If you want to understand Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, you might need to start by listing those it slanders:
Punk motherfuckers trying to ban rap. The Raiders and Al Davis. The entire genre of R&B. Daryl Gates. Olde English 800. Jews, Koreans, clueless parents, “scandalous bitches,” pop music, gay people, N.W.A, St. Louis gangsters, McDonald’s, STDs, George H.W. Bush, Jesse Jackson, AT&T, Republicans, the Senate, pit bulls, Spuds McKenzie, Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, interracial dating, Color Me Badd, the Klan, “Uncle Toms,” drug dealers, Vanilla Ice, wife beaters, gamblers, Uncle Sam and the psychic collie Lassie.
If you want to understand the source of Ice Cube’s fury, you need the historical context. When Death Certificate was released in late October 1991, L.A. was a cauldron inflamed by the murder of Latasha Harlins by a Korean-American liquor store owner, the beating of Rodney King, rampant police brutality, the crack epidemic, internecine gang warfare and recession. Factor in Cube’s beef with N.W.A and you get one of the most caustic, vicious and best rap albums ever made.
Death Certificate is the rap equivalent of General Sherman incinerating everything from Atlanta to Savannah. It’s Scipio Africanus salting the fields of Carthage. Listening to it a quarter-century after its release is like rewatching the last scene of Scarface, aware that Pacino would eventually win the Academy Award for Scent of a Woman.
Fresh off his star turn in Boyz N the Hood, Cube delivered a polemic of pure rage, a scorched-earth manifesto only later matched by 2Pac on his Makaveli album. It’s intelligent and ignorant, problematic and powerful, filled with brilliant narratives and uncorked poison. Ice Cube branded himself the “nigga that you love to hate.” America’s favorite villain: too artful to ignore but too incendiary to escape condemnation.
“It was a record where I was in transition,” Ice Cube told XXL in 2011. “I was learning knowledge of self, our history here in America. I was trying to bring our fans along with it. Trying to show them you don’t have to stay straight ’hood, straight gutter. You could add some intelligence with it.”
On its way to platinum certification, Death Certificate was greeted with a New York Times essay wondering, “Should Ice Cube’s Voice Be Chilled?” The Simon Wiesenthal Center called it a “cultural Molotov cocktail” and demanded the nation’s major retailers yank it from their shelves. Billboard described the album as “the rankest sort of racism and hatemongering,” while The Source’s editor, James Bernard, countered by saying that it captured the “anger and rage and frustration that many people are forced to deal with every day.”
Even if some of Cube’s screeds were indefensible, nothing better captured the simmering discontent of South-Central L.A. circa 1991. This is the warning shot that preceded the riots of the following year, an indelible portrait of the injustices that continue to plague American cities.
On a literary level, Cube’s storytelling easily surpassed his predecessors’. “My Summer Vacation” illustrated the dark side of L.A. gangsters setting up shop in the Midwest. “No Vaseline” might be the greatest diss song ever written. “A Bird in the Hand” was repurposed for Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City.
Producers Sir Jinx and The Boogiemen rifled through the Parliament-Funkadelic and Zapp catalogs to create something propulsive and funky enough to cause subwoofers to combust. Death Certificate’s sheer musicality and imagination killed qualms one might have had about the lyrical content.
Maybe Ice Cube said it best: “They can’t stop you when the people love you.” Twenty-five years later, Death Certificate remains a classic, as alive and important as it ever was.