Controversy and Commentary: 'Death Certificate' At 30
Ice Cube’s 1991 album, Death Certificate, has long been lauded as a rap classic. It’s Cube’s best album, and in the years following its release became a blueprint for in-your-face, storytelling socio-political rap.
By the time he dropped Death Certificate, Cube was already regarded as a premiere writer, a reputation he solidified by his work with N.W.A and his own solo debut, 1990’s hard-hitting AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. While his storytelling had always been a key component of his rap skills, it reached another height on Death Certificate. It’s a concept album — there is a “Life” side and a “Death” side — which means it lent itself to storytelling from the onset. Cube seizes the opportunity. The tales he weaves throughout the album are vivid, thought-provoking, and memorable, and it became the backbone of the project.
One of Cube’s most affecting tales comes early, on “My Summer Vacation.” The song which samples George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” spins a story about a drug dealer who leaves L.A. for St. Louis, explaining how gang-banging and violence weaved its way into smaller towns and cities in the late 80s and early 90s, even before documentaries like Bangin’ In Little Rock and reality-based TV shows like Snowfall explored the subject.
He points out the sad, complicated irony.
It’s one of the album’s best and helps set the tone for the rest of the project. Coming out of the Reagan years and at the tail end of George H. W. Bush’s tenure—which found the country entering the Gulf War—and with the Rodney King beating still fresh in the public consciousness, Black America was on edge. Throughout the Death Certificate Cube is enraged — sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s snarky, other times, it’s alive, blaring and unrelenting, like on “I Wanna Kill Sam” where he accuses America’s military of exploiting Black men and offering empty promises and death for their service.
But Cube is also weary. At 22, he was full of ideas, shaped by what he’d seen on the streets and in the music industry during his time with N.W.A, as well as his involvement in the Nation of Islam (Muslim minister Dr. Khalid Abdul Muhammad appears throughout the album). He was on the cusp of movie stardom, fresh off an impressive debut role in John Singleton’s poignant, career-defining film, Boyz N The Hood. He’s seen death, but he wants life, and teetering between the two is all-consuming and tiring. It’s that slippery exhaustion that holds Death Certificate together, making it more than just a finger-pointing statement, but a project that’s emotive and grounded in a profound sadness that Cube smartly articulates. He’s worried about Black folks in an America that’s birthed and molded by racism, a place where it seems nowhere is safe. Take one of the album’s most thoughtful (and best) tracks, “A Bird In the Hand,” where he questions the available options for a high school dad, and finds them desperately lacking.
Years later, Cee-Lo offers the same fatigued rage on his classic verse from “I Refuse Limitation,” featured on Goodie MOB’s Still Standing, when he raps about “workin’ all night at Mickey D’s” but walking away with crumbs “after the government get they fees.” You can see how Death Certificate shaped ideologies and perspectives, and why it’s still timely.
“Alive On Arrival” is another example where Cube’s storytelling is observant and gut-wrenching—he’s kicking it at a friend’s house and winds up getting shot. When he gets to the emergency room, he’s handcuffed to his bed while he bleeds out with police interrogating him the whole time.
Of course, Cube’s discourse didn’t come without controversy. The album is rightfully criticized today for some of its entries, including the cringe-worthy misogynist “Giving Up The Nappy Dugout” and “Look Who’s Burning.” One of the most controversial songs at the time the album dropped was “Black Korea,” a 46-second snippet of a track where he accuses Asian store owners of exploiting the Black community, and treating them like second-class citizens.
“So pay respect to the Black fist/Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp…”
Tensions between the communities were high following the murder of 15 year-old Latasha Harlins, who was killed just seven months months earlier by a Korean store clerk who wrongly accused her of stealing. The man was only put on probation and given 400 hours of community service. Cube wasn’t the only rapper who was palpably affected by the incident —2Pac also dedicated time on a couple of songs to the young girl. A year after “Black Korea” dropped, L.A. erupted in riots sparked by Harlins’ death and the Rodney King ruling, making it that much more timely.
While both the “life” and “death” sides of the album are heavy, there are also occasions where Cube showcases his wry wit and life observances, like on the lead single “Steady Mobbin’,” a day-in-the-life escapade that’s a grittier prelude to his mellower later hits “Today Was A Good Day” and “You Know How We Do It.” Or on “Doing Dumb Shit,” where he gets nostalgic before turning somber and warning tht doing dumb shit” can often to lead to death for young Black men.
On “Us” and “Color Blind” and the single “True to the Game” he’s chastising and preaching. "Us" is Cube's most finger-wagging moment, as he calls out his own community for things he wants to see change; while "Color Blind" urges peace between gangs, and features a handful of 90s West Coast stars including Kam, W.C., Coolio, J.D. and King Tee on one of the era's most underrated posse cuts. And on “No Vaseline,” maybe the album’s most popular track these days, he’s dissing his former friends N.W.A. at the height of their beef. But it’s always his engaging storytelling that weaves the album together and leaves an imprint.
One of the most thoughtful storytellers in rap, Cube was at the peak of his skills on Death Certificate, and 30 years later it’s still among rap’s most powerful albums.