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On Jay Z’s 1997 cut, “Where I’m From,” he asked, but never answered, “Who’s the best MC – Biggie, Jay Z, or Nas?” Now, years later, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps a fairer question would be, “Which is the best debut between their three – Ready to Die, Reasonable Doubt, or Illmatic?” They are all classic albums which helped revitalize New York Hip-Hop after years of Left Coast dominance, and they have all earned their spots in Hip-Hop history. However, in the competitive sport of rap, one must reign supreme. And with that being said, on its twentieth anniversary, I proclaim Ready to Die the quintessential East Coast Hip-Hop album.
The power of The Notorious B.I.G.’s impeccable flow coupled with his baritone vocals has him smoking mics like crack pipes from beginning to end on his debut, but that isn’t news to anyone that has heard it. What I find most fascinating about Ready to Die is that rather than just re-enforce the gangsta rap cliches that have always been prevalent, Biggie provides a subtle depth to his lyrics that make those records more than superficial tunes about sex, drugs, money, and murder. For example, on the first song, “Things Done Changed,” he doesn’t just describe how he grew up, but, more importantly, how stuff is different now than it once was. “Back in the days, our parents used to take care of us / Look at em now, they even f***ing scared of us.” There has been a paradigm shift for worse within B.I.G.’s generation, and while he isn’t immune to it, the fact that he recognizes it is very profound. “Damn, what happened to the summertime cookouts? / Every time I turn around, a n***a getting took out.”
“Gimme the Loot,” the record which immediately follows, is not for the faint-hearted. If Menace II Society’s Caine and O-Dog had New York counterparts, they would be the two characters that B.I.G. plays on this song. And while “Machine Gun Funk,” has an aggressive energy to it too, it also comes across as someone determined to trade a life in the crack game for one in the rap game. The concept isn’t anything new, but the conviction Biggie put forth in his delivery remains unmatched. “Warning” finds him discussing crime again, yet it is noteworthy for its ability to pack all the details of a Mario Puzo novel into less than four minutes. No disrespect to Slick Rick, but after “Warning” The Notorious B.I.G. took his slot as rap’s greatest storyteller.
As far as the sex-crazed raps and player persona, “One More Chance” surpasses “Friend of Mine.” It’s a testament to Big’s charisma to be able to name-drop Olivia Newton John and still sound cool in the former. Then the latter just seems like an extension of the fellatio interlude which precedes it. It’s unfortunate too because having a woman cheat on you, which is what “Friend Of Mine” is based upon, could go a lot of places other than meaningless sex. The song still gets props though for the production from Easy Mo Bee and how he took a song with dance components [Black Mamba’s “Vicious”] and made it fit so perfectly into such a hard record. As far as “Big Poppa,” I remember ten years ago being at a high school dance in Grand Rapids, MI, when that record came on and everyone getting hype for it. Years later, I recall being at a gentlemen’s club in Nashville, TN, and seeing it get the same response. Two totally different environments and unanimous acclaim like that for the same song… if that isn’t evidence of timeless and universal music, I don’t know what is.
“The What” with Method Man (Ready to Die’s only guest) is one of the best rap duets ever, easily on par with Dr. Dre and Snoop’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” and Jay and Biggie’s “Brooklyn’s Finest.” Still though, my favorite songs on Ready to Die are “Juicy” and “Everyday Struggle.” “Juicy” is a rags-to-riches story, but it’s also a metaphor for Hip-Hop and I believe that is why the song transcends Biggie’s hood and reaches people all around the world. It’s a song that provides hope, and that is something that everyone needs at one time or another. In contrast to that, there’s “Everyday Struggle” which discusses the plight of tough times and all the pressure that comes with them. One of the record’s best lyrics, which sums it up perfectly is: “People look at you like you’s the user / Selling drugs to all the losers, mad buddha abuser / But they don’t know about your 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.”
One of the things that has been overlooked sometimes about Ready to Die is the theme of love. I know that sounds crazy, but I think it’s another reason that album connects with people the way that it does. “Me and My B**ch” is really a love song that ends tragically. Yes, parts of it are repugnant – the ups and downs of a relationship taken to extremes, but the idea someone to lie with, cry with, and die with is deep and shouldn’t be dismissed. The other thing that stands out to me, which ties into that theme, is the devotion that Biggie has for his mother. Over the course of the LP, he addresses Ms. Wallace’s breast cancer, how she smiles when he’s in The Source, her driving herself to the hospital to get help with giving birth to him, and his worry about her crying if he commits suicide.
“Unbelievable” is just that. DJ Premier crafted a boom-bap gem and to hear Biggie rhyme on the track is ridiculous. Three flawless verses. The album closer, “Suicidal Thoughts,” is still shocking. I had heard Scarface realize he was dead at the end of his first album, but to listen to someone kill themselves like Biggie did is really intense. To this day, I still haven’t ever heard a more powerful conclusion to a collection of music.
Life, death, hope, despair, lust, poverty, ambition, crime, love, and greed. Ready to Die embodies it all. And while The Notorious B.I.G.’s perspective on those subjects are sometimes bleak or even (gasp) offensive, it is necessary in order to make listeners understand his life up until that point. The album is perfectly imperfect and that’s what makes it a masterpiece.
What do you think of Ready to Die? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!