Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Flowtation Device Prezentz: an Ice Cube song that WILL OFFEND YOU (assuming you have that capacity)

Ice Cube's rapping is instantly recognizable. His voice's unique timbre probably played a big role in making him a huge success--even my wife likes his voice*, and she (wisely) takes much more offense at his lyrics than I do. But your instrument is only as good as you can play it, and he's a master at "playing" his voice. As he chomps off consonants and articulates every last vowel in his diphthongs, his words take on a physical presence that you can seemingly hold in your hands and study. However you feel about the sentiment, there's no denying the splendor of a couplet like:

*soWHATtheyDO.GOand / BANtheA.K.*my /
SHIT.WASn'tREGisTERED_ / ANy*fuck=ingWAY. /

(If you're reading along, that's 18 seconds into the Youtube.)

Notice what makes that couplet so appealing--the rhyme is asymmetrical. That is, "ban the A.K." is said straight, beats 1-2-3; while "any fucking way" is syncopated, beats 1-2&-4. So he sets up an expected rhyme pattern, and then he delivers that rhyme, but differently than we expect. Perhaps this is to show that he is THE MACK. And at this point, the Flowtation Device would like to go out on a limb and say that this aspect of Ice Cube's flow--asymmetrical rhyming and the delayed delivery of syllables--is his most salient musical feature.

I don't know enough to say whether he pioneered this device, or if not, who he stole it from, so if my gentle reader(s) know of examples that predate 1990, please let me know in the comments. For now, suffice it to say that this device is all over his music, and all over this irresistible song.

Often Mr. Cube will simply delay the expected delivery of a syllable by half a beat. (Actually, the very first line of the song delays the very first "nigga" by a full beat, from its expected landing on beat 1 to beat 2. This is atypical.) For instance, here's the second couplet:

*youGOTtaDEalWITHthe / NINE_DOUBle=m*. /

The rhyme is asymmetrical, although this time, the rhyme "m" lands half a beat earlier than its corresponding "him." But notice how Cube delays it from beat 3 to the "and" of beat 3. You expect to hear "NINE_DOUBleM.*.", and instead he gives you "NINE_DOUBle=m*."

I don't know about you, but whenever I think of Ice Cube's flow, this is the feature that sticks out. He does it again and again, starting with the next line:

*theDAMN_SCUM_THATchya / ALL_=hate*.

*.WHENi'mROLlin'REal / SLOW_ANDtheLIGHTS_=out /

*andMOTHerFUCKersTHATsay / =theyTOO_BLACK.*. /
PUT'emOVerSEAS_THEYbe / BEGgin'TOcome=_BACK. /

You get the idea. Of course, he doesn't do it all the time. That'd get old pretty quickly. So for instance, in the middle of Verse 1 we get the (still) wonderful:

*'causeI'MaBOUT.*to / FUCKup*thePRO_GRAM_ /

Mr. Cube could've easily delayed the second syllable of "Brougham" by half a beat. Go ahead, try it! "DROP.TOP.BROU_=gham"--it's fun! (I admit a propensity to sort of mutter these things to myself while wandering the neighborhood with my boy. Not the cussing, of course.) The problem with using such a device all the time is that overuse leads to diminished impact. It's like when a clear-voiced American Idol candidate discovers that she can growl out certain lines of songs. It's effective the first time, but by the third instance you wish she'd learn some new tricks. Ice Cube's delaying device doesn't lend itself to fatigue that quickly, but he's wise to maintain his straightforward, on-the-beat "DROP.TOP.BROU.GHAM."s at least half the time.

Ice Cube's car?

One more thing to add about Cube's "delay" device--it give him a more legato flow. On occasion he'll break before a delayed syllable, but usually he holds out the leading syllable a beat and a half before his next articulation. The clearest example of this is in Verse 2, around 1:30 or so, when we get another instance of the rare delay-by-a-whole-beat:

TOM_=dick=andHANK. / *orGETyourASS_=_ /

Listen to that "-ssssss" in the word "ass"! If my choir were singing an arrangement of this song, they'd be in trouble for that! (Actually, I'd be in WAY MORE trouble.) Ice Cube is allowed, though--I'm not eager to be ganked or shanked.

Now of course, the subject matter of this song is problematic at best, piggish and sexist and violent and prudishly anti-dancing at worst. Here at the Flowtation Device, a more-or-less strictly musical enterprise, we try not to judge, but sooner or later the strictly musical analysis must be brought to bear on a song's subject matter. Alas, we're not quite ready to do that today.

Let me just say this--this song is EXHILARATING. I say that as a comfortably middle-class white suburban dad, but I imagine it was no less true for young inner-city black Comptonites of the early '90s. Musically, the exhilaration comes from all the aspects of Ice Cube's flow discussed above, along with the incredibly funky Bomb Squad beat that, if dated, only sounds that way because no other production team has yet touched their sound. (It's ironic that Cube's so disparaging of black people who dance, considering he basically dances with his voice throughout this song.) Lyrically, it's exhilarating as a kind of "art of permission", in the same way that Where the Wild Things Are or The Daily Show are exhilarating. It gives voice to impulses and profanities that we necessarily suppress so that our society can function civilly and morally. But society DOESN'T always function civilly and morally--keep in mind that this song came out a year before Rodney King's beating and the riots that followed, and that Ice Cube was from the same town. I'm not excusing lines like "bitch killa, cap peela" as mere metaphors for his machismo or rapping skills--even if that's what they are, they're grisly and unfortunate metaphors. But there's no denying the exhilaration, musically AND lyrically, that comes from hearing Ice Cube land all these great lines. And to paraphrase the Rev. James Cone, those who decry revolutionary violence (um... if that's what this is--it's certainly what it WANTS to be) are typically those who want to stay in power, NOT those on the underside of society.

*After double-checking, I learn it's actually Ice-T's voice that she likes. My bad.

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