Ice Cube’s Death Certificate vs. N.W.A.’s efil4zaggiN. Which Is Better?
One year ago, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: who is the greatest MC of all time? “Finding The GOAT MC” lasted between September 2014 and May 2015, engaging millions of readers and ultimately producing its winner, as determined by hundreds of thousands of voters. Now, “Finding The GOAT” returns to ask a new question: what is the greatest of all time Hip-Hop album?
“Finding The GOAT Album” will consider 120 albums from three individual eras (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. You and your vote will decide which album goes forward, and which one leaves the conversation. While there will no doubt be conversation between family and friends (virtual and real), only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click.
In 1991, Ice Cube and N.W.A. were as overtly, and viciously competing on and with their albums. Cube had left the group a year prior. He was trying to prove he was the best ex-player on the Ruthless team, and N.W.A. was out to prove that they did not need Cube. Listeners were given two great albums as a result of the tension and competitive spirit. While Niggaz4Life struck first, it certainly had Cube’s solo work in mind. In turn, in making Death Certificate, Cube could react, and respond. Twenty five years later, listen to both of these Priority Records powder-kegs, and decide which is more explosive (Click on one then click “vote”).
Death Certificate by Ice Cube
For those starving for the Ice Cube they heard on Straight Outta Compton, Death Certificate signed a new lease on life. Following 1990’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, a highly-acclaimed album recorded in New York City with The Bomb Squad at the helm, Ice Cube was back in his element, completely. Three months after Boyz N Tha Hood rocked theaters, Cube presented the audio companion to a cinematic look at life in South Central, California. Already a star, the MC checked his status and wealth at the door. Instead, O’Shea Jackson put himself in the shoes of an out-of-town drug dealer (“My Summer Vacation”), a visitor to the clinic (“Look Who’s Burnin'”), and a disenfranchised youth being followed around the stores he patronized (“Black Korea”). Almost all of Death Certificate is angry, unapologetic, and raw, but it is unarguably honest. Cube was still buckin’ shots at law enforcement and weaving in Rodney King. He criticized Black men with white women (“True To The Game”), and white men misusing Black women (“Horny Lil’ Devil”). Race and society, as perceived between the furrowed brow of the N.W.A. co-founder drove the way.
Without the charged East Coast production as a deliberate concept, Cube and original C.I.A. collaborator Sir Jinx were not out to imitate Dr. Dre’s sound. However, that same genre of ’70s Funk records that N.W.A. was using, were also part of the repertoire of Jinx, DJ Pooh, and Bobcat. These chops, whether throwing up a P-Funk flashlight or working down David Bowie’s “Fame” emphasized the drum, allowing Cube to emphatically make his points. Cube, such a rhythmic and commanding MC, lived between the wide grooves of Funk elements and bass drums. With songs like “A Bird In The Hand” and “Alive On Arrival” so grand, it took big beats to match. In between the bigger points, Cube could still unabashedly make novelty and porno Rap, and do it as well as anybody—including his former band-mates. After not directly addressing N.W.A. on the previous LP, “No Vaseline” would close out Death Certificate as perhaps the most cutthroat diss record not only of its time, but all time. Bottled up feelings reacted to Niggaz4Life in a way where one man appeared to take on four, and come out untouched. For a song that pulled no punches in its imagery of rape, lynching, and antisemitic remarks, no one could say that Ice Cube was not an incredible MC. That’s just it with Death Certificate. Regardless of Cube’s position on race, gender, or survival tactics, he presented himself as such a convincing character. Adamant that he was not trying to be a role-model, the Rap superstar was clearly reaching the mass audience with his emphatic deliveries and strong opinions. Before such terms existed, especially in the Hip-Hop space, Death Certificate showed how deeply Ice Cube understood his brand, and how to best leverage it.
Album Number: 2 (solo)
Released: October 29, 1991
Label: Priority Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #1 (certified gold, October 1991; certified platinum, December 1991)
Song Guests: King T, Kam, Threat, WC & The Maad Circle (TK), J-Dee, Khalil Abdul Muhammad
Song Producers: (self), Sir Jinx, The Boogiemen (DJ Pooh, Bobby “Bobcat” Ervin, & Rashad Coes)
Niggaz4Life by N.W.A.
N.W.A.’s second full-fledged album was a stripped down affair in terms of personnel. Ice Cube had left the group, quietly—then angrily since Straight Outta Compton. The group fired shots on 1990’s 100 Miles & Runnin’ carry-over EP, before resetting into a true follow-up. In the 1990s, Niggaz4Life (or “efil4zaggin,” as many called it) was largely a Dr. Dre, MC Ren, DJ Yella affair. The D.O.C., now impaired from his auto accident, wrote many of the rhymes—with an ensemble of uncredited session players and writers. On the basis of rhymes and beats, Niggaz4Life may eclipse S.O.C. Dre had entered the house of G-Funk, as heard on the rich synth lines of “Always Into Somethin'” and layered ’70s recreations of “Real Niggaz Don’t Die.” Lyrically, Ren entered his finest hour, with Dre’s own compound rhymes and pepped up flow filling a clear O’Shea Jackson-sized vacancy. Eazy-E’s role was reduced, and thus N.W.A.’s pageantry took a backseat. But the “backseat” was where the new creative force dwelled—in an 18-track affair about murdering women (“One Less Bitch”), providing felatio instructions (“She Swallowed It”), and justifying their use of the word “nigga” to protesters and boycotts (“Niggaz 4 Life”).
Without overt street political stances as much at play, the fight against law enforcement and First Amendment rights gave way to misogyny, murder raps, and buckshot aimed at a weak-hearted, cross-over Rap industry. Niggaz4Life spat at radio, and instead, tried to be exactly the album the N.W.A. wanted to make. However, Cube was certainly a driving force on his former group’s platinum ’91 LP, as members subliminally and explicitly attacked the man who left them. Because of that, and because of the politics of Dre’s own impending exit, Niggaz4Life is an album that lives in the shadows. Without the marketing machine at its disposal, the band ceased touring. Few great (arguably classic) albums are as paralyzed as this. The album is a dark cloud in its lyrics, themes, and attacks. Despite this, Dr. Dre’s rich ensemble arrangements are a production hallmark, MC Ren was a Super Bowl-ready Steve Young stepping out of Joe Montana’s shadow, and the group went out in a blaze of its own glory. To a Hip-Hop Head, the once-coined “Black Beatles” offered their Abbey Road farewell.
Album Number: 2
Released: May 28, 1991
Label: Ruthless/Priority Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #2 (certified gold, August 1991; certified platinum, August 1991)
Song Guests: Above The Law (Big Hutch & K.M.G.) Kokane, Stan “The Guitar Man”, L.A. Dre
Song Producers: (self), Colin Wolfe (uncredited)
So what’s the better album? Make sure you vote above.