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The Ice Cube episode of Behind The Music debuts tonight on VH1 at 10 p.m. Eastern on VH1.

In the immortal words of Paul Westerberg, color me impressed. There couldn’t be a more incongruent reference when discussing Ice Cube’s Behind the Music, but it adequately sums up my reaction to the rapper/actor/mogul’s excellent installment in VH1’s signature music-doc franchise. Since resurfacing in 2009, the series has focused almost exclusively on hip-hip icons, including 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Eve, DMX and T.I. It’s proven to be a savvy retool. Over the past half-decade, the network’s demographic has skewed increasingly younger, and the context for hip-hop’s influence on modern pop culture has been firmly cemented, so the new direction makes more sense than, say, a Fleetwod Mac redux.

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Still, some of the aforementioned episodes have suffered from dedicating the bulk of their runtime to relatively young artists’ immediate past and cross-promotional mandates. Besides, the backstory has always been Behind the Music’s most engaging segment, and given all the ways in which today’s celebrities keep us up to date on their tiniest movements, there’s no real need for a recent-history lesson in most cases. But with a legend like Ice Cube, the show’s producers were handed an embarrassment of biographic gold. Shockingly, they did his 25-year career decent justice in 42 minutes, largely sidestepping non-revelatory padding and the series’ own cliché narrative arcs in the process.

Despite considering myself a pretty knowledgeable Cube fan, I was rapt during the episode’s first 15 minutes, which featured rare audio clips and images of early singles from his first group, the CIA, and detailed tragic events like the murder of his half-sister Beverly. Sir Jinx, his partner in CIA, along with other local DJs and MCs from the era, provide exclusive accounts of introducing Cube to Dr. Dre and their subsequent alliance with Eazy-E, highlighted by fascinating insight into the initial recording of “The Boyz-N-The-Hood” and how NY pop-rap group HBO initially passed on it (“We from Queens. We don’t know about this,” recalls Cube of their reaction to its gratuitous, true-life lyrics).

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It’s at this point when BTM: Ice Cube could have lapsed into the same breathless voiceover copy we’ve heard a million times about N.W.A giving a megaphone to the inner city and sparking a mainstream phenomenon among suburban white teens. Instead, it opts to bypass much of the grandstanding, fast forwarding to Cube’s departure from the group and proceeding to spend a solid 15-20 minutes paying respects to his considerable and influential (read: underrated) solo discography. It was a time when, as journalist Cheo Coker puts it, Cube went “from gangster rapper to gangster politician,” teaming with Public Enemy's Bomb Squad crew and shocking the nation with Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, proving to be a street-culture soothsayer on Death Certificate and The Predator, and evolving as a bona-fide hitmaker with Lethal Injection. And, of course, electrifying John Singleton’s debut film Boyz n the Hood as Doughboy, the embodiment of South Central turmoil.

The man himself, who somehow only just turned 42, mostly hides behind a pair of shades and brushes his shoulder off during his interviews with aloof but hilarious quotes like, “The controversy was that I did a movie for kids. Like I can’t do a movie for some little badass kids.” That’s referring, of course, to his Are We There Yet? empire, which mercifully is only skimmed across during the closing few minutes. Anyone who wants more insight into his family-man affairs can always consult their DVRs and Blu-Ray special features. On a related note, it did seem as if a wealth of anecdotal footage from Cedric the Entertainer, Nia Long and other Barbershop/Friday castmates was mercilessly nudged out. But in this case, and in my opinion, editorial judgment was rendered preferentially for the viewer.

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As can be expected in any Behind the Music, Jim Forbes’ narration gets a bit cringe-y when he has to orate passages about how “Cube is chillin’ with family and friends,” and there is the awkward insertion of now-ancient clips from Dr. Dre’s 1999 BTM. Most dubiously, there’s the occasional squeezing in of archival interviews with Cube himself, who, in fairness to the post-production team, didn’t seem to give them much to work with during this go-round.

Push comes to shove, this was—along with DMX’s overview—the best-curated and most entertaining Behind the Music in the two years since its return. It will make you want to re-devour Ice Cube’s work as a solo artist and adequately puts his impact beyond N.W.A and before Are We There Yet? in deservedly revered perspective.

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Stray Observations

  • Would have been cool to see more footage of his kids, who are grown men and getting into the biz, actually rapping. Something tells me, though, that Cube’s waiting until the time is right for that.
  • I highly, highly recommend reading Cube’s interview for Wax Poetics from last year about the Amerikkka’s recording sessions with the Bomb Squad. That section of the BTM is awesome, but this story is essential stuff. (And not only because there happens to be an article authored by myself about Latin Freestyle in that same issue, although you should totes read that too if you’re feeling saucy.)
  • “You either gotta have it, or you don’t, and I happen to have it.” God, I wish I had his self-confidence.
  • And I thought I had some crazy pubescent hair in my high school yearbook photos.
  • If DJ Yella has any say in it, wearing headphones during interviews will  be the new donning sunglasses.
  • Says a lot about the '90s that “It Was A Good Day” was viewed as being inconsistent with his image up to that point. In the post-Kanye/will.i.am./Cee Lo era, rappers can basically shit peacock feathers and not put a dent in their street cred.
  • God, Nia Long was such a hottie.

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