Old School Review: DEATH CERTIFICATE by Ice Cube

The real West Coast was no Hollywood. In the early ’90s, the world witnessed a revolution as hardcore gangsta rap from Compton dominated airwaves everywhere and influenced an entire generation of rebellious teens. It was during this time that mainstream took a stab in the head, shocked as they watched kids flock to the underground for the violent, misogynistic content that shaped most of gangsta rap music. It was also during this time when one man became the generation’s leading voice and the ultimate terror for America. A terror so vicious, even the FBI took notice.

This is Ice Cube and welcome to 1991.

No, this isn’t really the same guy who makes family flicks nowadays. This isn’t even the same guy who made “Friday”. In 1991, Ice Cube was considered to be a terrorist and also one of America’s most important voices. After the breakthrough assault of his group N.W.A (N*ggaz Wit Attitude), the world was all but prepared to see the dangerous ghetto lifestyles become publicized and glamorized. Ice Cube would later leave the group and enjoy success on his own terms with the bombastic AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. But AMW would sound more like a warning since the real danger emerged in Death Certificate, his most controversial record and his best. It was the album that would ultimately earn him the title of “racist” and “terrorist”. Even the Billboard magazine, a normally neutral media, slammed Ice Cube for his controversial stances. But maybe the scariest part of it all was that the album was pre-ordered by over a million hungry consumers, who probably were not even half as ready for what they were going to hear.

The record is split into two halves, as Ice Cube explains it, the “Death” side, a portrait of the current struggle for African Americans, and the “Life” side, a vision of where they should aim for. Conceptually, there are some overlaps but both sides offer a complete and vivid portrayal of the ghetto life and its downsides.

1. The Funeral

Here, Ice Cube introduces the album and its concept followed by a small skit where a preacher laments the loss of a boy. While it is otherwise a pointless track, it is a good transition into the first song.

2. The Wrong N***a To F**k Wit

Think of this track as the sequel to “The N***a Ya Love to Hate”. Ice Cube goes hard on this more traditional gangsta track as he dismisses his competition and tells them to “new jack swing on [his] nuts”. Brilliantly ignorant track.

3. Summer Vacation

Here is a funky tale about drug dealing gone wrong. Cube takes the perspective of a dealer who travels to St. Louis, because in his hometown, “everybody and their momma sell dope”. The track vividly shows how the drug dealing has its benefits and misfortunes, as Cube’s character ends up going to jail to serve a life sentence.

4. Steady Mobbin’

Another gangsta-oriented track about rolling with a crew and keeping it straight. Nice track to bump in your car stereo on a hot afternoon.

5. Robin Lench

In a manner similar to tour guides, “Robin Lench” takes you on a tour through the Los Angeles ghetto, hilariously trying to portray a unapproachable place as a place to visit.

6. Givin Up the Nappy Dugout

One of the album’s nastier tracks as Ice Cube mocks a father who doesn’t know that his perfect, Catholic daughter is the neighborhood slut. This is clearly a stab at parents who don’t educate their kids enough about the dirtier temptations of the ghetto. The father thinks his daughter is a role model and valedictorian when in reality, she too could not resist the dirty lifestyle he tried to steer her away from. It ends with a skit about the benefits of safe sex, which segues well into the next track.

7. Look Who’s Burnin

The last track and this one could have easily been one track because they accompany each other pretty well. Here, Cube talks about the dangers of STDs when messing around with the ghetto girls. It points a very mocking finger at those who don’t practice safe sex and those who are willing to have it raw with anyone, not knowing the damaging consequences.

8. A Bird in the Hand

Here is a poignant tale about a high-school-grad-turned-high-school-dad as he struggles to find a well-paying job and eventually his discovery of a more profitable trade: drugs. While “Summer Vacation” did discuss the downsides of selling drugs, here is a song that talks about how it actually helps the poor who cannot wait for help from Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH.

9. Man’s Best Friend

Forget the dog, says Cube. The gun is now man’s most trusted ally. Cube takes the saying into a perspective more realistic in an urban setting as he details how using guns is far more useful than counting on a dog:

“Cause if you shot your gun, and my dog tried to fetch her/
me and the dog’s goin out on a stretcher”

10. Alive on Arrival

This is the album’s centerpiece and probably its most defining moment as the lifestyle of the gangsta and that of the ordinary man come into a collision. Cube plays a character who gets accidentally shot in a drive-by and then struggles to get proper medical help (“Yo nurse, I’m gettin kinda warm/ B*tch still made me fill out the f*ckin form”) and instead gets harassed with questions about the gang as he sits there bleeding to death. It is an incredibly tense track that never loses that suspense even after the first time you heard it.

