This week marks the 20th anniversary of Ice Cube’s classic “Death Certificate” album. While he had already made his mark as a founding member of N.W.A. and firmly established himself as a solo artist on 1990’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” and he wouldn’t fully crossover into mainstream success until 1992’s “The Predator” (which spawned hits like “It Was A Good Day” and “Check Yo’ Self”), it was “Death Certificate” that left music critics and Hip-Hop heads on both coasts in awe and established Ice Cube as THE artist to bridge the gap between the consciousness of the late 80’s (Public Enemy, BDP) and the gangsta ethos of the mid-90’s (2pac, B.I.G.).
In the fall of 1991 Ice Cube was hungry to prove he was as relevant as his former group that had sold huge units of their “EFIL4ZAGGIN” album earlier in the year and that the success of his debut album was not a fluke and not solely due to production by the Bomb Squad (the production team responsible for Public Enemy). On “Death Certificate” Cube presents the most focused, articulate and personal version of the “Gangsta Rapper Talking About World Affairs” that was popular at the time. And while some of the ideas presented may seem contradictory, the skill in which they are presented deserves a listen a full two decades later.
The album is divided into two sides (this was when cassette tapes were still around), “The Death Side” contains songs about the way things were in 1991 America including racism, lose women, sexually transmitted diseases, unemployment, drug dealing and death (unfortunately many of these issues are still around). “The Life Side” has songs about the way things would be in a perfect world including the innocence of youth, political awareness and successful entertainers helping their communities. The only break from the formula is the album finale, “No Vaseline,” an exceptionally (even by early 90’s gangsta rap standards) diss track aimed at the remaining members of N.W.A. that has a perpetual place on nearly every list of All-Time Greatest Diss Songs.
It’s hard to explain to kids that the guy from “Are We There Yet?” was once the most controversial rapper on the planet, but “Death Certificate” is a great example of an artist in his prime being both political and gangsta in equal measure to produce some classic material.