Notes on "Ready To Die"

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It would be difficult to overstate the importance of The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 debut album, Ready To Die. Go ahead, try. Try to overstate the importance of Ready To Die. We’ll wait.

Not so easy, is it? The Modern Era of Rap, in an academic but important sense, begins here. Ready To Die shares credit with Enter The Wu-Tang and Illmatic for breaking with the ambient positivity of hip-hop’s Golden Age. Several years hence, though, it’s the one that presents the most compelling case for that break, the most logical transition from a socially-conscious, communitarian culture to the gritty urban nihilism that still defines the Rap Genius brand of rap.

You can hear the old-school shit—Sugarhill Gang and Audio Two—in the intro track to Ready To Die, but only as a soundtrack to the events that hardened a young Biggie Smalls into the ruthless, decadent mercenary that narrates this album. (The song that follows is called, not accidentally, “Things Done Changed.”) Nas and Wu-Tang painted brilliant pictures of a cold new world, but Biggie showed us how to stay warm in it: by any means necessary.

Fuck it, though—Ready To Die isn’t important because it was historically pivotal. It’s important because it’s probably the best rap album ever recorded, and because it’s impossible to dip more than a pinky toe into rap downstream from 1994 without a little of its legacy washing over you. Biggie fathered the style of most rappers currently active the way Genghis Khan sired like 17 million living descendants: by bringing to the world a seed so dense with viable stock that generation after generation of dilution and dissipation couldn’t fully exhaust it. (Also, if we’re to believe some of the unsubstantiated claims on both ends of the analogy, by doing a positively barbaric amount of fucking.)

To wit, some of the lyrical memes of Ready To Die have been so internalized in rap that they hardly seem to come from anywhere. Others live on like fruit flies, source material for experimentation and homage (and creative misreading). But most are uniquely Biggie.

This is still making it sound like the album is more influential than enjoyable. It’s as difficult to overstate the importance of Ready To Die as it is to overstate how consistently, mind-bendingly good it is, on just about every level imaginable. The production is tight (Pete Rock’s beat for “Juicy” is better than the album version, but Easy Moe Bee’s drums on “Warning” alone make up for the omission), the samples impeccable, the pacing spot-on, the cover art legendary.

And Biggie is, as the track says, unbelievable. He’s a monster, a beast, a charismatic killer. He can sound playful or intimidating, thuggish or erudite, fat or fatter. There’s only one guest rapper on the whole album—a great turn from Method Man—but Biggie makes up for it by rhyming all the bit parts too: the trigger-happy criminal protégé, the testy tipster from the barber shop. Somehow, from the micro-details to the wildly improbable confabulations, he makes all of it sound true.

Part of the genius behind his narrator is the way we get to know him through the album’s sequencing. Ready To Die’s first act, beginning with the prologue that introduces us to a fictional Smalls being released from jail in 1993 with “big plans,” takes a cold hard look at the things a free man has to do to realize them: rob and steal, defend his riches jealously, and finally embrace his mortality. Only once he’s accepted that life is played out does he even mention sex in more than passing; when he gets to that topic, though, he attacks it with graphic gusto. The album’s midway point comes after a deliriously smutty boast about the excellence of his penis, at an interlude where he fucks Lil Kim off the bed, then sniffles and apologizes. It’s the first time on the album he appears to allow himself a breather. (The chronic break after “Gimme the Loot” doesn’t count—too much coughing.)

The second half, which looks back on the paper chase from a life of leisure, is altogether more complicated in its relationship to the finer things Smalls went to such lengths to attain. He revels in the fame, the jewels, the real estate, the bitches (my god, the bitches!) — but also speaks candidly about fear of his enemies, how he can’t stay close to anyone, even when he kind of wants to, how even kingpin life is an uphill battle and how, ultimately, he suspects it just isn’t worth living.

Later rap albums delve deeper into the creep of disillusionment in the midst of unthinkable opulence, into the realization that your morality, the one you swore to ignore in quest for fame and wealth, is burning a hole in your soul—Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy come to mind—but they all owe as much to this album as they do to Scarface. (For his part, Biggie was never as interested in Tony Montana as he was in Frank White, Christopher Walken’s jailbird mob boss in King of New York.)

Finally, though, Ready To Die is the sound of a novice lyricist already in his prime. Biggie’s debut often vies with Nas’s for all-time supremacy, and the fight is a close one: Illmatic is leaner, has more exciting beats, sounds better sampled. But where Nas distinguished himself as a scrappy hoodlum with a flow as richly and complexly phrased as a jazz solo, Biggie mastered something more impressive: he made the rhythm itself semantic. His internal rhymes and cascading enjambments and the occasional obscure rhetorical device impact the sound of the album, but also its meaning: the words gain their final and best interpretive significance from the way they’re stacked on top of the beat. Check the suspenseful coldness of this rhyme, or the folksy, elliptical menace of this one. Find a more concise summary of everything that rap has come to be and mean than these six words.

To say they don’t make ‘em like this anymore is only partly true. We’ve been making 'em like this for the last 16 years, only never quite as good.

Diplopotamus