The biggest shock for me as a hip hop fan is how people forget early Ice Cube. If you’re my age - 32 - you might remember “Check Yourself” and “It Was a Good Day” but you probably remember Cube from Westside Connection and the late 90s when he had more club records.
“Straight Outta Compton” might have reinvigorated interest in NWA but it only had a brief glimpse into Cube’s solo career after he left. People may know Cube was NWA's chief songwriter besides MC Ren and The D.O.C. but modern fans forget that from 1990-94, he was as great as anybody who ever touched a mic.
I’ve gone as far as to say Ice Cube is better than Tupac. Tupac was brilliant with his emotion and passion but the fact some of you raised an eyebrow showed why Ice Cube is probably more underrated than he should be.
Death Certificate is the crown jewel of that early run. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted was a powerful debut that showed Ice Cube could hold his own away from NWA. Death Certificate was a step forward in taking that rage and skill and making it more West Coast friendly. The Bomb Squad handled most of the production for AMW but DC was all Cube and Sir Jinx making it funkier.
It’s also one of the most controversial albums ever made. A town in Oregon banned copies of it and several of these songs probably couldn’t be made today (Giving Up The Nappy Dugout!). It still reached No. 2 on the pop charts and it showed why Cube was the most popular and most feared rapper out. I've already written before why I think it's the best West Coast solo album but now that my musical ears have grown, I'm breaking it down even further.
The concept was brilliant. It was split into The Death Side - where Black people were at the time - and The Life Side, where Cube felt Black people needed to go. You don’t see this now because we have albums but back when you bought music on tapes, you had two sides. It was two different moods and it fit perfectly because one side had you laughing and enjoying and thinking….the second? Yeah we’ll get to that later cause it’s something else.
The first half keeps things going from AmeriKKA’s Most as instead of being the N***a you love to hate, he’s the wrong N***a to F*** with. The angry intro, “My Summer Vacation” on selling drugs outside of California, the poignant “Look Who’s Burning” on safe sex…all of it was Ice Cube just showing you what life was like in South Central in the 90s. To bring it home, he had the hilarious skit starring Robin Lench, instead of Robin Leach - all describing streets I remember vividly from my drives to school and church.
That skit came after “Steady Mobbin” - which I first heard on a greatest hits CD. It’s one of the coolest songs about just hanging around like you’d see in Boyz N The Hood. All of that shows Cube’s vivid storytelling with such great detail, you can see why he became a decent screenwriter later on.
I have to admit that I cringe listening to “Giving Up the Nappy Dugout” now. A song about having sex with a teenage girl isn’t cool now and wasn’t then. Even if the song has some killer samples with Booker T & The MG’s, Mandrill, Parliament and more, I struggle hearing it now.
Side 1 also has my favorite Ice Cube song besides “You Know How We Do It”. When I say that people forget Cube’s brilliance, it’s songs like “Bird in the Hand”. Backed by an overwhelming sample of BB King’s “Chains and Things” that surrounds you, Cube paints a picture of a stellar HS student who can’t afford college and has a son. His only resort? Selling drugs because he has to eat.
It’s genius because you imagine the character not really wanting to do it but because of poverty, raising his son, lack of job options (working at McDonald’s), he has to consider it. There’s no glamour like we have now with drug use, it’s frustration and desperation. It’s a perfect slice of inner-city woes where too many had to sell drugs to make money and Cube humanizes it.
After Alive on Arrival, which describes King-Drew Hospital - a place I feared growing up because of all the problems it had - we get Side 2. My guy Dart Adams once called it one of the hardest stretches in rap history and I have to agree. When you have Khalid Abdul Muhammad - a man once censured by the US Senate/House of Representatives and considered too radical for the Nation of Islam - breaking up the Death and Life side, it sets the tone for why Cube had a dead Uncle Sam on the album cover
In one side, Cube attacks White supremacy/racism (I Wanna Kill Sam/Horny Lil Devil), tensions with Korean shop owners (Black Korea), Black people who abandoned their culture (True To The Game, with one of Cube's best videos) and the Black community contributing to their own ills (Color Blind/Us). It counters everything from Side 1 with a striking balance. For example, Side 1 had “Steady Mobbin”, Side 2 had “Doing Dumb Sh**” which shows Cube reliving his past but also showing perspective seeing younger kids doing it and just shaking his head at it.
