August 27, 2009

Ice Cube - Death Certificate (October 31, 1991)

Death Certificate was O'Shea Jackson's second solo full-length album, following AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and the Kill At Will EP, both released in 1990. With this controversial disc, Ice Cube managed to have his image banned in the entire fucking state of Oregon. No, really, I'm serious: due to the inflammatory and racist nature of Death Certificate, it was against the law to use Ice Cube's image to advertise anything in the entire state of Oregon. It was even illegal to use ice cubes in your soft drinks to help keep them cool.

Now that's gangsta!

Death Certificate found O'Shea touching ground back in California, after escaping to New York to rip shit over Bomb Squad instrumentals after leaving N.W.A. He eschewed the East's (fairly accurate, mind you) imitation of Left Coast beats for the real thing, assigning production duties to The Boogie Men (a three-man team made up of DJ Pooh (who would later collaborate with Cube on the Friday screenplay), Bobcat, and Rashad), Sir Jinx (Dr. Dre's cousin, and a guy who had been working alongside O'Shea since his high school days in C.I.A.), and Cube himself. This resulted in a sound that managed somehow to be both angrier and abstract: some of the tracks utilize so many samples that the instrumentals became strange mutated amalgamations for Ice Cube to rhyme over.

Death Certificate is notable for being incredibly racist, misogynistic, and just plain incendiary. Ice Cube is even more pissed off than he was on his debut, and his primary targets are the United States, women, Asians, white people, other black people, and, with a response that everyone was waiting for with bated breath, N.W.A. Cube's "No Vaseline" (titled as such because he truly felt that Eazy-E and Jerry Heller were fucking over Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella without...oh, never mind) is credited with essentially destroying an entire crew, a feat that hasn't yet been topped in hip hop. (The Game likes to say that he destroyed G-Unit single-handedly, and while they don't really sell any albums anymore, that's truly more of a reaction from the public as to the crappy music they produce and not because people actively stopped buying their shit, and besides, G-Unit is still together.Sadly.)

Death Certificate sold over one million copies and is often cited as Cube's masterpiece. After this disc, critics lashed out at Cube for softening his style, but the way I see it, you can only be pissed off for so long before it stops sounding credible. That's why Eminem's more recent output sounds nothing like his early work. Even if Cube never manages to make this kind of music again, being that he's super rich with a children's movie franchise and all, one can always pick up Death Certificate and grow increasingly upset that he hurled so many racial epithets at you, since he spews enough bile to offend everybody.

Unless you live in Oregon, of course.

More cinematic than what you might have expected, but this is still a rap album intro. Starts off the “Death” side pretty succinctly, though.

Ice Cube says that “you can new jack swing on my nuts” and absolutely nothing happens to him. Phife Dawg casually refers to A Tribe Called Quest's music as “strictly hip hop, not a new jack swing”, and Q-Tip takes one to the eye (courtesy of Wrexxx-N-Effect). My guess is that, at this point in time, most rappers in the game who weren't named Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, or DJ Yella were scared shitless of O'Shea. And in hearing this, it's not hard to imagine why. The beat switch in the middle is awkward, but this is quite the introductory track.

I was never impressed by this track, probably because of the George Clinton “Atomic Dog” sample, which had grown old to me by the time I first heard this. Although this beat does inform listeners that the Bomb Squad production days for O'Shea are over, so I guess it does serve its purpose.

One of Cube's more famous singles, which is so well known that even Prince Paul jacked the song for his A Prince Among Thieves hip hop opera. This shit still sounds engaging today. I'm concerned for O'Shea at the end, though: is he implying that his ejaculate emits from his penis in a fashion that mimics that of tiny pieces of confetti? Maybe he should get that shit checked out.

Kind of a stupid-ass skit. Although I must admit that I laughed out loud at the “We will provide you and your bitch...” line.

Incredibly misogynistic, and women everywhere will most certainly not appreciate this, but if you look at this from a male perspective (which you're supposed to), it's actually...still incredibly misogynistic. Minus the parts where it's mentioned that the girl in question is only seventeen, most of the guys who read this will wish that they knew a woman like this in their real lives. The commercial for condoms at the end was also amusing (and well placed).

The condom commercial segues into “Look Who's Burnin'”, which should have been a public service announcement promoting the use of condoms, but Cube eventually turns it into a sexist rant against prudish girls who refused to fuck him, but ended up with a venereal disease when they gave it up to someone else (as if Cube would have created a protective barrier around the vagina using only his semen). Bleh.

