May, 2015 · By Lyshaan Hall
“Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot”
The Notorious BIG, “Everyday Struggle”
The story that Biggie tells in Ready to Die, at least in the first two acts of the album, is the American dream. He gets a second chance once he is released from jail and makes good on it. It’s the rags-to-riches story. From the bottom of the bottom to the top of the top. This quality, coupled with the more radio-friendly cuts, is what made Ready to Die the smash success that it was. We all desperately want the same for ourselves. No matter where we come from, the desire to achieve more is distinctly American. While Illmatic has been vastly commercially successfully in the ensuing 20 years and widely acclaimed by hip-hop fans, it did not have the same impact in popular culture. It is more niche than Ready to Die. While the artists are more similar than different, the message of Illmatic is too real for the masses. Biggie certainly paints a gritty, honest picture of urban decay, but he gives us relief. He makes it out and gets rich. Nas does not release the tension in that way. Illmatic is unrelenting and more challenging to the listener. Not to say that Ready to Die is compromising, but Nas doesn’t give us the satisfaction. Nas is showing us the American nightmare — the reality the results from the system failing it’s most at-risk citizens. At this point, Nas is not claiming king. He is a young man in hell, sharing his everyday with the world. And what we see is ugly.
Another key difference between the two rappers is that Nas got to actually have a career. He’s put out 10 albums, including genre stretching collaborations and most recently, the excellent Life is Good. Biggie didn’t get chance to do so. His sophomoric album, Life After Death, released right after his death, is the only other offering from the Brooklyn great. We don’t get to see what he would have developed into. Nas got to experiment with his music and many of it wasn’t good. It took him almost 10 years to put out another truly great album after Illmatic, but at least he got to try. Biggie was not afforded the same luxury. Debut albums are meaningful in every artist’s career. The development of the debut album is unique from every subsequent project they will work on. Illmatic and Ready to Die were 20-some odd years in the making. Nas and Big had been thinking about these albums their whole lives leading up to their recording and release. One of the best artifacts of Biggie’s youth is a video of him battling someone in Brooklyn at 16 years old. Some of the rhymes we hear him spit in this clip are on the album. There are similar anecdotes about Nas during the writing process for Illmatic. Compared to the year or so (typically) between the first and second albums, the gestation period for the first album is long. For Biggie and Nas, that period is the most formative years of their lives. Especially for Nas, the transition into manhood is at the crux of his perspective. Biggie and Nas, as contemporaries, give us living depictions of their worlds with Ready to Die and Illmatic. While there are distinct differences in the storytelling, the images are equally vivid and important. These albums, and the gangster rap that exploded into pop culture during this era, informed all of America about the realities of urban decay. And for that reason, they are massively important.
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.
April, 2015 · By Lyshaan Hall
“Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap”
Nas, New York State of Mind
New York City: 1994 Let’s visit the Queensbridge Houses. The “world’s most largest and most notorious projects,” Queensbridge is located on 21st Street in Long Island City, in the westernmost area of Queens. In the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, which connects Manhattan and Queens, Queensbridge is home to almost 7 thousand people, including notable rappers Cormega, Mobb Deep, MC Shan, Marley Marl and of course, Nas. Born Nasir Jones in 1973, Nas was signed by Columbia Records and began recording his debut album in 1992. Illmatic was released in 1994, debuting at #12 on the Billboard 200 charts. The album sold a measly 59,000 it’s first week. It took two years for the album to sell enough to be certified Gold. Despite it’s initially lukewarm commercial success, Illmatic received rave reviews from critics. Nas’ lyrical ability shines from both a technical and contextual perspective. The internal rhymes schemes are deft and fluid, as Nas weaves his way through the now classically NYC sounding production. When people talk about the classic New York sound of hip-hop, albums like Illmatic set that precedent. The sounds are raw and creative. The list of producers is a who’s who of New York greats: DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip. Illmatic tells the story of the street hustler in the thick of his career as a criminal. Our narrator takes us through the streets of New York City, describing with living accuracy the grit and grime of the street dweller. Written and recorded throughout the end of Nas’ teenage years, Illmatic captures the essence of the transition into manhood. The voice is braggadocios, but not completely ascended. There are frequent references to what Nas used to do, as in “Represent”: “Everyday’s a different plan that had us running from cops/ If it wasn’t hanging out in front of cocaine spots/ we was at the candy factory, breaking the locks“ The implication is that childhood mischief would lead to more serious crime later in life. Nas goes on; “Nowadays, I need the green in a flash just like the next man/ Fuck a yard God, let me see a hundred grand/ Could use a gun son, but fuck being the wanted man/ But if I hit rock bottom then I’mma be the Son of Sam/” Nas is doing a couple things here. Firstly, he is differentiating himself from the innocence of childhood. He is no longer satisfied with stealing candy and a hundred dollar bill (a yard) and his activities are more nefarious now. Referencing the prolific 1970s NYC serial killer David Berkowitz is another connection to Nas’ childhood. Secondly, he explains that when push comes to shove, he’ll do whatever he needs to succeed. He has yet to see a hundred grand and hitting rock bottom is still very much a possibility. Nothing is guaranteed and Nas is prepared if worse comes to worse.
Through Nas’ vivid first-person depiction of his life and experiences, we see a broader picture of life in urban squalor in the 1990s. He takes us into his apartment, into the stash houses, on the corners, in the stair wells. We feel, hear and see what Nas and his contemporaries were feeling, hearing and seeing. It’s a document of that space: an anthology of street life. The goal isn’t to be a rap star. It’s to show the world what was going on in Queensbridge at the time. We learn that by seeing the city through Nas’ eyes. He is frustrated and angst ridden. All 19 year olds feel a level of angst, as they are transitioning into real adulthood, but Nas’ struggle is more unique. He is the artist surrounded by death. Nas’ is attempting to claw his way out of the pit. It is not a completely unique story though; the rose that grew from the concrete. Tupac rapped about it. Langston Hughes wrote about it. Basquiat painted about it. Spike Lee made movies about it. And Nas gave us Illmatic. Pitchfork magazine music writer, Jeff Weiss wrote, “[A] baby-faced Buddha monk in public housing, scribbling lotto dreams and grim reaper nightmares in dollar notebooks, words enjambed in the margins. The only light is the orange glow of a blunt, bodega liquor, and the adolescent rush of first creation. Sometimes his pen taps the paper and his brain blanks. In the next sentence, he remembers dark streets and the noose.” And always, the story is told within the walls of Queensbridge.