25 Years Later, Ice Cube’s ‘Death Certificate’ Is Still Powerful–and Problematic
Ice Cube was the most urgent and commanding persona in hip-hop in 1991. The fire in his rage. The power in his perspective. It was hard to deny O'Shea Jackson at a time when Public Enemy's Chuck D was seeing his singular hold on hip-hop's consciousness dim slightly and when legendary upstart Tupac Shakur had yet to fully deliver on his musical promise and voice.
Cube's trademark was his anger but also his clarity; he seemed to know exactly where he stood and his unflinching and unapologetic stance made him a hero to a generation of angry, young Black men--but his misogyny and homophobia ultimately makes him a polarizing figure for the Black community as a whole. Even outside of his legendary former group NWA, Ice Cube is a tough pill for everyone to swallow. And on his classic second album, "The Nigga Ya Love To Hate" made himself even more topical--and more controversial--than he'd ever been and ever would be again.
The beating of motorcyclist Rodney King had occurred the preceding March, and the case against the four officers involved had brought the racial tensions in Los Angeles into sharp national focus. Also that spring, Ice Cube had made his cinematic debut in John Singleton's coming-of-age drama Boyz N the Hood and converted to Islam. The 22-year old rapper was now fully established outside of NWA and his success emboldened his creativity; but it was his faith and focus that galvanized his already-fiery music. And he'd become an unwitting target of his former bandmates in NWA.
Cube famously split from his old group in 1989 after a financial dispute with Eazy E and manager Jerry Heller; but he hadn't mentioned NWA at all on his acclaimed 1990 debut AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. He even expected that he would again work with NWA's Dr. Dre, who'd helmed their albums and had become one of the most touted producers in hip-hop. So Ice Cube was taken aback when he heard NWA's EP 100 Miles and Runnin' and their sophomore album Niggaz4Life--both releases featured numerous disparaging references to Cube. And he was now more than willing to return fire.
Politics, religion and beef formed the foundation for the rapper's sophomore album. With Cube and Sir Jinx handling the majority of the production, the project would be more groove-driven than the abrasive Bomb Squad-produced jams that make up most of AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. This time around, Cube made a much more traditionally West Coast-sounding rap album, more in line with the productions of DJ Quik than Public Enemy.
Released Oct. 29, 1991, Death Certificate featured a newly-focused Ice Cube tackling everything from the military ("I Wanna Kill Sam") to childhood nostalgia ("Doing Dumb Shit") and even working in an ode to his gun ("Man's Best Friend.") And he split the album between "The Death Side" and "The Life Side" to highlight his connections to street life while also emphasizing his belief in pushing beyond the traps of those streets. Or as he explains on the album: "The Death side: a mirror image of where we are today. The Life side: a vision of where we need to go.") That conceit doesn't exactly hold up throughout the album, but it doesn't matter--Cube knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it. And he was never better than he is here.
After a funereal intro, the album truly kicks off with "The Wrong Nigga to Fuck Wit," a quasi-sequel to AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted's opener "The Nigga Ya Love to Hate." Cube follows it with one of his most affecting story-songs; "My Summer Vacation" features Cube's storytelling about a drug dealer leaving Los Angeles for the Midwest. Over a clever sample of George Clinton's "Atomic Dog," Cube explains how gangbanging left South Central and infested smaller cities throughout the country. After the dealer establishes himself in St. Louis, violence and drugs raise the crime levels as bangers start "feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys." While the bemused narrator observes how the smaller city now has big city problems ("Wouldn't ya know--a drive-by in Missouri"), Cube also makes it clear that the problem is cyclical.
"Steady Mobb'n" was the lead single, and the infectious bounce and "a day in my neighborhood" observational storytelling would prove to be a forerunner to Cube's megahit "It Was A Good Day," which would be released a year after Death Certificate. "Mobb'n" features a lot of the same tropes: Cube hanging with his friends, having what sounds like fun day and hitting on women while watching out for the Feds. It's still one of his best singles and sets the stage for the rest of the album masterfully.
