Ice-T’s rap-metal outfit is most famous for 1992’s “Cop Killer”, from their debut album, which caused outrage at the time and had to be removed following heated criticism from many prominent figures including President George H. W. Bush. Nearly 30 years later that controversy, as so often happens, now seems quaint to us. But it left an indelible Body Count-shaped mark on the collective culture, so that Ice-T and guitarist Ernie C report that they still get people coming up to them and asking about that song, more than anything else in their catalogue.
As with many artists who became famous for causing controversy, much difficulty comes from the need to maintain their controversial image and shock value in order to feed into their brand and long-term commercial viability (see especially Eminem, who’s actually had more success in this realm than most). The aim of Body Count was always to shock the world, not just in “Cop Killer”, but in other bad-taste classics such as “KKK Bitch” and “Momma’s Gotta Die Tonight”, and also in their music, which placed a rapper front and centre in a metal band and dared anyone to say they had a problem with it.
Ice-T’s always claimed that Body Count are a straight-up metal band, and that he doesn’t rap on their records, but that isn’t strictly true. For one thing, he can’t sing, and doesn’t try. For another, his training as the O.G. gangsta rapper has led to a rhythmic acuteness to his spoken-word delivery that helps the music to fall at least tangentially into the rap genre. For example, on the opening track of Carnivore, their latest album, the way Ice-T squashes together the syllables of lines such as “Corpse of the dead considered fresh” into rhythmic chunks gives the music a bounce that definitely aligns with hip-hop.
But there’s no denying that Body Count have moved more and more firmly across their career into a heavy metal band, rather than a rap-metal hybrid. They’ve gained confidence as a unit, as a band, despite the tragic deaths of several members. The bond between Ice-T and Ernie C, which stretches all the way back to high school, has almost certainly helped to tighten their noise, to shape it more carefully than ever into a heavy metal homage (every album contains a cover of a classic metal song, on this one it’s “Ace of Spades”).
The music on Carnivore sounds more like a pastiche of metal than ever before: it’s like the skeletal frame of the music, but without the flesh. I’m sure with their perverse sense of humor and nihilistic approach, the band would love to be compared to a skeleton. But for the average listener, the lack of any substance or weight to their version of metal is a little dispiriting, if not downright dull. All of the basic elements are there: chugging guitar riffs and squealing solos, rapid gunshot-like drum fills, low guttural screams, an overall atmosphere of unadulterated rage. But none of the riffs stick, none of the solos blow the mind, and the screams are… well, just annoying.
Let’s not even get started on the singing. Suffice to say, whenever there’s a sung chorus on this album, even when there’s a guest vocalist as on “Another Level” and “When I’m Gone”, the sheer fingernails-on-blackboard annoyance of it as general noise should have you quickly pressing fast-forward.
There are some truly dismal approximations of rage on this album. The title track was apparently an attempt to piss off vegans, and it has some descriptions of meat-eating, yet overall it just sounds like another werewolf horror story. “Bum-Rush” is a badly thought through political diatribe that spews off in various directions, including at “propaganda” and the lack of clean water in Flint. The hilariously bad “No Remorse” and “The Hate is Real” shout loudly at vague enemies with whom Ice-T wants to fight, like a kid in a playground wanting to be king of the roost, or like Trump sending out one of his brain-dead Tweets.
We know that Ice-T is smarter than this: not just the best tracks on the band’s debut album, but also a few from their last, 2017’s Bloodlust, displayed real political smarts and jet-black humor. But Carnivore is an empty threat, a plate of meat without sauce or tasty side dishes of any kind.