17 years ago to this day, The Notorious B.I.G. was murdered. Although far too young and at the peak of his music career, what Biggie Smalls left behind remains a legacy that is legendary. 2014 also marks the 20th anniversary of Ready To Die. The albums importance in hip hop can’t be denied and 20 years later, it’s still celebrated.
Ready To Die is one of the greatest debut albums hip hop has ever received. In 1994, Death Row Records had taken over mainstream rap and the crown in NY was wide open for reign. The Notorious B.I.G. held nothing back with his entrance to the industry and he began the resurgence of East Coast hip hop as well as claiming his spot as the new emcee to watch. His storytelling ability was unparalleled and artists for decades following continue to be influenced by his vivid lyrical flow and move-like presentation.
The album begins with “The Intro.” A heartbeat provides the rhythm and Puff’s voice increases in volume with every second as he supports a woman giving childbirth. Curtis Mayfield’s “Super Fly” and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” fades in painting a picture of Biggie’s childhood. Each track offers more insight into the life of Biggie from “Things Done Changed” where he reflects on the major increase in violence and murders in his community, to the single “Juicy.” The latter samples Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” and brings light to a generally dark album. With simplicity and cadence, Biggie triumphantly describes his success: “celebratin’ every day, no more public housing/ Thinkin’ back to my one-room shack, Now my mom pimps a Ac’ with minks on her back.”
With little features, Ready To Die is Biggie in his rawest form. Although a guest appearance by Method Man on “The What” is an incredible duet expressing the gritty, combative and cocky style that was at the core of 90s hip hop. However, on “Gimme The Loot,” Biggie collaborates with himself, transitioning seamlessly between two characters that plot and then execute a stick up. His lyrical description is at an all time high during this track as he vividly spits scene by scene through the robbery, police interference and shoot out. Ending with a coughing spell from a celebratory blunt, the stick up was successful.
As much as Biggie was a gangster, he was equally a lady’s man. “Me & My Bitch” and “Big Poppa” cater to the women and provide a softer, human dimension to the artist. “Me & My Bitch” tells the story of the ultimate wifey of a hustler who knows no boundaries when it comes to holding it down. With production by The Bluez Brothers, Chucky Thompson and Puffy, Biggie raps with a slight gentleness, making it clear that despite his normal sound, The Notorious was a romantic. “Big Poppa” follows “Me & My Bitch” and his flow is nothing short of iconic. “Things to make you smile, what numbers to dial/ You gon’ be here for a while, I’m gon’ call my crew/You go call your crew/ We can rendezvous at the bar around two.” You can’t help but smile at his smooth pick up lines and charisma that was as infamous as it was effective.
The album ends with arguably, Biggie’s greatest lyrical portrayal. “Suicidal Thoughts” details a frightening phone call between himself and Puff, as Big with exceptional lyricism explains why he’s ready to end his life. Lying, stealing, cheating, Biggie puts all his past crimes on the table and by the end, he’s “sick of talking.” A gunshot overpowers Puff’s pleading and the song ends as the album began, with a heartbeat. Except the rapid heartbeat slows until it’s non-existent and the phone operator is the last voice we hear.
Ready To Die encompasses so many layers sonically and is essentially a movie, showcasing Biggie’s childhood to early fame. This debut solidified him as a lasting presence in the game. The caliber of Ready To Die was why they considered the 90s to be the Golden Era and why Biggie is still a legend today. Although many emcees have tried their hand at the theatrical stories Biggie so eloquently mastered, Big claimed the title in 1994 and still remains today as hip hop’s greatest storyteller.