Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ice-T: O.G. Original Gangster (1991)



I'm not a ruthless warrior for the positive tip -- I too think Arrested Development is some bland nonsense, a catchy track or two aside, and I like it when B.I.G. is nasty -- but I'm willing to admit that gangsta rap is something of a black hole for me. I have attempted N.W.A. and The Chronic and came away, unfashionable though it is to admit, fairly disgusted. We won't even talk about Ice Cube. Two things have always given me pause in dismissing gangsta, which seemed a subversion of a genre of music I love and care about. One is that it arguably begins with one of my all-time favorite hip hop records, Boogie Down Productions' youthful and raw debut Criminal Minded, to me an indisputable masterpiece and one of the true landmark pop records of the '80s. Second is that I've always had an affinity for Ice-T, although until this week I never spent extensive time with any of his albums. It was obvious from his media presence that he was a bright guy and a serious artist in a field I'd once been too eager to dismiss. Finally, I've now gotten to know what is largely considered his finest record, O.G. Original Gangster, and I find it just as addictive and smart as I hoped.

What's immediately interesting is how far hip hop has strayed from the mainstream vision as of 1991. Radio rap today owes little to this style of sampling, obsessively bumping -- engineered almost in a bubblegum fashion: the way everything in bubblegum hinges upon the hook, everything in these tracks hinges upon the beat, as upfront and raw as possible. Only Ice-T himself demands more attention, and he owns the floor when he has it. His aggressive, heavy and unstoppable flow makes it hard to comprehend why he is today so overlooked -- the lyrics are intelligent, both mannered and forceful as they craft and unravel fantasies and nightmares. And while it shouldn't be so, in contrast to many gangsta peers, T deserves credit for not copping excessively to pointless misogyny and slickly macho street glorification. There's plenty of murder and mayhem, but it's murder and mayhem in the manner of Bo Diddley or Johnny Cash or, why the fuck not, Howard Hawks -- the flight of a master storyteller. And the attention-grabbing, booming "Bitches 2" takes pains to point out its use of "bitches" as a gender-neutral term; indeed, that's the song's entire chorus. He's also funnier than anyone else in the early '90s rap class: along with Evil E, Ice-T pokes fun at cock-rapping on the skit "What About Sex?" that builds to a brilliantly anticlimactic finish, and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous" delves brutally into life on tour, awash with irritating reporters, mysterious groupies, crowded hotels, freakish hangers-on, and the fans T knows he can't disappoint.

This levity makes Ice-T's seriousness more compelling: his description of how failed party anthems led to his ghetto documentation on the title track is so compelling you may forget to bob your head. And he deserves eternal credit for ending his record with a spoken-word rant against the Gulf War and the American criminal justice system. I'll be honest: the record's a little long for me (though it does feel shorter than its 72 minutes), and my 1991 heart still lies with personal heroes like A Tribe Called Quest, whose music hasn't dated in the slightest these last twenty years, but moments like that make O.G. a truly special record, one I'll return to often.

You'll find no sung, catchy choruses here, few skits, no showy production distractions from the bruising samples and Ice-T's stark spilling. But as he comes close to pointing out on "Body Count," this is all still rock & roll. That's important.

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