Review Summary: Ras Kass got his name from an ancient African king, and here, he lives up to that moniker...
The city of Carson, California has always felt left out. Though now T.D.E. mainstay and psych-rap hero Ab-Soul has finally cemented Carson's place in the world of Hip-Hop, at one time Carson was a city struggling to make an imprint on the world of Rap music. A suburb of Los Angeles "north of Long Beach and southwest of Compton", to borrow a phrase from Ras Kass himself, Carson is no stranger to problems, yet often gets overshadowed by its infamous cousins' reputations for crime, swap meets and color conflicts. In 1994 the shadow loomed large and heavy over Carson, so much so that the city's name wasn't even in the playbook of even the most dedicated West Coast Hip-Hop fan. Then came "Remain Anonymous" b/w "Won't Catch Me Runnin'", two of the most important lyrical masterpieces not only in the history of West coast rap, but Hip-Hop itself. A young ex-convict with a vocabulary closer to Kierkegaard than Schooly D (though make no mistake, the content was certainly more D), Ras Kass had struggled to gain a rep in the SoCal Hip-Hop scene. Though a former felon, Ras neither condoned nor excused the criminal lifestyle, and his lyrics often flew over the heads of both his would be audience AND contemporaries. However, Ras' hard work would pay off when his ambidextrous flow and intricate rhymes catch fire among the most unexpected of audiences: cats from the East.
By the time the East started buzzing with hype the West had finally caught on. Ras was quickly signed to Priority records (which later would prove disastrous for the young MC, no bust a move) and began work on his highly anticipated debut album. However, problems arose from the start. The product of the initial album sessions, which would later become known as the "Soul on Ice Demos", was highly contested by Priority. The exact reasons for the persecution are unknown; the demos are far less radical than the finished album would later prove to be, but I suspect the beats relatively "East coast" feel certainly contributed to the shelving. At this time the West coast's reign on top was ending, but the constrictions on West coast artists and what type of beats they should use and what rhymes should go with them were far from void. By the time the demos were finished and Priority was satisfied, Ras Kass felt the need to bring the music up to speed. The demos did not represent his vision any more. Ras was ready to delve deeper into the rabbit hole.
In comes 1996 and out goes all preconceived notions of what Ras' debut will be like. His feature on "Riiiot", a collaboration cut off of hyper-lyrical East coast artist Chino XL's debut "Here to Save You All" was unlike anything ever made in Hip-Hop before. Melodic East coast samples and West coast bass complete with bi-coastal lyricism wittier and more complex than pretty much any punch line song that came before it. By September, when the finished product of "Soul on Ice" finally dropped, fans were itching to hear the much-hyped final cuts. However, the album was met with universal disdain. Though Ras' lyrics were praised, the beats were heavily criticized as being flat, too simple, and, you guessed it, too East coast sounding. Though those people were wrong (which is a scientific fact), word spread quickly and sales of the album slumped. To make matters worse, the album's center piece "Nature of the Threat", a chorus free nine minute tirade against the historical evils of white people, received far more condemnation than praise by the bleached-skinned community financially investing in the Hip-Hop community. This was whack…whack as f#!*. I will now explain why.
Named after the intensely political book by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver of the same name, "Soul on Ice" is one of the greatest Hip-Hop statements of all time. The beats are fantastic AND diverse. From the West coast P-Funk of "Marinatin'" to the chilly tonal tundra of "Ordo Abchao", Ras' beat selection is stellar. I would try to describe how beats like "On Earth As It Is…", "Sonset" (complete with incredible break beat outro) and "If/Then" sound, but actually listening to them would be far more effective. Not to mention the lyrical content is absolutely unbelievable. From the heart-wrenching "The Evil that Men Do" to the hilarious "Drama" featuring Coolio (by the way "Illmatic" only has one feature, too), Ras delivers lyrically on every song. The sunny, fluidic beauty of "Anything Goes" and it's real as f#!* lyrical content concerning the strife life perfectly counters later cuts like the title track, which drops science like Galileo dropping the orange. And yes, "Nature of the Threat", though not always historically accurate and definitely controversial, is incredible and deserves respect as an effort to educate. In fact, it is rare to hear an album like this in any era of Hip-Hop, which educates even as it entertains. Hell, even the skits are great. You know what, do yourself a favor. Stop reading this review and just listen to the album.