Like AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted before it, Ice Cube’s second release Death Certificate is characterised by an intense sense of anger - one which is maintained at the same level throughout the record's entire duration which, clocking in at just over an hour as it does, is a testament to the passion which influences it. Death Certificate, released late in 1991 and taking under two months to turn platinum, ends up being critiqued by the listener from two very different positions - much as the album is nominally divided into two halves, the “life” and the “death” sides. On the one hand, it is impossible to listen to properly without being in some way offended by the lyrics. Cube lashes out at any perceived slight he can find, leading to (not unwarranted) charges of racism, sexism and homophobia. The “life” side’s ‘Black Korea’ was a response to the racial tensions between the black and Korean communities in L.A., one that could not be called measured and which would lead to tensions between him and the Korean-Americans of the city, while the N.W.A diss ‘No Vaseline’ was originally cut in the UK release due to anti-Semitic content (although this was contested by the artist). Similarly, his sexist and homophobic pot shots are in no way entirely excused by the siege mentality which runs through the album - that of a man whose viewpoint comes from a black ghetto in an institutionally racist Western superpower.
It is a strange paradox; the paranoid lashing out which can make the record a hard listen at times seems to be the by-product of the same anger which makes the music itself so exhilarating, and which is clearly not an aimless anger when viewed against the racial backdrop that it came from (preceding the Rodney King riots by a mere few months, the record is a product of the same duress). The musical innovation which the album is as famous for as its controversy perfectly underpins the sneering vocal and undeniable dexterity that Cube possesses, taking its cue from funk and soul sounds to create head-nodding beats that delved further into George Clinton territory and sampling than his tenure with N.W.A had managed. In fact, the sounds on the album almost seem to precede the future direction of West Coast hip-hop, with Dr. Dre’s release the following year of The Chronic properly kicking off the G-funk era. In the samples which beef out tracks like ‘Steady Mobbin’ and ‘True to the Game’, we can see the evolution of sampling in action.
While some of Ice Cube’s viewpoints may be hard to stomach, there is no denying the raw energy and power which the album cohesively holds. It is clear to see why USM are reissuing Death Certificate as part of their Back To Black hip-hop reprints, forming as it does a snapshot of an era which marked a crossroads both in hip-hop music and, in a wider sense, in racial relations within the US. While it is not an entirely comfortable listen, it is one that should definitely be experienced.