Body Count's self-titled debut album turns 22 this year. That's already an eternity in pop culture years, but to today's youth, who've grown up in a post-Napster world where limitless amounts of music are available instantaneously, the album may as well have never existed. To Millennials, as well as many of us old enough to remember the controversy surrounding Body Count's release in 1992, Ice-T isn't a founding father of gangsta rap or the guy who terrified white Middle Americans with songs like "Cop Killer"; he's the actor who plays Detective Fin Tutuola on Law & Order: SVU. It's in this environment that Body Count has released its fifth album, Manslaughter, on Sumerian Records.
Regardless of your feelings about the band or this album, it's immediately clear that Manslaughter is Body Count's best album since their debut. The three albums between – Born Dead, Violent Demise: The Last Days, and Murder 4 Hire – are marred with flat production, uninspired lyrics, and fairly generic guitar work. There are a few solid tracks on each album, but the combination of energy, Ice-T's raw lyricism, and Ernie C's songwriting that made Body Count so good just isn't present. On Manslaughter, it's obvious that Ice-T and Ernie C took their time crafting each song, and the polished production is undoubtedly the result of Sumerian Record's involvement. From a strictly executional standpoint, Manslaughter is as good, if not better than, Body Count.
But slick production and well written songs don't necessarily equal a good album. One of the reasons Body Count was, and continues to be, a compelling album is its mixture of social commentary and campy, over-the-top violence. Aside from pearl-grasping conservatives, no one actually thought Ice-T was advocating the murder of police when "Cop Killer" was unleashed on the public in 1992. It was clear that he was commenting on the real problem of police brutality in black communities in a deliberately inflammatory way. On Manslaughter, the cartoonish violence remains, but the scathing social commentary is mostly absent. Instead of "There Goes the Neighborhood's" rant against racism in the rock community, "Manslaughter" treats listeners to a diatribe that heralds the death of manhood because men don't get murdered for insulting each other or "stand for shit" anymore. Then there's "Wanna Be A Gangsta", a song that chastises kids for romanticizing the criminal lifestyle Ice-T himself made a career out of glamorizing throughout the 80s and early 90s.
Aside from Ice-T's bizarre moralizing, there are also a few tracks where he tries to mine his tough guy gangsta image for credibility with mixed results. It's hard to take him seriously as he lambastes vapid pop and reality stars on "Pop Bubble" when he's made a fortune acting on a formulaic police procedural and his own reality show. Likewise, his re-appropriation of "99 Problems", a song composed entirely of boasts about the size of his female entourage, falls flat due to the fact that he's flaunted his marriage to Coco Austin for years. But the worst track on Manslaughter is Body Count's cover of the Suicidal Tendancies classic "Institutionalized". It's not surprising that the band would cover ST since Body Count are so obviously influenced by the crossover pioneers, but Ice-T's lyrics totally miss the mark. The original song is a teen angst anthem, but the update is a combination of an adolescent temper tantrum over video games and the increasingly angry ravings of a 56-year-old luddite who doesn't like vegans. Although, given the wildly varying age groups Manslaughter is targeting, maybe this cover version is actually really prescient.
Ice-T would be the first to say that his lyrics and image should be taken with a grain of salt, but, without any serious social commentary to serve as a foil to all the misogyny and torture porn fantasies, Manslaughter comes off as self-parody. Yeah, it's fun to listen to at times (any music writer whose withered the slings and arrows of the Comments Section will appreciate "Talk Shit, Get Shot"), but ultimately these songs are as superficial as the subjects they chastise.