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Ice Cube’s second solo LP, Death Certificate, released a quarter of a century ago today, forever changed Hip-Hop. The sense of urgency on the 20-track set has both the menacing attitude of a gangsta and the insight of a socially conscious citizen.
The balance of the two was unprecedented, and has yet to be surpassed.
The emotional, provocative, and detailed rhymes are also wonderfully complimented with outstanding production by Sir Jinx. So as a result, the album is a classic which deserves to be celebrated and recognized on its silver anniversary.
With the upcoming presidential election and so many concerns being brought up as of late because of it, it is apparent that Cube’s content on this is album still as relevant as ever. While names and dates change, the issues remain the same. And it is because of music like this that important topics can continue to be talked about in order to make decisions that ensure a brighter future for all.
“N⋅⋅⋅⋅s are in a state of emergency,” and right after those powerful opening words, Cube proceeds to divide Death Certificate in two: The Death Side - “a mirrored image of where we are today” and The Life Side - “a vision of where we need to go.” From there, with “The Wrong N⋅⋅⋅a to F⋅⋅k With,” Cube asserts himself as the song title which not only indicates he refuses to compromise, but that he doesn’t need to either.
The confidence and conviction set forth set by it perfectly lets listeners know (or reminds them) about Cube’s authoritative presence. It’s something that’s very important and certainly serves him well through the entire album. Then, atop an “Atomic Dog” loop, “My Summer Vacation” finds the South Central, Los Angeles native talking about how gang and dope culture has spread beyond the West Coast.
In typical Ice Cube fashion, he tells a vivid first-person cautionary tale about him and Da Lench Mob relocating from L.A. to Missouri to hustle which ultimately ends in tragic results.
Sadly, unlike the story being told, the extension of gang activity was not fiction though. DJ Quik even addressed the issue again on his single, "Jus Lyke Compton," less than a year later.
“Givin’ Up the Nappy Dug Out” samples a Big Daddy Kane lyric in the hook and takes his original song, “No Damn Good,” about the pitfalls of promiscuity, and turns it into a slut-shaming record for the ages. However, as oppose to just using the song to talk about sex, it serves an excellent segue into “Look Who’s Burnin’” where Cube shows how if people aren’t careful, STDs are a real possibility.
“A Bird in the Hand” is an album highlight which details the plight of so many in the inner-city and illustrates clearly how one can slide into drug dealing as a means of survival. “Always knew that I would clock Gs / But welcome to McDonalds, ‘May I take your order please?’ / Gotta serve ya food that might give ya cancer / Cause my son doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer / Now I pay taxes, that you never give me back / What about diapers, bottles, and Similac? / Do I have to sell me a whole lot of crack / For decent shelter and clothes on my back?”
Chuck D, in his book, Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality, referred to the last three tracks of the Death Side as “[the] best sequencing ever.” I don’t disagree either. The way in which Cube addresses guns as a means of protection (“Man’s Best Friend”) and then dies at the hospital waiting to be helped (“Alive on Arrival”) speaks volumes about the communities he is reaching out to on so many levels. And then “Death” ends with Dr. Khalid Muhammad calling for the rebirth, resurrection, and rise of black people.
After “The Birth” begins The Life Side, Ice Cube wastes no time attacking white supremacy by using Uncle Sam and the devil as metaphors in “I Wanna Kill Sam” and “Horny ‘Lil Devil” respectively. “Black Korea,” one of the album’s most controversial records, caused many to label Ice Cube a racist for incendiary lyrics against Asian-Americans when he threatened to burn down their stores.
However, it was also perceived as a response to the tragic death of a 15-year-old African-American girl named Latasha Harlins at the hands of a Korean store owner named Soon Ja Du who incorrectly thought she was stealing a bottle of orange juice. Du shot Harlins in the back of the head, and received no jail time.
For fear of the entire album being banned in England, Island Records [Cube’s distributor in the U.K.] even removed “Black Korea” and “No Vaseline” from its original pressings there. But the song is also one which foresaw the L.A. Riots that took place the following spring. Whereas critics could use “Black Korea” as a scapegoat for what happened on April 20, 1992, on the contrary, it was a sense of awareness about what would happen if injustices and inequalities weren’t addressed.
Death Certificate didn’t provoke the riots, it predicted them; and shame on those who tried to silence the messenger.
On this album, it was the first in which Cube was associated with the Nation of Islam, although in a 2000 interview he denied ever officially being a member. Nevertheless, the influence of it was apparent. In addition to the loss of his Jheri curl and the quote and photo included in the Death Certificate booklet, the video for “True to the Game” makes a statement about African-Americans assimilating to cultures and environments which have historically put them down which concludes with three “sellouts” being kidnapped and taken to hear members of the Nation speak.
“[The] vision of where we need to go” then makes a shift with “Doing Dumb S⋅⋅t” and “Us.” Where previous songs on The Life Side masterfully pointed out flaws in the proverbial system, these two bring up personal accountability among those being oppressed.
For as much as “Doing Dumb S⋅⋅t” is a coming of age record, it also warns that if one takes antics too far - the consequences can be dire. Then “Us,”one of Cube’s most powerful records ever, provides a sharp analysis of how some elements of the black community are self-destructive and that “sometimes [he] believes the hype, man / We mess it up ourselves, and blame the white man.” Comedian Chris Rock even thanked Ice Cube for writing “Us” in the liner notes for his Roll With the New album, so it’s very likely the 3:43 song had an influence on Rock’s ground-breaking “N⋅⋅⋅⋅s Vs. Black People” routine.
Last, but certainly not least, there’s the aforementioned “No Vaseline.” After Cube didn’t bring up his old group at all on his debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, and only took a slight dig at them on "Jackin’ For Beats” in response to their “100 Miles and Runnin’” shot at him, the four remaining members of N.W.A upped the ante with “Message to B.A.” and “Real N⋅⋅⋅⋅z” on Efil4zaggin. Ice Cube then recorded one of the best diss records in Hip-Hop history. Period.
It was an aggresive attack on both N.W.A and their manager Jerry Heller. Lyrics against Heller which mentioned his faith, Judaism, even caught the attention of the Los Angeles Jewish Human Rights Organization. Cube would then comment on the criticism in the very first song of his following LP.
My music collection consists of more than 500 albums. There are only three that I’ve purchased twice, and Death Certificate is one of them. It is a monumental project that firmly established Ice Cube as one of the greatest emcees of all-time and helped demonstrate how powerful rap music can be. Its impact is undeniable, and set a barometer for greatness that other releases are still being measured against to this day.