This weekend, as moviegoers laugh along to Ice Cube's comic turn as a churlish police officer in the new comedy "21 Jump Street," how many will recall that the multi-talented performer was once so controversial that his very image was banned from public display in the state of Oregon?
The specific cause of the ban was the cover of Ice Cube's 1991 solo album, "Death Certificate," which showed him pledging allegiance to Uncle Sam. Patriotic enough, except that this Uncle Sam is dead, laid out on a gurney and wrapped in the American flag.
It was hardly the first time Ice Cube had provoked controversy with his raw, combative commentary on U.S. society. Ice Cube (given name: O'Shea Jackson) first made a name for himself as a member of the rap group N.W.A., whose unapologetic celebration of gangster life in South Central, Los Angeles, earned the adoration of millions of fans -- many of them white kids from the suburbs -- and some very powerful enemies. The group's song "F*** Tha Police," with its gleeful threats against the lives of L.A.P.D. officers, even prompted the F.B.I. to open an investigation.
Is it ironic, then, that Cube is now embracing "buddy cop" clichés in his role as Captain Dickson, a no-nonsense police officer put in charge of a group of undercovers? A little. But if you look at Cube’s career over the last 25 years, the move makes perfect sense. After all, this one-time founder of gangsta rap has always controlled his own destiny, using each accomplishment as a platform to greater success -- as long as it's on his own terms.
The success of N.W.A.'s landmark album, "Straight Outta Compton," looked to the world like a group effort, but Ice Cube had an outsize influence on it, writing not just his own lyrics but those of Dr. Dre and Eazy E. After leaving the group, he released a solo album of his own, "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted," which went platinum after 16 months.
Just one year after “Most Wanted,” Ice Cube leveraged some of his newfound music fame for a co-starring role in “Boyz ‘n the Hood,” director John Singleton’s seminal look at gang-life in Los Angeles. Still, Cube was totally satisfied with the way Hollywood portrayed his home; at the time, films and music -- including his own -- had depicted South Central as a war zone. But he wanted to show that times weren’t always bad growing up in his neighborhood.
“Y’all act like we lived in the pit of hell. We cried but we laughed,” said Cube in VH1’s Behind the Music.
His first script was called “Friday.” The film became a massive hit, grossing three times its initial $3.5 million budget. The movie presented Cube in a different light. Here, audiences finally caught a glimpse of his good nature -- something he had offered a peak at on his third solo album, “The Predator,” which featured the popular track “It Was a Good Day.”
Ice Cube’s roles in “Anaconda” and “Three Kings” introduced him to a different set of fans: ones who'd been turned off by -- or ignorant of -- his music. That’s not to say he gave up hip-hop or controversy completely. Throughout the late ‘90s, he continued to record albums, and even directed his first film, “The Player’s Club,” a movie about a strip joint.
Later on, he started his own production company, had children (he has five with his wife of 20 years, Kimberly) and ultimately looked to introduce himself to a new generation of fans. His career trajectory eventually gave him almost complete creative control -- something few stars in Hollywood have.
In 2005, he suffered a new kind of backlash when he signed on to star in the family movie “Are We There Yet?” Fans who worshipped Cube's early-career image as a trigger-happy gangsta were appalled, but the truth is that he wasn't that person any more, if he ever had been.
He had retained his ability to shrug off criticism, though: “The controversy was that I did a movie for kids," he told “Behind the Music.” "Like I can’t do a damn movie for some little badass kids. That’s funny."
The truth is, starting out as Public Enemy No. 1, hustling your way to the top of Hollywood, and wrestling complete control of your career, is about as hip-hop as it gets. Ice Cube’s done pretty much everything in Hollywood, even becoming an Internet meme. As the mutli-multi-hyphenate told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2005, “It’s been a roller coaster ride of a career for me, and it’s fun. It’s still evolving.”
Not bad for a guy whose picture was once banned in an entire state.
“21 Jump Street” opens nationwide this weekend.
Earlier on HuffPost: