Death Certificate – Ice Cube (1991)

Death Certificate album cover
Death Certificate album cover


I was never a huge fan of rap, but less than ghetto acts like Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul made the genre interesting to me. At about the same time that this new crop of middle class suburban rappers were expanding raps appeal, the original core of “hard core” rappers were making pleas to “keep it real”.

In the wake of the attempt to take rap back from the suburban boys and their complicated rock/pop references, gangsta rap was beginning to make an assault on the charts. At first the surface posturing and absurdities that gangsta rap stood for were nothing more than underground indulgences for urban youth. N.W.A. would change that and make gangsta rap mainstream while retaining its hard street edge, a process that continued for more than a decade and today has devolved into the horrible state of the current “art”.

Early in this devolution, gangsta rap was exciting and on the vanguard of social commentary. N.W.A., an important component of this revolution was the launching pad for the careers of Eazy E. and Ice Cube. For a while the two figureheads had rap battles and traded jabs at each other on their solo projects. Ice Cube’s second album would be a gangsta rap classic that combined the usual George Clinton/Paraliment samples with sound bits from sources as diverse as Big Bird to Louis Farrakhan.

1991 was a busy year for Cube. He had just wrapped production of albums for Yo Yo and Funkee Homosapien while not long after starred in Boyz n the Hood. It would be Death Certificate that would catapult his career into high gear. With more than million re orders, Death Certificate instantly shot up to the #2 position on Billboard’s top album chart in its first week.

While this was not an unusual feat for rap albums, it was unusual for an album that was so hard in its lyrical content. Produced by Sir Jinx, Death Certificate told the vivid story of life in the inner city with rants against the government (‘I Wanna Kill Sam’), STD’s (Givin Up the Nappy Dug Out’) and growing up into a life of crime and poverty (‘Doin Dumb Shit’).

As rap albums go, Death Certificate was about as close as you could get to a concept album. Divided into two halfs, Death and Life sides, each side dealt with the current state of affairs in the hood (Death) and what needed to be done about it (Life). Many of the solutions suggested were controversial, but always entertaining thanks to the deft sampling and flow of Cube’s rhymes that made the albums angry rants both funny and thought provoking. Cubes’ storytelling abilities painted vivid urban tales centered around Compton, California, but any ghetto dweller could relate.

While not mincing words,  Ice Cube had essentially created a punk album in that his style of gangsta rap was as anti political/anti establishment as anything from the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. Because Death Certificate was so loaded politically and socially, it was not the ideal candidate for the traditional singles/airplay model of promotion. Despite its low key in that regard, there were two singles one for ‘Steady Mobbin’ and ‘True to the Game’. While they were far from the albums best, they were perhaps some of the least offensive. ‘Steady Mobbin’ has the distinction of starting a catchphrase if nothing else.

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