beats The Bomb Squad had lying around, the rapper was dropped off in the basement of 510 South Franklin in Long Island in January 1990 tasked with sifting through thousands of vinyl records in order to find the sounds he wanted to be sampled on his album. The rich funk records that give Cube’s menacing stories an almost cinematic feel in their dynamism was a direct result of the directorial curation of the album’s creator. 

The drums from Mountain’s 1972 track “Long Red” that explode all over the frenetic “Endangered Species (Tales From The Darkside),” the funky bass of George Clinton’s 1982 classic “Atomic Dog” that pulsates throughout “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate,” and the lyrics “Livin’ and jivin’ and diggin’ the skin he’s in” from Parliament’s 1978 song “Rumpofsteelskin” that gave “You Can’t Fade Me” its feeling of defiant carefreeness was more than likely the result Cube’s record digging for the album. Even with Cube’s suggestive direction, it was The Bomb Squad that scored Cube’s aural journey and put sound to Black angst. 

“I have always tried to communicate rebellion, and you can’t convey that in a harmonious atmosphere. You have to create an atmosphere that is conducive for agitation,” Hank Shocklee said in Check The Technique Volume 2.

The music is as unrelenting as Cube’s bars are unforgiving. Amerikkka’s Most Wanted is riddled with irredeemable depictions of violence on women, including the implications of wanting to perform an abortion using a hanger and physically reprimanding a pregnant teen. Albums like Amerikkka’s Most Wanted are anchored by a singular voice and writer in ways films rarely are, making albums a more direct representation of the creator’s thoughts and feelings. That’s true of Amerikkka’s Most Wanted if you listen to it as an album. 

“I rationalized it to myself as if it was a film. It’s just a story. Cube ain’t like that in real life,” Sadler said in Check The Technique Volume 2.

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Keith Nelson Jr.
For nearly a decade, Keith Nelson Jr. has been a critical voice in the music, TV, and culture space. He's a writer by fate, a journalist by passion with bylines at REVOLT, ONE37PM, Billboard, Vibe Magazine, Okayplayer, REVERB, and LEVEL Mag.

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