It doesn’t matter that Vanilla Ice is a white man and not a black man.
The significant news that came out of the rapper’s show Saturday night at the Celebrity Theatre is that he is no showman.
Ice, currently the hottest commodity in pop music with his No. 1 album, “To the Extreme,” failed to muster the sustained heat needed to make a rap concert burn. Instead of developing a snowballing torrent of fast-paced action, he inserted long, pointless blackouts between virtually every number. Then, when the lights came on, he would dither some more in stiff attempts at banter with his black sidekick, Earthquake.
Quake: “So this is how you gonna do it, huh?”
Ice: “Yeah, that’s how I’m gonna do it.”
Silent voice in critic’s head: “Please, just do it.”
With pacing like that, the quintuple-platinum-selling rapper’s 52 minutes on stage went by like an ice age.
Luckily for Vanilla Ice, he has the same sort of very young, very adoring (and racially mixed) audience as the New Kids on the Block. The fans didn’t mind being kept in the dark for interminable stretches. The kids’ sustained, high-pitched screams filled in the long blanks that their hero left through his own neglect.
Vanilla Ice’s lyrics didn’t say much more than his silences. Basically, the rapper, whose real name is Robert Van Winkle, seems like a nice fellow with an interesting appearance (half James Dean, half Brian Bosworth), but nothing to communicate. The only pointed statement Ice made all night was a self-serving warning to his fans not to pay any attention to his critics--something you’ll also hear from the stage at a New Kids show.
Ice’s wooden rhymes lack the gift of colorful, inventive gab that is rap’s real spark. He has no meaningful themes to speak of, resorting instead to the flaccid boasting that has long been tiresome old hat for performers on the form’s creative edge. No stories, and no depictions of his own experience flavor Vanilla’s raps--unless one counts songs in which he narrates sexual encounters in soft-core rhymes that are highly suggestive, but not explicit.
On stage, even the sex fizzled. “Stop That Train” presumably chronicles Ice’s exhausting bout of kinky doings with a domineering woman, but he could have been talking about his toy choo-choos for all the steam he put into it.
(Ice does deserve some credit for portraying women as partners in pleasure in his sex raps, rather than treating them, as too many male rappers do, as so much mindless, manipulable flesh.)
Worst of all, Vanilla Ice has no sense of humor. His appropriation of “Play That Funky Music (White Boy),” by the ‘70s white funk group Wild Cherry, doesn’t have a hint of the original’s self-mockery. The title refrain is just a convenient tag-line for a rapper who wants to capitalize on the only thing that’s novel about him--his color.
Ice’s voice wasn’t especially punchy or clear; his foil, the throaty, bellowing Earthquake, was a far more trenchant rapper. But give Vanilla Ice credit for putting on an honest performance. Unlike a lot of rappers who make more creative records, Ice delivered his raps in real time, without the bogus voice-doubling tracks that are frequently used as an on-stage safety net.
Vanilla Ice moved well enough through a constant billow of stage fog that often obscured him and his two backup dancers, but his hip-hop dance steps came only in short, sporadic bursts. String a bunch of those bursts together on video, and you get the illusion of a sustained, kinetic performance. These days, of course, looking good on video is all it takes to prosper. With a concert that gave new meaning to the term frozen waste , Vanilla Ice was proof of that.
Opening group C+C Music Factory has a lively debut album that teams a good rapper with a promising R&B; vocal stylist. It would be interesting to hear rapper Freedom Williams and singer Zelma Davis perform with a real band, a la Soul II Soul, instead of with the canned instrumentation and taped vocal doubling that backed their 20-minute set.
Pit stops for two costume changes by Davis placed a drag on the brief proceedings and indicated an unhealthy emphasis on image instead of the solid substance and craft apparent on the group’s album “Gonna Make You Sweat.”
Of course, ambitious young pop performers and their record companies would argue that pitching image is the way to get rich. It seems that financiers were saying the same thing just a few years ago about junk bonds. The performers who have the basics--talent, ideas, and a fire for musical expression--are the ones who’ll survive any shakeout in the market.
As for Vanilla Ice, he’d better milk it while he can.