As if to show he wasn't going soft, Ice Cube stepped to his latest disc with particularly foul rancor. The new-look Ice Cube had lost his politically incorrect jheri curl, picked up a few friends from the Nation of Islam and was clearly in no mood for horsing around. Overall, the material is as full of big grooves as hard-core can get--something like Bomb Squad's noisiest industrial clatter smoothed out on the Digital Underground tip. Produced by Cube, Sir Jinx and the Boogie Men, Death Certificate contains much of the worst and best stuff of his career: pathetic bigotry and introspective social commentary rolling side by side.

"Horny Lil' Devil" and "No Vaseline" tackle two fairly pesky problems--miscegenation and those snakes in N.W.A.--but the songs degenerate into that always-rich source of comedic material: gay bashing. Death Certificate is littered with almost-greats like this. In "True to the Game," it isn't clear whether Ice Cube's more interested in getting buppies to stick around the hood or in flaunting his own, oh-so-righteous loyalty to South Central.

Still, you've gotta give Ice Cube a Pulitzer nomination for the unflinching reportage of his own neighborhood. "Color Blind" may be the most exciting chase scene in hip-hop. It's an almost slo-mo anatomy of gang warfare, forcing the listener to focus on the hypnotic, nearly nauseating tension of players getting ready to kill or be killed.

Applaud Ice Cube for his objectivity, too. In "Black Korea," he's assailing shopkeepers who take one look at him and decide he's a thief, but a few songs later, in "Us," the rapper's virtually apologizing for his own race's misdeeds, lashing out at his wayward sisters and brothers. This isn't your average "just say no" song, either. Ice Cube delivers an encyclopedic tirade on repression in the manner of a father scolding his children. He's more ashamed than angry, and he's looking to lay an embarrassing guilt trip on his community while the neighbors listen in.

As riveting, unsettling and original as Ice Cube's lyrics can get, it's easy to overlook his artistry on the mic. His vocal skills are the product of the same inventiveness that give his tales such weight. A master at keeping his rhythms fresh, Ice Cube throws in syncopation, odd phrasing, rhymes that turn the corner when you least expect them and lines that take their own sweet time to wrap up. He's not in the upper echelon of hip-hop stylists that includes Monie Love and L.L. Cool J, but Cube's still worth listening to for his technical ability alone.

In the second song of AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, Ice Cube dubbed himself "The Nigga Ya Love to Hate," a song that's become his calling card. But so much of what Ice Cube does makes him worth a listen, even if you know it would be more politically correct to boycott his ass. He could just have easily called himself "The Nigga Ya Hate to Love."


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