The Notorious BIG is Ready to Die
May, 2015 · By Lyshaan Hall
“That’s why you drink Tanqueray, so you can reminisce/ And wish you wasn’t living so devilish, shit”
The Notorious BIG, “Everyday Struggle”
Now let’s compare Nas on lllmatic to the tone of another New York rapper’s debut album, the Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die. Biggie’s first album, released 5 months after Illmatic, is an absolute triumph. Ready to Die has a more vivid form of narrative direction. The album’s intro literally begins at Biggie’s birth and weaves through vignettes of Biggie’s childhood; his father leaving, the schools failing, resorting to crime, getting locked up and eventually getting released. The album flows chronologically, moving from the angsty and angry street hustler into the triumphant success story. The story is of ascension. That is, until Biggie’s conscious gets the better of him. In the first song of the Ready to Die, “Things Done Changed”, Biggie, like Nas, is reflecting on his past. Where Nas is more focused on the changes in his life, Biggie is looking at the changes in his community: Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He reminisces; “Lounging at the barbecues, drinking brews/ with the neighborhood crews, hanging on the avenues,” and goes on to lament; “Turn the page to 1993/ Niggas is getting smoked, G: believe me.” Things have changed in Biggie’s world. He is out of jail and the world he finds is brutal, cutthroat and hopeless. The Notorious BIG, born Christopher Wallace, was raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. In an area now mostly gentrified and known more prominently as Clinton Hill, Biggie’s early life was not dissimilar to Nas’. A smart kid with huge potential, but would eventually get roped into the street life. As we work through Ready to Die, we are entertained by shifts of point of view and perspective. The raps are rooted in reality, but it is certainly true that Biggie is rapping through characters. In “Gimmie the Loot”, we visit the inside of the car carrying two stick-up kids, both voiced by Biggie. They roll through the city, eyeing potential victims and discussing past crimes. Where Nas is more stream of consciousness, Biggie presents vignettes of street life, each from different perspectives. By showing us the world through different character’s eyes, Biggie masterfully paints the picture of Brooklyn in the late eighties and nineties. He doesn’t shackle himself to his own experiences or honest perspective, and that freedom grants him a powerful storytelling tool.
When we are confidant that we are actually listening to Biggie’s perspective, as in “Machine Gun Funk”, the message is consistent; “I’m doing rhymes now, fuck the crimes now/ Come on the ave, I’m real hard to find now/ Cause I’m knee deep in the beats/ In the Land Cruiser Jeep with Mac-10 by the seats” He has supposedly left the underworld behind to focus on music, but he is still of that world. Even though he, “left the drugs alone,” he also, “took the thugs along with me/ Just for niggas acting shifty.” He can’t completely leave crime behind. He is too steeped in that world to ever be completely removed and separate. So he keeps the Mac-10 in the Jeep. When compared to Nas’ perspective, Biggie is more disturbed by the world he’s in. Nas is an enthusiastic participant in the underbelly of Gotham. Biggie seems more reluctant, or at least, that his hand was forced. Ready to Die is sprinkled with more radio-oriented songs than Illmatic. The influence of Sean “Puffy” Combs is evident. The sounds are broader and more pop-y and are reflected by the album’s commercial success. Ready to Die was certified double platinum just 13 months after it’s release. Those joyful club joints are the platform for Biggie’s success-raps. He describes his ascension into super stardom and fabulous wealth. The album goes from sitting in a car bragging about robbing pregnant women to watching a 50 inch screen from a money green leather sofa. When the album rounds the halfway point, Biggie is celebrating his escape. It’s declarative and victorious — and an absolute joy to listen to. However, the sadness is never far from the surface. “Everyday Struggle” is a vivid depiction of his old life. He talks about the old rackets he would engage in: “I had the master plan, I’m in the caravan on my way to Maryland” His plans included getting women to smuggle drugs, copping a Jeep at the Toyota Deal-a-Thon, and moving his crack dealing business down south, where “nicks go for twenty.” In the third verse of that song he describes his own substance abuse and the horrors he witnesses on a daily basis. “Dealing with the dope fiend binges, seeing syringes/ In the veins, hard to explain,”
The song “Suicidal Thoughts” is the album’s stirring and challenging finale. Biggie calls Puffy from a pay-phone and begins sharing his self-hatred; “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell/ Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fucking tell” He is giving in to the negativity and evil in the world. He is sick of the crime, sick of the murder, sick of the drugs. And, “matter fact, I’m sick of talking.” The album ends with a single gunshot, the phone falling and Puffy pleading; “hey yo Big! Hey yo Big!” Despite the fame and wealth he achieved, as evident on “Juicy” and “Big Poppa”, Biggie’s guilt, earned from a life of crime, is too much to bear. He knows he is a bad man and, feeling unloved, he kills himself. The title track of the album, “Ready to Die”, has Biggie rebelliously yelling “I’m ready to die!” and by the album’s close, we learn he was serious. The Notorious BIG was murdered on March 9, 1997, mere weeks before his second album was released. The East Coast/West Coast rap war had reached it’s tragic crescendo. That conflict, which contributed to the downfall of numerous talents, including Biggie’s friend-turned-nemesis, Tupac, was the driving force of hip-hop music in the nineties. Gangster rap, as defined by Illmatic and Ready to Die, is at the foundation of the urban culture the drives American popular culture. Tags: Lyshaan Hall