During the spring of 1993, my family took a vacation, making the 15-hour drive from the Baltimore suburbs to Disney World. During the endless and queasy ride, I sat in the back of my family’s Ford Aerostar with a Walkman and a cassette of Ice Cube’s The Predator that a friend had dubbed me just before the vacation. I probably had other tapes with me, but I don’t remember any of them. What I remember is sitting there, headphones wrapped around me, listening to a young millionaire lovingly describing the act of fucking a Los Angeles police officer in the ass with a broom, while my parents were obliviously sitting a few feet away. This was my introduction to Ice Cube. He’d already had a hall-of-fame career before the album — serving as the most charismatic member of the earth-shattering N.W.A crew before recording two bracing and near-perfect solo albums. I mostly knew him as the guy from Boyz N The Hood who was the subject of a lot of alarmist newspaper editorials. (I read a lot of newspaper editorials at 13. I was a weird kid.) But absorbing The Predator over and over on that car trip, I felt like I learned some rough lessons about how people in America thought about each other. I also loved it.
Getting into rap music, especially when you’re a sheltered suburban white kid, involves a whole lot of mystery, of learning to decode terminology and regional detail and narrative detail that remain frustratingly and tantalizingly out of reach. A friend of mine recently told me that he hates Rap Genius because that website makes things too easy for kids — that they should figure lyrics out the way the rest of us did, through difficult contextual parsing. And sure, there was plenty of stuff on The Predator that I didn’t get right away; the broom-fucked cop from “We Had To Tear This Mothafucka Up,” for instance, was specifically named as one of the cops in the Rodney King case. But the basic context of The Predator was impossible to miss, recorded and released, as they were, in the immediate aftermath of the L.A. riots that had made just about every white person in America very, very scared. To hear Ice Cube tell it — on the album, in an interview repurposed as a skit — his music had been foretelling some intense violence like that for years. The Predator, then, was a reckoning. It was also a powerful statement of bad motherfuckerdom.
Throughout The Predator, Cube has fun playing the political firebrand — hunting and murdering the Rodney King cops and jurors in “We Had To Tear This Mothafucka Up,” begging cops to hit him again so he can incite something similar in “Who Got The Camera?” But plenty of the album is just pure unreconstructed knuckleheadedness. On “Dirty Mack,” he’s attempting to fuck every girl in the neighborhood, and one track later, he’s warning you that every girl you’re trying to fuck is trying to take your money. And one track after that, he’s weaving a story about Mother Goose characters fucking and killing each other. Those songs are fun, but he only gets to them after he’s already established the dystopic state he’s living in, the lack of respect for human life that the white establishment has beaten into him. Even the song’s one moment of deep-breath respite — “It Was A Good Day,” probably not coincidentally the album’s biggest hit — comes with a powerful undercurrent of sad resignation. Cube is having a good day, in part, because none of his friends are being murdered, and he doesn’t have to murder anyone.
People still bitch about gangsta rap as a dehumanizing influence now, but none of today’s on-record killers describe their exploits with any of the demented specificity that Cube brought to The Predator. This line in particular blew my mind: “Tricks wanna step to Cube, and then they getting played / Cuz they bitchmade, pulling out a switchblade / That’s kinda trifle / Cuz that’s a knife, ho / AK-47 assault rifle.” Movies like Adventures in Babysitting had established the switchblade as an important symbol of intimidation, and here Cube was just laughing at it. He was also talking, in that resonant from-the-chest bark, about watching bullets perforate bodies, about all the ways he could inflict pain, working up body counts way higher than anything Rick Ross or Young Jeezy would do now. He didn’t even stop killing people on his skits. This was violent music, then, but it wasn’t desensitized. It took pains to describe the conditions that caused violence like this, and then it showed Cube as someone who said fuck it and decided to rule the burned-out rubble of his neighborhood. And then it explicitly mocked all the people worried about the violence in the music.
Of course, all this bored its way into my preadolescent brainpan largely on the strength of the music, which was a furiously catchy attack. Opening track “When Will They Shoot?” took the elemental stomp of “We Will Rock You” and made it chaotically funky. The contributions from Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs were gleefully, psychotically catchy; basslines don’t come much more immediate than the one on “We Had To Tear This Mothafucka Up.” The beats were built from classic funk and soul records, but the samples were piled on claustrophobically in ways that would be prohibitively expensive now. Grooves kept tripping over and loudly interrupting each other. On AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Cube had already worked extensively with Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production crew, and the producers on The Predator — Muggs, Cube himself, DJ Pooh, Sir Jinx, a few others — seemed to absorb the lessons of the Bomb Squad’s cluttered blitzkrieg and turned it into something that would sound good in a slow-crawling Cadillac. The album moves with a determined focus. And throughout, Cube reigns all over it with authoritative delivery and more presence than just about any other voice in rap history. Other than Das-EFX on the “Check Yo Self” hook, the album has no guest-rappers in its hour-long running time, and it doesn’t need them. Cube’s controlled fury rules the day.
A few weeks after The Predator, Dr. Dre would release The Chronic, effectively rewriting West Coast rap as expansive, euphoric, socially reprehensible barbecue-soundtrack music. And that was great, too. But The Predator represents a different sound. Cube sampled Parliament, too, but he used them as a weapon, not a balm. It was the last moment a commercially dominant California rap album could sound and feel like a grenade exploding next to your eardrum. And it would also be Ice Cube’s avenging-angel swan song. He’d follow it up with the pretty-good-but-still-disappointing Lethal Injection. And then he’d gradually fade into Hollywood, a career change that’s mostly mocked now for stuff like Are We There Yet? even as it’s produced Friday and Three Kings and Barbershop. When he’s gone back to music, it’s been forced and uncomfortable. But for a few years in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there wasn’t a more vital voice in any genre of music, and The Predator still stands as a monument to that moment.
Comments section! Did you guys like The Predator too? Did you dork out at the Die Hard and Predator 2 samples? Did it make you look at cops different? Did you imagine the lights of the Goodyear blimp calling you a pimp? What was your favorite song? What memories does it bring up? Let us know below. And now let’s watch some videos.