Last year when social media coordinator Max Foley-Keene started working at Commonweal, he created a Slack channel called #music4all. The purpose? For Commonweal staff to drop what we’d been listening to, along with a few lines about what made the song special. He and Nicole-Ann Lobo, then our 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow, both regularly opined on their sonic sentiments, and in doing so, became friends. Inspired by Griffin Oleynick and Anthony Domestico’s summer reading series, they decided to share some of their conversations on music with Commonweal readers.
Over the next few weeks, Max and Nicole-Ann will be putting music they like in dialogue with some of the issues we face in our tumultuous times. While hardly experts—just two friends who like good tunes—both hope that through their conversations you might discover a new favorite album, or come to appreciate an old favorite in new ways.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, many well-meaning white people have passed around anti-racist reading lists. Quick and dirty anti-racism guides—such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility—sit on these lists alongside collections of some of the greatest works of African-American literature (Baldwin, Morrison, Ellison). The problem with these lists, as Lauren Michele Jackson points out, is that they treat their contents as having a singular purpose: pedagogy—specifically, pedagogy for white people. This assumption bypasses questions of genre and transforms Black authors, memoirists, and poets into teachers. Their art becomes something to be stripped for contemporary political meaning, rather than enjoyed and experienced on its own literary terms.
It would be quite easy to strip Ice Cube’s 1992 album, The Predator, for contemporary political lessons. Cube’s third solo album after leaving the legendary Compton rap group N.W.A., the record was released just a few months after the cops who assaulted Rodney King were acquitted; The Predator is a reaction to the acquittal and the LA riots that followed. Despite being nearly three decades old, much of Cube’s commentary is disturbingly applicable today. He directs rioters to avoid looting Black-owned businesses; he pokes fun at white liberals who think using the term “African American” will resolve entrenched racism; he embodies the character of a man getting beat up by cops, looking desperately to the crowd around him and asking, “Who got the camera?”
But The Predator is not an anti-racist instruction manual. It’s a work of art and a work of literature. What’s its genre? Sonically, that’s an easy question to answer: it’s a classic nineties West-Coast gangsta-rap album. Its literary genre is a bit harder to pin down. Cube spins lengthy tales of Black life in Compton, many of which are recounted in minute, hyperrealistic detail. It’s clear, however, that many if not most of these stories are fiction (Ice Cube didn’t, for example, track down the cops in the Rodney King case and brutally murder them). And there are often moments in these stories that are distinctly unreal, such as when Cube sees a Goodyear blimp carrying the message, “Ice Cube’s a pimp.” As Cube reports in the album’s first full track, “my mind’s playin’ tricks on me, too.”
The Predator is a series of fantasies, which together portray the psychology of a Black man under constant threat. Like many dreams, these fantasies flit between the hyperreal and the unreal; the through-line is threat, anxiety, and violence. Cube is seduced at a bar and goes back to a woman’s place—when suddenly four men in ski masks bust in, beat him up, and take him (naked) back to his house, where they rob his safe. In the title track he switches seamlessly between complaints about the editor of Billboard (who condemned his previous album) and wild imaginings about lighting white suburbanites’ homes on fire.
“It Was A Good Day”—the most commercially successful song of Ice Cube’s career—is superficially simple: Cube describes a day that went well. In a marked departure from the rest of the album, nothing terribly unusual happens: he plays basketball, has a romantic fling, and watches TV with his friends. What’s notable for Cube are all the things that don’t take place, all the threats he avoids. He “didn’t even have to use [his] AK.” As the song moves toward its close, Cube recounts seeing the Goodyear blimp with his name on it, suggesting that what we’re hearing is not pure memoir. And then, in a stunning moment, he orders Pooh, his producer, to cut the beat, wondering, “Hey, wait, wait a minute!... What the fuck am I thinkin’ about?” For a Black man in America, Cube seems to be suggesting, taking in a peaceful, pleasant day is just another fantasy.
The Predator debuted at number one on the Billboard albums chart. It was also in 1992 that Nirvana’s Nevermind shocked the pop world by knocking Michael Jackson off the top of the charts. It was the height of American hegemony, the beginning of the end of history. But both these records suggest that something dark remained at the edges of the American psyche. As Francis Fukuyama has said, “The end of history will be a very sad time.”