Studying the cover art of Ice Cube’s latest album, I Am the West, it appears as though the hip-hop veteran is defending something. In a throwback to the Old West, he’s pictured slouched in a rocking chair with a shotgun resting on his lap, guarding the sanctity of the west coast rap that he helped pioneer. His lyrics only serve to expound on this theme, as he takes shots at Jay-Z (“Without Alicia Keys, without going R&B/This ain’t Motown, this is R.A.P.”) and any pretenders to his supposed throne. The rapper-cum-actor is also extremely defensive with regard to his Hollywood career, almost to the point where it seems he himself believes it has jeopardized his OG persona. The question is, with 20 years passed since the outstanding AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, is Cube still the legitimate sentinel for westward hip-hop?
With over a dozen producers enlisted to score his respect-your-elders and get-off-my-lawn diatribes, I Am the West struggles to sustain much momentum early on. “Soul on Ice” and “Life in California” get the album off to a reasonable start, sampling simple brass loops and G-Funk synths, with Cube in fine form lyrically, but a chain of woeful beats soon derails the album. “She Couldn’t Make It on Her Own” is a grating glitch-hop number with tame verses from OMG and Doughboy, which in effect sounds like feeble freestyling over MIDI ringtones blaring from a Nokia 3210. The equally glitchy and irritating “Urbanian” is no better, with Cube telling those who aren’t familiar with him to “Google me, bitch.” On this evidence, I’d rather not. With such a large number of producers behind the mixing desk, it’s impossible for I Am the West to conform to a consistent style. At its worst, it feels sloppy and disordered, with some of the album’s rare gems entrenched in banal hooks.
There are instances where Cube is noticeably on song, though, and he delivers one of the album’s most rousing stanzas over a beat brimming with attitude and menace on “Too West.” He barks, “My ego is big as Heathrow/Got this elite flow, easy as a free-throw” to launch what is essentially a catalogue of self-appraisal, but the Compton MC possesses a charisma that keeps his rhymes engaging. Essentially, he’s come to mark his territory and talk about the west: “No Country for Young Men” is a relentless defense of his quarters, an engrossing four-minute barrage sans chorus in which Cube bitterly mourns the loss of the genre’s golden era: “This junkyard was a empire/Y’all let it get overran by the vampires.”
Judging by moments like these, when Cube’s performance is allowed to take center stage, I Am the West becomes an engaging hip-hop record. For too long, though, he staggers through iffy refrains and some dolefully crude beats. If “Too West” and “No Country for Young Men” rank among his finest battle cries in recent memory, clangers like “Fat Cat” and “Urbanian” are tracks that fans will surely want to forget. I Am the West could have really used an experienced producer like Dr. Dre to keep Ice Cube on his toes, but with thinly veiled jabs like “I ain’t the doctor, this ain’t the patient/This ain’t that nigga always on vacation/This ain’t no white boy’s rehabilitation,” it doesn’t seem too likely that we’ll see an amorous reunion between the two west coast pioneers anytime soon.