The Legend of Ice-T: Crime Stories (3LP)
(Rhyme Syndicate Productions/Ruffnation Entertainment/MVD)
It’s hard to know what to make of The Legend of Ice-T: Crime Stories exactly, in part because what the album wants to be isn’t particularly clear. A very solid argument could be made for the possibility that, in fact, this 3LP set is supposed to be the soundtrack to either a stage production or a film. From the moment it starts, the set seeks to present the portrait of Tracy Lauren Morrow as a thug who finds his way into the East Coast rap scene and ultimately ends up helping to establish Gangsta Rap. The A-side of the album begins right there – complete with gunfire and sirens, Ice-T emerges untouched by age as “Too Old For The Dumb Shit” sounds off like a brand new song but doesn’t bother to give listeners a second to adjust of catch up; it just sounds the bells and gets moving.
“Too Old For The Dumb Shit” is an undeniably great opener; Ice-T doesn’t overstuff his stanzas with syllables and really lets the spit hang from each line so it’s easy to inhabit the sound – until listeners almost trip over the far more “vintage” feeling of “Feds In My Rearview.” There, the side almost sounds as though it wants to start fresh and in a new place as the very sweet and warm disco/R&B samples which are laid down as bed tracks intermingle with a beat that sounds almost like it wants to clip and the emcee begins rifling through vintage lines which sound like they could have been cut thirty-five years ago – but some of the mentions of more fashionably modern drugs on the market (Fentanyl and Oxycodone) illustrate that they’re an anachronism which proves to mess with the song’s rhythm, a little. Happily, the rhythm and flow don’t get completely derailed though, and “Feds In My Rearview” seethes fantastically with hard feelings and hard lessons of gangland learned.
Perhaps to punctuate the points made by “Too Old For The Dumb Shit,” the A-side The A-side closes with “The Hanging” which, after recognizing and digesting the events that have taken place on the American national stage over the last few years, is guaranteed to make some listeners flinch – but still plays like a hit when it comes from Ice-T. The string samples, beats and T’s voice converge in an ideal way and listeners won’t be able to keep themselves from falling under the emcee’s spell as he spits lines with a great, vintage flow, and sirens appear like a Greek chorus to help bring the side to a close.
Before listeners have a chance to catch their breath, the B-side opens with “That’s How I’m Livin’” and the beat (which sounds like the one Kevin Smith to outside the QuickStop in Clerks (Ice-T is originally from New Jersey – so maybe the sonic reference is intentional) – and listeners of a particular mind will fall right back in step with the record. The rush is heady and, even after the song ends with sounds of victory hard-won ringing through listeners,they’ll do a double-take when it feels as though time has leapt forward with the help of a sample from the signature music of the Hallowe’en movies, and suddenly a prison image and plenty of desperation overtakes the proceedings. This is also the moment when the story line becomes far less believable (or relatable) and listeners may find that they’re taken out of the story. Yes, it is possible that the events in this story did occur, but the jump to prison feels so sudden that some listeners will be unable to stay with the story and not suspend disbelief. Perhaps that’s why the movement of “Midnight” goes back top looping Led Zeppelin beats used to in Central Park back in the day, and the lyrical flow slows down so that it’s impossible to escape. It’s a time-tested trick, but it still works and, when “Midnight” breaks into “6 In The Morning” (which closes the side), the sun-baked sense of sore, dry eyes and parched lips is absolutely inescapable.
As “Chapter II” begins on a new vinyl plate, it suddenly gets a little more difficult to take more of the same musical structures and styling because there is no change or development in the running. Listeners will undoubtedly find themselves impatient when they hear it, initially. Yup, it’s gang land. Yyp, it’s desperate. Yup, it’s hard. Within the context of this album, nothing we’re hearing here is something we haven’t heard before. Listeners’ patience gets tested when “Feel The Caps Back” fades into “Drama” (which which lives up to its name in all the wrong ways), and then the running tries to draw comparisons between Ice-T’s story and that of the Black Panthers in “Soul On Ice” – which feels even harder to grasp. Parallels between Ice-T and Eldridge Cleaver feel more than a little trite for those on the outside looking in, and this is the point in The Legend of Ice-T: Crime Stories which feels ike it needs a motion picture for support; Sides C and D both play as though they need something more (in part because the sinewy tone of the samples employed feels increasingly thin) – and that makes it increasingly difficult to stick with the set.
That difficulty continues into the E-side of The Legend of Ice-T: Crime Stories, because it just gets increasingly formulaic as women take a greater role in the album’s running. Here, Ice-T begins to show his age as the stereotypical banger/woman interactions become ever-more cookie-cutter and “of their moment”; and it’s even worse when the “of its moment” cut drags along to the “eight minute” mark. The going just grinds on too as the story unfolds just how everyone might expect (there are women, troubles, getting busted, and coming out wiser and renewed with new purpose discovered, in that order) and while the formula is solid, it continues to feel as though it needs a visual component – either on stage or on the silver screen.
…And then, of course, on the F-side of The Legend of Ice-T: Crime Stories, listeners who are on their way from front-to-back of the album get the final confrontation both with the outside entity that got our hero busted as well as a resolution with the hero’s internal conflict so he can grow and move on too. “Check Your Heart” and “Ballin’ Bitch I Knew” sew up the storylines on the album ably enough – even if, again, some key component feels absent from the running. Granted, it’s impossible to argue with the quality of the early cuts – the venom and the vitriol in the play is excellent – but, as the end draws near, it doesn’t seem as though there’s a conclusion in sight. When the emcee begins to turn on everyone left in the story because of his own paranoia, the story doesn’t feel over but everything that’s present here does. The final moments of “Where The Shit Goes Down” sort of close up the story, but leave just enough open to imply (without coming right out and saying), “And our hero got out alive, against the odds.”
In that end, it’s hard to stifle a desire to scream, “Of course he did! He must have! His life improved after this story ended! That’s the part we already know,” but the story wants some dramatic closure, so this is how that happens. It goes without saying that how “Where The Shit Goes Down” requires requires suspension of disbelief if listeners want The Legend of Ice-T: Crime Stories to end in a satisfying way. As long as listeners are willing to play along with that, they’ll get all they could hope for from the time they’ve invested in this 3LP set. Deviation from the path that the music sets for listeners will only leave them infuriated – but those who play along and/or stay on the path will be richly rewarded by the The Legend of Ice-T: Crime Stories experience. [Bill Adams]
The Legend of Ice-T: Crime Stories is out now. Buy it here, directly from Ruffnation Entertainment.