The Notorious B.I.G— a gifted wordsmith, an ingenious storyteller…and a prolific cultural critic? Released in 1994, Big’s debut album, Ready to Die, offers stunning insight into the psychology of the troubled young Black male. Big’s stark candor and impeccable flow not only cause us to nod our heads to the beat; it also inspires deep introspection as he waxes poetics about the harsh realities that continue to effect young people of color in the present day, making it one of the most socially and politically relevant Hip-Hop albums even 16 years after his untimely death.
“Things Done Changed”
If I wasn’t in the rap game/
I’d prolly have a key knee deep in the crack game/
Because the streets is a short stop/
Either you slinging crack rock or ya got a wicked jump shot
Big’s desire to be involved in dealing or rapping as a source of income speaks to his innate understanding of how impoverished/working class people of color are disadvantaged socio-economically, lacking above-ground employment, viable community networks, and, due to these circumstances, are rarely afforded the opportunities to make it beyond their neighborhoods. The lyrics also shed light on the growing educational gap for young Blacks living in poverty: as a result of the cutting back of educational services and community programs in poor Black neighborhoods, Black males are especially the least likely to attend higher education, making them more likely to fall into crime to support themselves. In four bars, Big tackles the perils of economic poverty, political neglect, and the prevalence of institutional racism effortlessly.
“Me and My Bitch”
When the time is right, the wine is right, I treat ya right/
Ya talk slick, I beat ya right/
Big’s culturally-learned femiphobia (the fear and disdain of the female) is highlighted in this verse, but more specifically, his lyrics speak to the fragmented intimate gender dynamics between young Black men women. The use of violence to “correct” his woman when she gets out of line is the outcome of living in the misogynistic culture in America, where Black men adopt the values and concerns of the white majority, which has always practiced sexism and domination towards women (Black women, in particular). Despite Big’s best intentions to maintain a love relationship with the woman in question, his way of thinking and behaving towards her during their challenges are a reflection of patriarchy in mainstream society, cultivating an unhealthy romantic bond between them that ends in tragedy.
I know how it feels to wake up fucked up/
Pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell
People look at you like you’re the user/ Selling drugs to all the losers mad Buddha abuser But they don’t know about the stress-filled day/ Baby on the way mad bills to pay/That’s why you drink Tanqueray/
So you can reminisce and wish/ You wasn’t living so devilish s-shit/
Despite Big’s hustler persona, he refrains from ever completely glamorizing being involved in the drug trade. In this verse, the rapper puts a human face on crime by reflecting on his own wasted talent. It is in this moment that the listener is allowed to see those involved in a more sympathetic light.
“Machine Gun Funk”
Bed-Stuy, the place where my head rests/
50 shot clip if a nigga wan’ test/
The rocket launcher, Biggie stomped ya/
That’s why I pack a nina, fuck a misdemeanor
From 2008 to 2009, it was reported that the leading cause of death among young Black men was gun violence. “It is young Black and Hispanic men in the inner city, who bear the burden of America’s gun romance,” journalist David Cole writes. Big’s fascination with guns in the following bars echoes this statement; Machine Gun Funk’s third verse bar is a chilling ode to the power and sexiness that automatic weapons have for many Black male youth in America . As the country comes to grips with the debate of gun control, Big’s casual allegiance to busting shots remains a chilling reminder of the allure of weaponry for a forgotten percentage population who otherwise feeling invisible, vulnerable and powerless.
When I die, fuck it I wanna go to hell/ Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell/ It don’t make sense, goin’ to heaven wit the goodie-goodies/ Dressed in white, I like black Tims and black hoodies/ God will probably have me on some real strict shit/ No sleepin’ all day, no gettin my dick licked/ Hangin’ with the goodie-goodies loungin’ in paradise/ Fuck that shit, I wanna tote guns and shoot dice
Unable to confront his demons, Big’s lyrics point to his grueling self-doubt, self-loathing and a heartbreaking lack of self-love. In a society where suicide is the third leading cause of death among young Black men 15-24, Suicidal Thought’s lead in bars exemplifies the culmination of Black male pain, a result of stress and social inequality finally taking its toll. The words demonstrate how a lack of emotional outlets and a desire to erect a cool pose stifles African-American youth, as Big justifies the route of hell as a righteous punishment and death his ultimate destiny.
While Big is not the archetypal conscious rapper, Ready to Die reflects the experience of those who are poor, Black, and frequently disenfranchised. One must wonder if he was still living if he would be surprised at how much of his rhymes rang true with the current generation. If one thing is for sure, he rapped about what he knew: “I make music about what I know. If I’d worked at McDonald’s, I would’ve made rhymes about Big Macs and fries.”
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