Celebrating the Life and Death of West Coast Hip-Hop
Ice Cube is a man who wears many hats. You may know him best as one of the voices from famed hip-hop group N.W.A., and the man behind the pen for much of their work; you may know him from his roles in movies like Friday, Are We There Yet? and Barbershop; or maybe you know him from his recent appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher, debating with the talk show host on his use of the N-word during a broadcast.
On the 25th anniversary of his album, Death Certificate, he reintroduces himself to the world with one of his earliest solo works. Celebrating the occasion, he starts off the special anniversary edition with three new tracks, asserting his dominance in the rap game from the very first drum break. On the intro, “Only One Me,” Ice Cube raps, “I taught Tupac how to keep it gangster / I told Biggie Smalls how to release his anger.” Set over modern, 808-based production, it sounds like a track made in the 21st century while still retaining the anger and passion Ice Cube put into the original album back in 1991. The following track, “Good Cop Bad Cop,” falls more in line with the production on the rest of the album while also foreshadowing the theme of police brutality that often comes to the forefront throughout Death Certificate.
Sadly, many of the politically charged tracks on the album are just as relevant 25 years after it was first released – Ice Cube’s poignant social conscience is on display throughout, on numbers like “Robin Lench.” A play on Robin Lynch and his former TV show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the interlude paints a picture of everyday life in the ghetto, with the host pointing out various landmarks while dodging bullets on “Lifestyles of the Poor and Unfortunate.” On “A Bird in the Hand,” Ice Cube speaks on the struggles he faced finding a job and starting a life after high school graduation. He ponders his bleak future with lines like, “Do I have to sell a whole lotta crack / for decent shelter and clothes on my back?” Then, he ends the track with an incisive twist on a famous proverb, rapping, “A bird in the hand is worth more than a Bush.” Fed up with waiting on help from President George H.W. Bush and the government, Ice Cube resorts to selling drugs to provide for his family, in a no-win situation that many inner city black men still face today.
The police and similar systems of oppression are frequent targets on Death Certificate. “Alive on Arrival” sees Ice Cube slowly fading away in the hospital from a gunshot wound, handcuffed to the bed and interrogated on his gang affiliations instead of receiving the care that could have saved his life. He vents his frustration at the government on “I Wanna Kill Sam,” exposing the corrupt practices of army recruiters in his neighborhood before expressing confusion when Uncle Sam is back around for taxes once he’s made it out.
The art of the diss has long been a crucial element of hip-hop, and Ice Cube shows his mastery of this throughout Death Certificate. Almost no group is spared, as the rapper spews his venom at just about everyone he’s encountered in his life. On “Black Korea,” he takes aim at the Korean shop owners in his neighborhood, calling them on their often racist treatment of black men in their stores. On “True to the Game,” Ice Cube takes shots at black entertainers who forsake the culture in search of mainstream riches. In what some consider a direct attack at MC Hammer for switching to dance records for mainstream America, Ice Cube warns of the impending doom when White America moves on to the next one-hit wonder, spitting the phrase, “And you might have a heart attack / when you find out the black folks don’t want you back.” Ice Cube even criticizes those he grew up with on “Us,” challenging the drug dealers to use their money to help the black community instead of blowing it on material possessions.
Ice Cube closes Death Certificate with his biggest diss track yet, and arguably the most fatal in hip-hop history. “No Vaseline” is a relentless barrage at N.W.A., tearing into each of Ice Cube’s former partners, as well as Jerry Heller, the group’s manager. Ice Cube had left the group two years prior after growing unhappy with how the money was being split, and had — for the most part — avoided direct attacks at them until they targeted him on “100 Miles and Runnin’ ” and several songs from their album Efil4zaggin. “No Vaseline” would do more than even the score, marking the start of N.W.A’s demise, as the rappers began to turn on each other and their manager, eventually splitting ways in 1995.
Death Certificate was originally released at a pivotal time in West Coast hip-hop, something that is made clear by the beat selection throughout the album. The uptempo, hard hitting sound of the ’80s was losing steam, giving way to the synthesized G-Funk production that would dominate the ’90s. Ice Cube uses both styles on Death Certificate, switching frequently between songs to add versatility to the project. His vicious bars fit beautifully into the music in both cases, sounding equally menacing on uptempo tracks like “The Wrong Nigga to Fuck Wit” and the G-Funk-soaked “No Vaseline.”
Ice Cube is a vivid storyteller, and never withholds even the least significant details when recapping an event — perhaps most notably, “Went to mom’s house and dropped a load in the bathroom / jumped back in my low rider / coming out feeling about ten pounds lighter” on “Steady Mobbin’.” The song “My Summer Vacation” describes the rapper’s (mostly criminal) adventures in St. Louis, giving insight into the motivations of various characters while painting a clear picture of the scene. Overall, Ice Cube splits Death Certificate into two encompassing storylines: The first half comprising “The Death Side” and the second comprising “The Life Side.” The former deals primarily with the reality of life in the ghetto, while the latter focuses more on what must be done to improve the condition of Black America. Together, the two sides form one of the most significant releases in West Coast hip-hop, still holding just as much weight on its 25th anniversary as it did on inception.