Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Electric Relaxation: Death Certificate = Greatest West Coast solo hip hop album

Along with Nas, Ice Cube is my favorite MC. I bought his first 3 albums the summer of 2005 and they were the soundtrack to understanding why Cube was hands down the hardest MC in his prime. You can only get so much from downloading individual songs like I did.

I've told folks that Cube from 1990-1993 can stand toe-to-toe with any MC (and for that matter, throw in his NWA years since he was the main songwriter along with MC Ren). He balanced realness with pop success. He sold well, had everyone listening to him and most of all, he scared folks with brutal honesty about growing up in 90's Los Angeles.

His 2nd album Death Certificate is one of my favorites in any genre. A brilliant concept album that has influenced more MC's than you think. I'm going on a limb and saying it's the greatest solo West Coast hip hop album. The only album worth competing is Tupac's Me Against the World or 7 Day Theory. Death Certificate combines of both of those albums - passion, anger, sobering realism and uplifting his audience.

Just from that picture, you knew it was serious. Cube with his hand over his heart over Uncle Sam's dead body. You knew this wasn't just any rap album. It was about to get raw and real, as soon as that preacher finished his monologue on the opener.

DC was a more independent, focused Cube. His first album was made with the help of the Bomb Squad but this was all him, Sir Jinx and the Lench Mob. NWA had already dropped their followup and went #1 - proving they could survive with Cube and take shots at him. If AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted was his warning shot, DC was his full-on assault that showed he was the wrong brotha to mess with.

DC is split into 2 sides. The Death Side - Cube running wild like a typical hood kid who doesn't know any better, being angry, reckless and ends up dead. The Life Side - A rebirth where Cube realizes the error of his ways and becomes an advocate for the community in the vein of Malcolm X, Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers.

I love the Life Side because it shows Cube at his most conscious, volatile and angry. You can tell he became a full on Muslim with how he goes off on folks. Hard to pick a favorite song so I'll highlight some of my favorite tracks that sum up why this album earned 5 mics in the Source

"My Summer Vacation" - Cube's brilliant storytelling shines here. A tale of drug dealers going to Minnesota/Seattle to find work. Think further proof of DJ Quik's "Just Lyke Compton"

"A Bird in the Hand" - A song you don't hear about today. Everyone wants to be drug kingpins and all that but Cube is the one to admit the reasons behind most folks doing it. A last resort after trying to find work with no diploma and being short on cash. The BB King sample makes it feel even more bleak.

"True to The Game" - an attack of Black folks who sell out their communities/culture. The video is incredibly provocative and I wish Spike Lee used this in "Bamboozled." Be true to who you are and not who you think you should be.

"Us" - Cube pointing the finger at Black folks for contributing to their problems. As angry as he is as America, white folks and Korean store owners, he's quick to show it here as well as call for doing more to help themselves. Again, something we don't hear often that we need, especially today.

"Alive on Arrival" - 3 years before Biggie kills himself on wax and at the same time Scarface did the same on his debut, Cube writes from the P.O.V. of a guy shot in the streets and slowly dying in the hospital. Also a  critique on bad health care in the Black communities. It's also the next to last song on the Death Side before Cube is reborn.

Oh yeah, the only guest appearances are on "Color Blind" with a pre-fame WC and Coolio among the verses. There's also skits from Khalid Muhammad closing the Death Side and beginning the Life Side. But this is all Cube holding his own and making footprints in hip-hop. It also has one of the greatest disses ever in "No Vaseline" where he destroys NWA and Jerry Heller.

It's better than Snoop Dogg's debut because while Doggystyle is sonically and lyrically tight, there's no social commentary on there. It's better than The Chronic although while it created a whole new sound that Cube later emulated, Snoop was arguably the star of that album just as much Dr. Dre. Tupac's best work rivals it because Ice Cube was Tupac before Tupac hit the mainstream.

And for all the controversy surrounding the racial content,  it still went No. 2 on the pop charts and platinum. Proved that Cube was arguably the biggest solo rapper in America and not only does controversy sell, so does artistic integrity. .

Why do I love it?  Because it's a coming of age album. It describes the life of most Black men in that era - from being like O-Dog and Doughboy to Furious Styles. It's a maturity in hip-hop that isn't heard enough today. It's cinematic in its approach as Cube is a street reporter who tells it like it is without sugarcoating or exaggeration. It's music made with a purpose.

Case in point, this album is West Coast hip-hop at its finest. Check that, it's hip-hop at its finest.


  1. Excellent! I really enjoyed this one. It made me go listen to some of his jamz. I was looking forward to this after you giving me a sneek peek.

  2. I was reading along and wondering "What about Doggystyle?".

    Glad you mentioned it and you make a good point about the difference in subject matter. I'm deeper into the funk than social commentary so I'm giving the edge to Snoop, but I'm feeling your point big time and can't argue with it.

    Great piece!

  3. Thanks my sweet Muse. Cube's my favorite MC and if folks can see how he was 20 years ago and not just the filmmaker today, even better!

    Funny thing Mojo, I finally listened to Doggystyle this year to get hyped for Rock The Bells. The tracks I hadn't heard a million times were great and I love Dre's production then. Doggystyle/Chronic are classics but i'm biased to Cube sounding like the West Coast Chuck D over George Clinton's/Zapp/other's classics