It’s remarkable to me that Ice-T’s biggest fan base is probably white, low-to-medium income senior citizens who enjoy seeing criminals get arrested—based on his work on Law and Order—given that his early work was about the violent overthrow of institutional racism and especially of bad cops. He then took a hard right turn, starring as a police officer in the groundbreaking and brilliant film “New Jack City,” and used the appearance to launch the best album of his career. He’s been a drug dealer, a pimp, a pop singer, an Army veteran, a bank robber and thief, a DJ, and a reality TV star.
His work in the earliest days of hip hop was revolutionary. It started when he beat Kurtis Blow in a freestyle competition, and then, when he heard PSK’s “What Does It Mean,” he decided to create the West Coast equivalent—thus being one of the founders of what would become gangsta rap. He became the first to get labeled “Explicit lyrics” by Tipper Gore’s Parental Music Research Council. His response? “F—the police, F the FBI, F the DEA, F the CIA, F—Tipper Gore, Bush, and his cripple b—.” He was also (to my knowledge) the first rapper to become a thrash metal singer, with his group Body Count—a group that got investigated by the FBI for advocating killing corrupt cops.
Let’s look at his albums, and rank them. Because that’s what we do here. But real quick before we get started, two of my personal favorite Ice-T recordings didn’t appear on his albums. The first is his duet with Perry “Jane’s Addiction” Farrell covering Sly Stone’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” The second was probably his first huge hit, the theme song to Colors—an amazing movie starting Sean Penn and Dennis Hopper.
OK, let’s do this….
6 -8. VI: Return of the Real (1996), 7th Deadly Sin (1999), and Gangsta Rap (2006)
The bottom three albums on this list are kind of interchangeable. Deadly Sin was his “last” album before he went to acting full-time, and Gangsta Rap was his “come back” that…Didn’t really bring him back.
5. Home Invasion (1993)
Ice-T follows up his groundbreaking, best album (OG—see #1 below) with an underwhelming and haphazard collection of songs. By this time, he had moved on to hardcore with his band Body Count, and was likely just fulfilling a contractual obligation. However, there are some good songs here and one great one: 99 Problems. Yes, that 99 Problems. Jay-Z stole it, years later. Despite not being all that good, the album went to #9 on Billboard’s rap chart.
4. Rhyme Pays (1987)
Ice-T’s first album and also one of his four classics (obviously, #s 1-3 on this list are the other three). It’s a little dated, but remember that it was unprecedented when Ice-T dropped his famous breakout song with the opening line: “Six in the morning, police at my door…”
As noted above, he took his cue from New York’s PSK and advanced an entire West Coast, graphic, pseudorealistic genre: Gangsta Rap. The influence of this album can’t be overrated, and it makes up for some of the less-interesting songs and uneven production. The album went gold and rose to #26 on the charts.
3. The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech…Just Watch What You Say (1989)
This is an actual album, but it feels like a mixtape with a single theme: Free Speech. It combines heavy metal samples, live guitar work, spoken word from Jello Biafra, and a nine minute posse cut with early bars from Everlast and an appearance by the unsung-and-great Toddy Tee. It’s also got a famous line directed at future first lady Tipper Gore that is graphic, gross, and hilarious. I won’t repeat it here. You can go find it for yourself.
2. Power (1988)
Ice-T’s second album, made while rap as an art form was really just getting going. Every song is strong, with some personal favorites being the title track, GLGBNAF, and his masterful reimaging of Curtis Mayfield’s song, “I’m Your Pusher,” recasting rap in the place of drugs. This was particularly appropriate as government censors began attacking rap music with the same level of vigor and over-the-top, “save the children” rhetoric as it had been using in the War on Drugs. The album went Gold and, best of all, it was indie—released on Ice’s own label, Rhyme Syndicate. Be warned: Even by today’s standards, Power is an orgy of sex, misogyny, and violence.
1. Original Gangster (1991)
This is the obvious choice for #1 because it so clearly correct. OG was a defining moment for the West Coast hardcore genre that was, about that time, getting known by the term “Gangsta Rap.” And speaking of hardcore, it also broke genre by including a straight up hardcore metal song, “Cop Killa,” by Ice-T’s live band, Body Count (who went on to make numerous albums with Ice as their frontman).
OG was also a double album—something practically unheard of in hip hop at the time. And it was emphatically NOT overstuffed. Not a minute is wasted as the album scrolls through “slices of life” in South Central. There’s a song about a drunk driver. One about kids being abused. Songs about life in prison, making it in the drug game, and being a famous rapper. Like the Body Count song, metal-meets-rap in the savage street tale “Midnight,” which samples the famous John Bonham drum riff from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” There’s fast flow on “New Jack Hustler” juxtaposed against the slower, more didactic “Bitches 2.” Even the skits can be replayed and enjoyed several times.
OG is not just Ice-T’s best album, and it’s not just one of the best rap albums of 1991. It’s one of the best albums of that entire decade, period, across all genres.