"A Bird In the Hand" is one of the best moments on the album. From it's opening couplet ("Fresh outta school cuz I was a high school grad/had to get a job cuz I was a high school dad") this song presents Cube at his best: providing clear-eyed commentary on young Black male experiences. Over a thumping sample of B.B. King's "Chains and Things," Cube breaks down how a young man with a high school diploma can still wind up selling crack in the neighborhood.
"Alive On Arrival" is yet another brilliant example of Cube's vivid storytelling; as he recalls a night at a house party that ends with him shot after gunfire erupts. Cube winds up in the emergency room, but instead of treatment, he's virtually ignored by the hospital staff as he looks around an overcrowded waiting room that's "filled to the brim like the county jail day room." As he's questioned by police about a supposed gang affiliation, his wounds are still being ignored. Cube recites every indignation, communicating the panicked urgency that so many patients experience at medical facilities that aren't well-funded or well-staffed--with the song ending as he bleeds out in the hospital.
The second half of the album opens with the sound of a heart monitor and "The Birth;" signaling a new beginning for the Black man and the Black woman. Cube immediately commences with "I Wanna Kill Sam," raging against the military and its propensity for seeking out poor Black people to fill its ranks. After reciting a litany of reasons why he doesn't trust the government and its military operations, Cube ends with the definitive thesis: "I wanna kill Sam 'cuz he ain't my muthaf---in' Uncle."
The following track is another fiery hit job--this time, Cube's scope is squared on White corporate bosses sexually harassing Black women in the workplace. With his lyrics echoing some of the Nation of Islam's ideology, Cube rails against "devils" and depicting violent revolution against white men in power who use their influence to oppress the Black people they employ or profit from. The song is also littered with homophobia ("real n----s ain't gay") and misogyny. White men aren't the only subject of scorn for Cube--as he also blasts "Japs," which is a precursor for one of the album's most controversial tracks: "Black Korea."
Tensions between Black citizens and Korean grocers in Black communities had reached a fever pitch that year after the killing of Latasha Harlins. Harlins was 15-years old when she was shot and killed by Soon Ja Du, a grocery store owner in South Central. Du saw Harlins put a bottle of orange juice in her pocket and assumed the girl was about to steal it. Du shot Harlins in the head, killing her. It was later revealed on videotape and via witnesses that Harlins had money in her hand to pay for the beverage. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to the maximum, but the judge instead sentenced Du to probation and community service.
The incident and the case enraged many in Los Angeles and Ice Cube turned his rage into "Black Korea." The song is brief but pointed; as Cube criticizes the racism of shop owners who "follow me up and down the market" and warns that boycotts and riots would follow if Korean merchants don't respect the humanity of the people in the communities they profit from. The song drew criticism for what sounded like a call to violence, but it proved to be eerily prophetic in the wake of the 1992 L.A. riots--which occurred less than six months later.
The next two tracks continue in a topical vein: "True To the Game" was the album's second single and Cube spends the song finger-wagging anyone he deems a racial sell-out; which includes wealthy Black men who view White women as the ultimate status symbol, those Black men who aspire to "White or a Jew--but ask yourself, who are they to be equal to?" And he blasts hip-hop artists who "go pop" for the sake of mainstream appeal. The accompanying video famously featured Cube attacking various perpetrators--including an MC Hammer lookalike (played by DJ Pooh)--and tossing them in his trunk. The anti-gang "Color Blind" features a guest appearances from King Tee, Kam and an early appearance by future chart-topper Coolio, rapping over a smooth sample of "Pungee" by the Meters.
Nostalgia drives "Doing Dumb Shit," one of the album's most lighthearted moments, with Cube reminiscing about playing pranks, losing his virginity and watching his friends get in trouble, before soberingly reminding himself that many of them died young "doing dumb shit."
