By Arturo R. García
Fittingly, the most sincerely gripping moments in Ice-T’s directorial debut, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, happen when the art form is allowed to speak for itself: when tracks like “Straight Outta Compton” and “The Message” kick in on a theater-quality sound system, alongside footage of the neighborhoods their stories inspired, Ice’s argument behind their power comes through loud and clear.
But in attempting to break down both the mechanics and the magic behind MCing, Ice unwittingly undercuts both the audience and his interview subjects. At least, as of right now. Some spoilers under the cut.
The documentary arrives at an interesting moment: not only is it hitting theaters alongside a vastly different piece of legacy maintenance in the hair-metal musical Rock of Ages, but it comes at a time when Hot 97 derides Nicki Minaj while Nas defends Gwyneth Paltrow.
In his role as narrator, Ice declares The Art will not be about “the money or the girls” but, by the end of the movie, we see Reverend Run recall the moment when his success in Run-DMC took him over the rails: sitting in a bathtub, high, and realizing “the ho’s at the door, and Rolling Stone is behind her.”
A similar boys’ club mentality runs through the film, leading to some ugly moments. It is way too easy to spot the dissonance in Ice praising Ras Kass’ intelligence seconds after Kass introduces himself with the words “I spit from the genitals, bitch/leave a masculine stench.” And seeing Ice and Snoop Dogg smile their way through “6 ‘n The Mornin”–”I bought a Benz with the money, the rest went to clothes/Went to the strip, started pimpin’ the hoes” – takes on a whole new dimension after spending more than an hour emphasizing the importance of words.
This would seem to be a great platform for female MCs to be heard, but instead we get all-too-brief appearances from Salt from Salt-N-Pepa for a convo about loved ones “only hearing the beats,” and MC Lyte, who discusses her vocal training. But surely they could’ve provided a lively discussion with Ice on how and why words like bitch and ho have ended up on so many tracks and on their particular challenges making their way through a genre seemingly replete with alpha-male personalities. That absence is felt as deeply as that of Jay-Z or any MCs representing the southern U.S. (although the latter, Ice says, was also complicated by logistics.)
In contrast, Eminem is given a wide berth to discuss how his whiteness impacted his journey from wannabe to a “grand master” in a black artform … right after he drops lesbian “jokes.” It also seems odd for Ice to visit Dr. Dre and talk about his production technique and not the content of the songs that put him and the rest of NWA on the map and burned South Central L.A. in the national conscience in a very particular way.
The Dre segment, and the omissions under the surface, also point to the conversations one hopes takes place either in deleted scenes or in a follow-up: what happens after the MCs words connect with an audience? What responsibility does the artist have when that message is taken in outside of the neighborhood? Because it was white teenagers who pushed NWA to commercial success, and it’s a sure bet many of those teenagers interpreted their stories much differently than the people who could relate to them directly. There’s a reason, after all, why the Tupac hologram at Coachella “performed” “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” and not “Dear Mama.”
But the best case for another installment is made in the moments Ice cedes the mic: it’s Joe Budden who offers up a poignant slice of what Ice calls “the B-side of the game”; it’s Grandmaster Caz who name-checks Roxanne Shanté and other luminaries in an opening freestyle covering the entirety of the hip-hop era; and it’s Kanye West who nails the connection between his pop stardom and the art form that led him to it. At its best, Ice and The Art succeed in their mission to honor the greats of hip-hop’s past. Now it’s time to take stock of the game’s future.