Elyse has taught middle school for five years. She majored in middle grades education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.
This article is a brief analysis of Ice Cube's 1993 classic, "What Can I Do?," which tells Ice Cube's origin story. Read on to learn the hard truths that made Ice Cube the legendary rapper that he is.
What Is the Song "What Can I Do?" About?
Ice Cube’s song "What Can I Do?" tells the story of a man who becomes trapped in a cycle of crime. Starting young, he gets caught up in dealing drugs. He is constantly in trouble with the law. Even though he breaks the law over and over again, the circumstances surrounding his life made such choices unavoidable. This is introduced at the very beginning by a voice announcing, “In any country, prison is where society sends its failures. But in this country, society itself is failing." The song, mentioning themes of education, economics, and crime culture, illustrates a society that predetermines the fates of some of its people, driving them to lives of crime in order to survive.
Major Motifs in Ice Cube's "What Can I Do?"
- Dropping out of school leads to feelings of hopelessness.
- Money troubles lead to family strife.
- Crime is the only way for some people to support themselves.
The issue of inequality in the educational system has been a recurring problem throughout U.S. history. As such, Ice Cube does not relegate the issue to one verse, but expands on the idea over several verses that cover several decades of the rapper's life.
In the first verse, Cube says, “dropped out the twelfth ‘cause my wealth is shorter than a midget on its knees, now I slang ki’s.” Driven by poverty, he drops out of high school before he graduates in order to sell drugs. Later on, busted for his dealing, he spends three years in prison where he “never picked up a book,” again choosing not to further his education. Instead, he works out constantly. The repercussions of this are not made clear to the audience until the narrator, motivated by becoming a father, tries to clean up and get a job. “No skills to pay the bills/talking about education to battle inflation." It soon becomes clear to him that due to his lack of basic education there are very few jobs open to him. He raps, “No college degree, just a dumb ass G.” Without a strong educational background, his only option is to work for minimum wage at McDonald’s. Eventually, he relapses into his more lucrative life of crime. The narrator put off his education time and again in order to survive in society. Ice Cube makes the overall point that it is impossible to succeed in this society without an education, which leaves everyone without one at a huge disadvantage.
Economics also plays a huge role in the lyrics of this song. Due to his financial struggles, the narrator is mostly motivated by getting money. In order to support himself, he drops out of school. However, when the “streets dried up,” he moved to Minnesota. Once up north, he takes pride in his renewed wealth and the status it gives him singing, “Now I got ends, waving to my friends/Rollin in a Benz.” This high-rolling lifestyle by way of crime is in stark contrast to the harsh economic realities that face him when looking for a legitimate job.
After he is busted by the cops and put in jail for a few years, he loses absolutely everything he had gained after his move. Moreover, he finds out that he is going to become a father soon. Having a new baby means that the narrator needs to be able to provide for someone other than himself. Unfortunately, he is unable to find work that will pay him above minimum wage, which is not enough to support a family. This shows the irony of the historical reference “the chicken and a quota,” which symbolizes the New Deal, legislation put in place to relieve those in poverty and renew the economy. While there is supposedly help out there for those in the same situation as the narrator, Ice Cube challenges this idea, making it clear that there is not much relief to be found. Needing desperately to support his family, and unable to come by the money legally, the narrator turns back to crime to make up the difference. This reiterates the major theme of the song that society set the narrator up for unavoidable failure.
In general, the lyrics explain how, for some, crime is the only means for supporting oneself. The narrator chose to sell illegal substances instead of going to school and, from there on, lived outside of the law. He did not enjoy criminal activity, but only broke the law for financial gain. Despite the risk of prison, the money made through these crimes exceeded what he would have been able to amass by abiding the law. At the end of the song, in a moment of irony, the narrator is held up at his McDonald’s job and makes the choice to go on the run with the man who is robbing the restaurant.
While this is not a drug crime, it does illustrate how, for the narrator, a life of crime is better than working a legitimate job. Again, the narrator is caught by the police and explains, “one more felony, strike number three.” He is sent back to prison for at least another twenty-five years. The recurring message of the song is that crime, while illegal, can be the better option for some. He chooses a life of crime above an education, as well as a legal occupation, because, in reality, there was no other option. It was only through crime that the narrator was ever able to achieve any sort of status or wealth in his life. Turning to crime culture in order to support oneself is another example of how society is failing its people.
This particular story isn’t uncommon. Being trapped in a cycle of crime leading to jail, leading back to crime, is an all too common scenario in this country. Ice Cube makes this story much more complex by holding society itself responsible for those who fall into this scenario. Carrying several different themes throughout the song's plotline, he makes a case for these people, representing them as victims of their circumstances. The repetition of the line “what can I do?” carries with it implications of helplessness, an interrogative statement that tells the audience that the narrator had no other real choice than the life he led. Society had failed him, not the other way around.
© 2018 Elyse Maupin-Thomas
Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on August 19, 2018:
Your well explained the condition resulting from the US government's planting drugs in the "black" community to rid the nation of the "Black Panthers" and impoverished "white" communities. It is the reverse of the TV series "Dukes of Hazard" where the theme song tells their story.
First one has to see the symbolism of the Confederate flag on the car suggesting "ethnic's supremacy" called "the good old boys" who controls the laws by the song. Thus, the "Duke runners" being children of the "good old boys" would never be caught by the law no matter what.
That can be transposed into the US Government. From the founding of this nation the founders violated the constitution by expanding the nation through aggressive wars against the Natives when the Supreme Law say the military is to be for defense. They fought the U.S. of Mexico over Texas and all of the southwest part of this nation. That wasn't enough so they committed treason in 1898 to fight Spain over Cuba, to enter WW1, for WW2, for Vietnam and both Gulf wars which includes 9/11. The nation called it a "war on drugs" to make it constitutional to war against something they implemented and furnishes to incarcerate any people they doesn't want to advance in order to keep large base on the bottom of the money pyramid.
The system produced by a corrupt nation seeking to become "the last empire" of earth.
Liz Westwood from UK on August 19, 2018:
This is a well-worked out hub.