"Us" is one of Cube's most revered tracks; as he spends the track turning his glare on the Black community and destructive behavior amongst his peers. Sounding sad and frustrated, Cube laments drug dealers who are "exploiting us like the Caucasians" and violence at hip-hop shows, but also wallows in some of the respectability politics that have become all-too-common among middle class Blacks as he points the finger at single mothers with "four or five babies" who "expect Uncle Sam to help us out." It's hit-and-miss, in terms of commentary, but it's not hard to see why it resonates with many listeners.
After that bit of self-righteousness, Cube unleashes "No Vaseline." The final track on Death Certificate is it's most infamous; Cube's pent-up rage aimed at NWA and Jerry Heller, with him squaring his scope at each individual member. Dismissing MC Ren as a secondary group member ("Let you on the scene to back up the first team") and a turncoat ("Used to be my homie, now you act like you don't know me") and calling DJ Yella a detriment ("Yella boy on ya team so ya losin'"), he slams Dr. Dre as a sucker for accepting Eazy E's shady business dealings ("You got jealous when I got my own company") and for imitating Cube ("You can yell all day but you don't come close.")
But Cube saves his most vicious attacks for Eazy and Heller. Blasting his former friend as a crook ("Now I think you a snitch") and a flunkie for Heller ("Heard you got the same bank account"), Cube doesn't hold back in his disdain for the Ruthless Records founder. And his references to Heller drew the most controversy, as Cube was criticized as an anti-Semite for declaring "You let a Jew break up my crew" and "You can't be the Niggaz4Life crew with a White Jew telling you what to do." The song--and the reaction from NWA and Heller--was immortalized in 2015s Straight Outta Compton, and the classic diss track still has the same angry power that it had 25 years ago.
The fact that it's tacked on to the end of "The Life Side" of the album, where Cube is attempting to present a "vision for where we need to go" is questionable: Is beefing with his bandmates a statement of progress--or is it a reflection of the need for Black artists to be emancipated from labels, managers and contracts that seek to exploit them? Maybe neither. Maybe both. But that's Ice Cube. And that kind of duality is at the core of Death Certificate--even beyond its pretentious two-sided presentation.
Ice Cube is one of the most significant voices in hip-hop history--he's absolutely necessary. But he's also unflinchingly misogynistic in a way that perpetuates toxic masculinity as "normal." And that should never be disregarded when discussing his legacy.
"Giving Up the Nappy Dugout" is one of the album's most disturbing and regrettable moments, as Cube is confronted by an angry father over relations with his young daughter. The song features the rapper bragging about he and his friends committing statutory rape ("I know she's a minor and it's illegal") and it's another example in the long list of troubling misogyny in hip-hop--perpetuated by one of the genre's most acclaimed and important artists. This kind of callous contempt for women was, at best, ignored and at worst, endorsed by many of the fans listening in 1991, and it shows up again in the following track "Look Who's Burning." Presented as a cautionary tale, the song addresses STDs, but puts the onus on "scandalous" women who were too "stuck up" to be receptive to Cube's advances. This isn't a thoughtful examination on safe sex; it's just another opportunity to present Black women as the problem--not once does Cube call out a man for giving a woman a disease. In O'Shea Jackson's world; only "fast" women get diseases and they give them to unsuspecting fellas looking for a good time.
Death Certificate resonates today because so much of it's subject matter is still sadly too relevant to contemporary times. Police brutality, the right to bear arms, exploitation--these are all subjects Black Americans continue to wrestle with and all have once again become part of the national discourse. But as those topics are once again grounds for scrutiny and commentary; so is hip-hop's view of women and the LGBTQ community. We shouldn't rush to sanitize Ice Cube--in the same way that no one should accept the more palatable version of NWA that Straight Outta Compton presented to moviegoers. Cube was and is who he is. Death Certificate is an essential album, but as the years have passed, the question lingers as to whom it speaks to most essentially. Cube put Black rage on wax in a way that left a sting. Death Certificate is his best album, but the voice and perspective may not always be the best for the times. Nonetheless, there's a lot here that warrants taking in. It's a lot to digest.
Even if some of it isn't all that easy to stomach.