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What Ice Cube Teaches Us About The American Dream


To hear it discussed in some quarters, the American dream is dead, gone, and buried, never to return. But one man who once sported a Jheri curl and drove a bucket reminds us that the American dream is anything but dead. It’s still out there. We just have to reach out and claim it.

When that young Jheri-curled man, one O’Shea Jackson, burst onto the scene, it was with the opening verse of the title track of N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton.” With a raucous opening, Jackson gave the world a taste of what we would soon know to be his signature style: “Straight outta Compton, crazy motherf****r named Ice Cube / From the gang called N****z With Attitude. When I’m called off, I got a sawed-off, squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off.” With those words, that verse, a new form of angry and energetic expression came into existence and Jackson, or Ice Cube (as he is better known), was one of its pioneers.

That wasn’t his original path, however. Cube finished high school and originally went down a different road, one that probably features as much profanity, if not as many rhymes. His plan wasn’t for the rap game, but for T-squares and graph paper, for AutoCAD and load-bearing walls.

After high school, you see, he attended the Phoenix Institute of Technology, earning a degree in architectural drafting. Degree might be strong word here, as it was only a one-year program. Regardless, he had a trade and a plan. Had things gone differently, we wouldn’t be talking about Ice Cube the entertainer, but O’Shea Jackson the renowned architect (because obviously he wouldn’t have been satisfied to stick to an entry-level position).

A Lyrical Frank Lloyd Wright

But Cube opted not to become the next Frank Lloyd Wright and instead began drafting rhymes. He worked. He honed his skills. Soon after, he found himself in that pivotal role with N.W.A. He once told a date he wasn’t the one to get played like a pooh butt. (Being from the streets, he knew what was up.) He offered strong opinions on the police and what exactly should be done to them. He discussed the day in the life of a dope man. In other words, he stuck to a variety of extremely family-friendly topics.

After that debut album, for which he wrote over half the lyrics, Ice Cube left N.W.A. and embarked on a solo career—one marked by a drastically more understated tone. 1990’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted,” to start at the beginning, opens with a skit in which Cube is being walked to the electric chair for an unspecified crime. When asked to offer his last words, he offers only three words: “F**k all y’all!”

So maybe he didn’t really tone it down. Toning things down isn’t exactly Cube’s modus operandi. But he is still going strong, although these days he tends to focus on acting rather than rapping. While one might expect that his chosen roles would be more about gangs and crime—and he has taken such roles—he’s actually known more for comedy. He’s adopted kids, he’s taken road trips, he’s been a god.

How did such a journey happen? How did the man who started his career by yelling at us end up being an affable comedian who presents awards to Taylor Swift? Because America, dammit, that’s why.

It’s because Cube wasn’t bound by limitations or a lack of imagination. In 1991, he stepped from behind the mic and in front of the camera with an acclaimed role in John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood.” That film, and the next few that followed it, were indeed serious. Then, in 1995, his transition began with one of the greatest films ever made, giving us “Bye Felicia.” Of course, we’re talking about “Friday.”

From Rapper to Actor to Unstoppable Juggernaut

The tale of a man who got fired for stealing boxes on his day off, “Friday” explores the deep and gritty reality of what happens when two young men with idle time spend the day getting baked. There was some strife and some drama and a powerful scene at the end, but mostly it was about getting baked. From there, Ice Cube became an unstoppable juggernaut.

He battled and beat a giant anaconda in “Anaconda.” He stepped behind the camera, making his directorial debut with “The Players Club.” He starred alongside George Clooney and fellow former “rapper” (to use the term loosely) Mark Wahlberg in “Three Kings.” There was “Next Friday” and “Friday After Next.”

Then, in 2005, Cube took a road trip with two rambunctious kids. Their mom was supposed to be with them, but circumstances caused him to transport the pair without help. Although they were terrible, the bond between them grew, and Cube and their mother fell in love. So while the original question may have been “Are We There Yet?” the real question was “Are We Done Yet?” since that road trip led to marriage and home ownership.

Thus Ice Cube, the angry young man who burst onto the scene by yelling at us, finished his transformation into loving father figure. The voice of reason. The adult in the room. Sure, he continues to yell, but that’s what fathers do, although time tends to cause some mellowing.

He is an actual father, after all. He and his wife married in 1992. They have five children together. His eldest son, O’Shea Jr., portrayed him in the biopic “Straight Outta Compton” and together they presented Swift her VMA for Video of the Year. When “Straight Outta Compton,” which he produced, was snubbed for an Oscar nomination, the mellowing became apparent.

Don’t Cry About Not Enough Icing, You’ve Got Cake

“We got so much praise for the movie. So how could we be mad that one other Academy or guild or anybody didn’t say it’s their number one? It’s like crying about not having enough icing on your cake. You know what I mean? It’s just ridiculous.”

Yup, yup. Cake is something Cube knows intimately. To borrow from Jay Z, Cube isn’t a businessman, he’s a business, man. He’s a story of success, of how drive and determination can lead from Compton to the world. As Cube himself said, “What I learned from architectural drafting is that everything has to have a plan to work. You just can’t wing it. I can’t get all the materials I need for a house and just start building. Whether it’s a career, family, life—you have to plan it out.”

Plan he did. From school to college to the music industry to Hollywood, Ice Cube made the American dream his reality and went from gangsta rapper to role model. In the process, he became a success story that can serve as an example for us all. If Cube could do it, so can we. We just have to have to similarly believe in ourselves and make our plans. We have to be bold, assertive, and not afraid to put our feet down and storm out into the world, ready to make it our own. As Cube said at the end of that opening verse in that first title track, “As I leave, believe I’m stompin’ but when I come back, boy, I’m comin’ straight outta Compton.”

We may not be coming straight out of Compton, but no matter, for despite rumors of its demise, the American dream is alive and well. We just have to plan and keep our faith. We can still have cake, we simply need to get out there and make it. We can be Ice Cube (although we can probably skip the Jheri curl).