Own It or Disown It: #270: Ice Cube, Death Certificate (25th Anniversary Edition)


Ice Cube's seminal second album has been reissued. Is it worth a listen?

2017 does not represent the twenty-fifth anniversary of Death Certificate, which came out in 1991. Such inaccuracies are of no matter to Ice Cube, though, who has argued that his second solo album is just as relevant to politics and the culture at large today as it was on its initial release, and that’s supposed to overcome things like, you know, the proper use of the term “twenty-fifth anniversary”. Besides, the world is a much better place now, with police misconduct being at an all-time low, gun violence having been so thoroughly curbed, and racism being dead. We’re in a happy place in the world, right? Right? We’re all fucking happy, right? We’re doing so fucking good! We’re getting tired of winning, that’s how good we’ve had it! We’re running through sprinklers and—okay, I’ll stop now.

I’ve long held that the worst thing to happen to hip-hop was the rise in popularity of the 90s West Coast sound, arguing that its anemic beats and apathetic emcees stunted the perception of the genre as a mature art form as well as hurt the artists who grew up thinking it was worth a damn. I’m the guy who thinks Straight Outta Compton deserves a soft thumbs up and The Chronic is the greatest argument against the merits of WC hip-hop. What I’ve left out in all of my assessments of this sort of hip-hop are how I’ve felt about Ice Cube as an artist, and that’s because, at his prime, Cube was making some damn good music, hip-hop so tight and meaningful and fun that it better resembled my beloved East Coast hip-hop than what was coming out of Cali. To bring this up in trying to talk down West Coast hip-hop would be to defeat myself, so while we’re on the topic here: barring my forgetting about some lowballed masterpiece (unlikely, that), Death Certificate is the best thing to come out of the West Coast in the early 90s.

Much has been made about Death Certificate’s commentary, from its casual endorsement of gang violence to its condemnation of everything involving the system (the police, emergency services, lecherous military recruitment practices). Some interpreted all of this as hateful to a disgusting degree, even obscene, and that just rings as odd to me, and not because I think everyone is too sensitive to everything. To single out an aspect of Cube’s commentary as its own statement is to miss the big picture, and the big picture is that Cube thinks we’re all screwing ourselves. He’s getting screwed over by the cops and other gangstas and venereal diseases, but his persona throughout the entire album is of a smartass who might be getting some degree of karmic retribution. He’s a guy who conducts an entire song and dance about having relations with a sexually-active teenager, complete with a chorus, to the girl’s father, then later complains about how getting shot sucks extra hard when shitty hospital conditions mean he gets seen hours later than he likely should have. It’s a bit ineloquent, but it’s a consistent clown house of mirrors look at a broken world, and it wouldn’t be out of line to compare this to Lamar’s self-critical To Pimp a Butterfly.

It would be just as fair and easy to compare its sonic tendencies with Atrocity Exhibition. Death Certificate may be a West Coast hip-hop album with funky rhythms and soul samples aplenty, but Ice Cube keeps things going at a manic pace, his voice adding dimension to the energy drum and bass. No part of Death Certificate is “the boring part”; the only songs you can’t dance to are the skits and the mid-album interlude in which Ice Cube is reborn (don’t ask). Its kinetic energy and immaculate pacing make its seventy minutes fly by, and if you’re looking for an album to serve as a companion for a workout, here you go.

“But John,” one Ice Cube enthusiast is likely wondering, “my copy of Death Certificate is only a little over an hour long. Why are you saying it is over seventy minutes?” Well, anonymous friend, that’s because I’m listening to Death Certificate (25th Anniversary Edition), which, in addition to bringing up the fidelity of the album to what is expected of a release in 2017, begins with three new tracks. On a work that is otherwise very much a check-plus, these three tracks represent a check-minus. It isn’t as though these are bad songs (I really dig “Good Cop, Bad Cop”), but between their contemporary sound, name checks to recent events, and Cube working in hashtag rap, they do more to date the album than Death Certificate does by itself. These tracks feel too obvious in their intentions to work as effective commentary, even on an album so devoid of subtlety that it is titled Death Certificate. I’d be fine with these tracks being a dry run for Cube going back to his roots and trying to make an album as effective as what he made in his prime, but the kindest thing I can say about them being here is that you can easily skip them.

So there you have it: a whole column about a 90s West Coast hip-hop album I love. If you already own a copy, consider a double-dip because it sounds even better now. If you’ve never given this album a chance, consider that I hated this damn scene and still regard Death Certificate as a masterpiece. Now let’s pretend I never said any of this to protect my fake Internet cred, okay?


Read past editions of Own It or Disown It.