In just over two minutes, Ice Cube cements his status as one of the better socially aware rappers of our time. (Not so much today, but back then, yes.) He documents how easily one can go from looking for a low-paying job to selling drugs, and does so with both anger and humor. Brilliant.

O'Shea raps a short ode to his gun. This is longer than it has to be: we get it, you love your weaponry.

Ice Cube gets shot in a drive-by and dies while in the hospital waiting room. His attention to even the tiniest of details (the doctors are more concerned as to whether the shooting was gang related than they are with his actual health; he tells time by stating that he sat through two episodes of M*A*S*H) brings the simple to understand-yet-difficult to comprehend (in a social context) lyricism to light. Nice! But depressing as shit.

I could have done without this sermon posing as an interlude, but it caps off the first half of the album, so it isn't entirely useless.

The second rap album intro on Death Certificate, the one that starts off the “Life” side. Once again, it serves its purpose, but I still don't care for it.

A comparison between slavery and the U.S. Military probably wouldn't go over as well today, but even back in 1991, this shit was controversial as hell. Methinks Ice Cube needs a group hug, even though all of his arguments are valid.

O'Shea Jackson versus all white people ever. The white man is attacked pretty relentlessly, but white women are chastised mainly because of the sizes of their typically flat asses. Clearly, that complaint is a product of its time: I'm sure you've all noticed a rising number of white women who now have much nicer asses. Maybe Cube put something into the water?

Sure, it's racist, but this one-verse wonder is also a reaction to the events of the time (especially in California). I'm curious to know if this song ever helped matters whenever he stopped into a convenience store for a brew, though. (Side note: how was this song deleted from the UK pressing of Death Certificate for the possibility of inciting racial conflict, but “Horny Lil' Devil” wasn't?)

The first verse sounds like O'Shea strung together a compendium of hip hop catchphrases and created a verse out of them. It picks up when Cube starts putting crossover artists on blast. However, the Cube and Jinx beat is fairly dull, and O'Shea's lackadaisical flow leaves a lot to be desired.

This posse cut addresses gangbanging in a way that isn't super responsible, but is truthful nonetheless. Cube sets things off and then lets the other kids play, and everyone does a good job, even fucking Coolio, who everyone forgets was once a part of the Maad Circle. Yes, I'm still talking about the “Fantastic Voyage” guy.

I thought Cube had an interesting take on a guy's first sexual experience in the first verse, but the rest of the song falls into the category of “O'Shea doing dumb shit”.

19. US
Cube starts off with another racist rant, but then turns the camera onto his own people, complaining about how drug dealers are just as bad as everyone else because the money they make goes towards their own greedy exploits and not back into the community. Not like any neighborhood would ever (knowingly) support a community center or elementary school built out of drug money, but still. The way the song just ends is also kind of inspired.

Although he was content with doing his own thing and looking ahead to the future, after N.W.A. used their Efil4Zaggin as an album-length excuse to trash O'Shea, Ice Cube dismantled each individual member over one of the harshest and, oddly, most theatrical (because of the long intro) dis tracks in hip hop history. You'll notice that, soon after this song dropped, Dr. Dre proved Cube right by leaving Ruthless Records due to a money dispute, and Eazy-E shifted his focus to attacking Dre, leaving O'Shea running a victory lap. Generally considered as one of the best dis songs ever, and it probably still pisses off Dre and Ren whenever it pops up on their iPods.

The following is a bonus track that was tacked on to the end of Death Certificate.

My understanding is that this song was added onto second pressings of Death Certificate after Boyz N The Hood gained in popularity (thanks to Cube's performance as Doughboy). It doesn't really fit into either part of the album, and should be skipped at all costs. It doesn't help that Cube actually sounds bored, reading his lines while dollar signs fill up his pupils. Oh well.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Death Certificate is Ice Cube's angriest and most concise album (a strange statement, considering its 21-track length, but still). He addresses the topics most important in his life with clarity, cohesion, and full respect of the listener: not only does he not adopt a condescending attitude, if a subject only warrants one or two verses, Cube chooses to end the song, rather than drag shit out like a lesser artist might. For that reason, Death Certificate is O'Shea's finest work. Cube's ranting combined with West Coast musical backing created the perfect marriage, one which Cube would never be able to annul later in his career. No wonder the man turned to acting: there is no way to top this shit.