11. Death/ 12. The Birth

A couple skits as Cube finishes the “Death” side and starts the “Life” side.

13. I Wanna Kill Sam

Cube uses the personification, Uncle Sam, to lash out his anger out on the American government. It is a continuation of the AmeriKKKa concept as he portrays the government as a selfish brute who takes advantage of the poor and manipulates them to fight one another.

14. Horny Lil Devil

Ah here is where the racist nature of the album starts to sprout. Cube takes a stance against the sex-hungry whites (aka “devils”) who lust for black women because of their voluptuous figure. He also targets those whites who try to cheat blacks out of their fair share (*cough*Jerry Heller*cough*).

15. Black Korea

Dissing the white man did not seem as bad as the dissing the Asian man as Cube takes a 45-second swig at Asian storekeepers in the ghetto who are prejudiced towards their black customers. This track was a response to the Latasha Harlins case, when Harlins was shot by a Korean storekeeper for allegedly, trying to steal some orange juice even though Harlins was going to pay for it. It is an unsettling and divisive track at first but when you take a look at the background information, you can’t say that Cube is a total racist as he was simply trying to display a racial issue, albeit in a quite aggressive manner.

16. True to the Game

Things take a chill for a while as Cube targets the sellouts over some smooth funk. Cube criticizes those rappers who make more mainstream-friendly music to impress the white folk, thinking they will accept him. Cube also discusses that when the sellout loses popularity and money, even the black people won’t want him back. For some strange reason, this seems to be parallel to the career of a rapper we know. I wonder who it could be….

17. Color Blind (feat. Kam, Deadly Threat, The Madd Circle, King Tee, and J-Dee)

A message against gang violence where Cube is joined by some of his fellow West Coast rappers. For some reason, the track started out with a piano intro that made it sound like an East Coast track. Of course the funk later on brought the West Coast flavor. One could speculate that Cube is not only preaching for black unity within local neighborhoods but country-wide as well.

18. Doing Dumb S**t

A poignant and at times hilarious coming of age song as Cube details how he used to be a “little bad mothaf**ka playin’ Space Invaders” and in general, trying to look cool by doing stupid stuff like vandalism and adolescent sex (he claims he fell in love when he lost his virginity). Things take a turn when Cube realizes that doing dumb things is not gonna get him anywhere and later observes that some of the kids from his neighborhood died from doing the same dumb things he did.

19. Us

Here is a stab at the African American community who Cube sees as materialistic, selfish, and above all ignorant. Cube criticizes the black people who preach for equality and justice when they themselves are a fragmented group that the white man laughs at.

20. No Vaseline

Cube saves the best for last as he takes a vicious assault on his former crew. And when I mean “vicious”, I mean VICIOUS. No one gets a free pass, especially Eazy-E and the “Jew” (“Heard you both got the same bank account/ Dumb n*gga, what you thinkin’ ’bout?”). The “gay” accusations are venomous and exaggerating, as are all homosexual disses in hip hop. But otherwise, Cube pretty much said the truth: Eazy-E and Jerry Heller did screw the group out of its proper pay and Cube was smart enough to know about it beforehand.


There is always this debate over which Cube album was the best. Some still feel the explosive AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted is Cube’s best effort, while others are even willing to throw The Predator in the mix since it was the most focused and most intense Cube album and plus it had a groundbreaking sound that would later be perfected as Dr. Dre’s G-Funk. But I still feel that neither of those efforts can ever compare to Death Certificate. This album was truly more West Coast and this is Cube at his lyrical best, as he tackles various subjects with an aggressive and insightful demeanor. This was the album that truly made him Public Enemy No. 1. It is a visceral piece of work that defined Ice Cube and his controversial career and the one that made him one of the great voices of hip hop.

Rating: 11/10

*note: The rare 11/10 rating is awarded to brilliant albums that have stood the test of time without diminishing one bit in value and relevance. See the About page for more details.


2 thoughts on “Old School Review: DEATH CERTIFICATE by Ice Cube

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