Black Korea is important because with all the simmering anger of Rodney King, Black-Korean relationships were also tense with Korean shopowners. The murder of LaTasha Harlins made it even more hostile and while Cube's language is harsh, it fit the anger of the times that was seen during the riots and the opening scene of Menace II Society.
Nobody is spared from Cube’s wrath and he dissects it with surgical precision and furious anger. This may be 1990-91 South Central but it could apply to communities anywhere. For people who say we don’t criticize ourselves enough, here’s Exhibit A. But Cube didn’t just aim at Black people, he aimed his gun at America as a whole. He went both micro and macro, something people fail to do when they only go micro to see problems.
For people mad at Colin Kaepernick, I’d recommend listening to I Wanna Kill Sam just to see the other side of how America has made people feel. It was a song I thought about when this heated up and when you hear Cube describe America’s treatment of Black people, you’re reminded that 1991 and 2016 aren’t too far off.
And of course, we have one of the greatest disses ever. Like my buddy Derik said on our podcast dissecting the album, it’s as if Cube did all the damage on Side 2 and then said “Oh yeah, let me take care of one last thing”. I didn’t even notice Cube said something similar right before “No Vaseline” but then he does and it’s on destroying the No. 1 selling rap group of that time.
NWA had just gone No. 1 with “Efil4Zaggin”, a musically wild, yet lyrically vile album showing they could survive on their own. They took a few shots at Cube all around but Cube finished them off with three verses of hell aimed at Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Jerry Heller and finally Eazy-E. It changed the game on diss records and led to NWA breaking up for good as Dr. Dre realized that maybe he was being jerked on his money too.
As far as production, Death Certificate is a classic just for what Sir Jinx did with it. It doesn’t sound dated because those samples pop out. George Clinton should be listed as a co-producer for all the Parliament and Funkadelic samples (“Atomic Dog” alone is sampled three times). From David Bowie, The Meters, Booker T and the MG’s, Lou Donaldson, Mandrill, Gap Band and more, it’s a soulful collage that fits every song perfectly and helped create a foundation that G-Funk later expanded on.
It’s also the culmination of Ice Cube growing up. Just like Catcher in the Rye or Jane Eyre or The Outsiders, this album uses a classic literary device - young character is running wild then grows up and realizes something in the process. In Cube’s case, he goes from being another kid in the streets to an elder statesman. Like Doughboy’s recklessness in Boyz N The Hood to Sharif’s pro-Blackness in Menace II Society.
You can call Death Certificate a lot of things. Controversial. Coming of age. Funky. Brilliant. Poetic. I call it the greatest West Coast solo album ever made. Dr. Dre’s Chronic was more influential but it was a Death Row compilation album. Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle was just as funky and creative but not as political. Tupac’s Makaveli album rivals Death Certificate with its sound and fury.
|The original Source review gave it 4.5 mics but it later got the 5-mic review|
But I go with this album because 25 years later, Cube created a perfect slice of what it was like being Black in the early 1990s. The good, the bad and the ugly all created as a byproduct of America. He captured the simmering anger of an era that exploded six months later with the LA riots and it still resonates today with some of the issues with police misconduct, poverty and more.
More importantly, he showed why he’s one of the best rappers and storytellers rap has ever seen with one of the greatest leaps forward. We talk about Cube’s success in film but don’t ever forget that musically he’s as important as any West Coast rapper. There's a reason why Killer Mike has called Ice Cube an influence and has channeled his ferocity and insight better than almost anybody the last decade.
Between Straight Outta Compton, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Kill At Will and The Predator, Ice Cube gave voice to the anger in Los Angeles and around the country. With Death Certificate, he channeled it all perfectly in ways that still speak to us today.