BUY OR BURN? Buy this shit. Seriously. It's not for the faint of heart or easily offended, but there is musical genius to be found on here. If you are only cognizant of O'Shea Jackson because of Friday and Are We There Yet?, prepare for a mindfuck.

BEST TRACKS: “Steady Mobbin'”; “Alive On Arrival”; “A Bird In The Hand”; “No Vaseline”; “Color Blind”; “The Wrong N---a To Fuck Wit”


More O'Shea for your workday!


  1. i like this more than AMW, its more hardcore and more political


    Thank you.

    This is quite possibly my all-time favorite rap album. The rage heard in it, the attention to detail, the convincing and deft social commentary, the fuck-it-all attitude, and the audio assault of the production makes this a treasured listen for me. I've lost count how many times I've heard this album, and it never ceases to enrage and amaze me.

    In fact, I think I'm gonna give it another spin right now.

  3. Flat out.... I would have unsubscribed from this blog if this album got a bad review. No questions asked.

    You didnt let me down.

  4. I actually preferred Lethal Injection and The Predator over this but it's an undisputed classic nonetheless and No Vaseline to this day remains my favorite dis track.

  5. yeah, track 2 always had me confused probably because NY is a smaller place then we can picture. I thought this was worse then his first album and i'm quite pleased Black Korea (fucking pointless rant ffs) was left off our releases.

  6. A good album here... I'm surprised that you found it interessting and gave it a review.

    To my opinion, it's not Cube's best work (it's The Predator). But it's a fine album and a good start for those who would like to dig in the past of hardcore rap.

    Misogynistic? In a way, yes. But whenever Ice Cube talks about sex, I rather laugh than get offended because of his bullshit talk. Because Cube just don't convinces anybody. Would Mc Ren spit Cube's lyrics here, then YES: it would be misogynistic and dirty as hell. But like you wrote: "no wonder that Cube turned into acting"... Acting on camera is better than acting unsuccessfuly behind the mic.

    Anyway, it's worth a buy. Cube shows a grimmy and violent aspect of his own, but at the same time he's trying to put some 5% percent "knowledge" in the same manner like Public Enemy did. But he doesn't come through as a preacher. I prefer the angry and tight Ice Cube.

  7. once again downloaded a few days ago then reviewed - very easy to spot

  8. To the final Anonymous - if only it were that easy...

  9. man i feel bad giving thid CD to my cousin, im buying this shit back from him

  10. Great review Max-my feelings towards this album are pretty much the same as yours
    I actually much prefer this than his debut


  11. Scotty MacAugust 28, 2009

    What a great album. I remember hearing "A Bird in the Hand" and thinking that, lyrically, that song was way ahead of its time.

  12. Brilliant review, brilliant album !

  13. "clarity and cohesion" and you did say "succint"... the descriptives that make this dude at his finest, loved predator but this pre-dater to that album is the sheeet, the nigga you loved to hate giving you that many more reasons to hate his ass... yeh dre and ren prolly have a running argument over who got dissed worse..."the Villain in a purse and high heels"....

  14. Death Certificate was pretty good, (from what I remember, it's been a while since I listened to it), but like another poster stated, I prefer Lethal Injection. I actually enjoyed Horny Lil' Devil, particularly the line "white bitches have no butt and no chest." That's the first time I heard anyone diss white women like that. This is all despite me being white myself though I prefer Black women over white women. Btw, I have to disagree with you when you said white women have nicer asses than back in the day, they are still pretty damn flat.

  15. I got this when it came out, and I've listened to it regularly since then. It's Ice Cube's best album, and one of the best hip hop albums ever. It's totally offensive, but I feel like Cube was smart enough to pull it off. he wasn't just being a dick, he was saying something, even when what he was saying was fucked up.

    And, homophobic and racist as it is, "No Vaseline" is one of the best dis songs ever. Goddamn.

    There's a sample set going around the web with 70 odd songs from this. do a google search. it's worth owning.

    and worth noting that cub and Jinx were sampling Parliament before the chronic.

  16. Prolly one of the best hip-hop albums i can listen through and maintain my agriness and still not be irrited by it to this day but also makes it accepting. I'll leave it to the critics but would ask to stop the bashing of Oregonians please! lol with that, being that right now my blazers are doing great! I can proudly say i'm an Oregonian lol!!!

    I was only a yr old when this came out so i can only imagine (i bet my uncles were pissed tho.) LOL i fell outta my seat when u said we prolly weren't allowed to add the ice cubes HAHA! :) good album review, no doubt Ice Cube's best work!