Christopher Wallace, better known as Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G. was a rare kind of game changing talent. Many people know of the infamous “27 club”, a group of artists including the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse who were hugely successful and influential but perished at the young age of 27. Biggie and his west coast counterpart Tupac Shakur didn’t even get the chance to make it that far. Biggie was gunned down in the street at the age of 24 years old in 1997. Ready to Die, his debut album, was released in 1994 meaning his career lasted an extremely brief 3 years. Despite all that, when it comes to the greatest rapper of all time conversation, Biggie is one of few names that are all but universally included in the conversation. The absurd lyrical talents, rhythmic abilities, message injected into each track, and storytelling prowess of Wallace and Shakur as well as their intense east-west coast rivalry was instrumental in the advancement in the quality and popularity of Hip-Hop. If Biggie was white the Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson analogy would be perfect, but regardless, the similarities are present. In my opinion Ready to Die is Biggie’s best work, and among the greatest hip hop albums of all time, despite being his debut album. Today, I’m giving you all an excuse to listen to it.
Ready to Die is a grimly prophetic and powerful record. It isn’t comprised of high energy beats with braindead lyrics to be played in nightclubs in New York, it’s a mostly serious album. For a full 77 minutes the self proclaimed “Black Frank White” (in reference to the main character of film The King of New York) delivers thoughtful and almost percussive rhythms and rhymes over crisp boom-bap beats. Biggie doesn’t talk brag or rap about the sweetness and excess of being a rapper, he chooses to focus on the struggle. A kind of life story told in anecdotes of potentially real events, Biggie raps about the pain and difficulty of committing crimes in order to survive in the urban jungle of New York. The peak of the album comes in the track “Juicy” which Biggie opens saying
“This album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’. To all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter. And all the n-words in the struggle”
It captures the sweeter side of his difficult life, but juxtaposes the comforts and luxuries that he earned to the struggles he had to face on the way to the top. In some of the greatest rap lyrics of all time, Biggie raps
“We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us. No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us? Birthdays was the worst days, now we sip Champagne when we thirsty.”
It isn’t all totally serious though, as there’s an unnecessarily clever song just bout sex called “One More Chance” and an all time great Biggie braggadocio track in “Big Poppa”. The one consistent thing through every song, though, is Biggie’s rapping ability. His lyrical prowess and storytelling which I mentioned earlier shine through every track, whether it’s “One More Chance” or the penultimate track “Suicidal Thoughts”. Pretty obviously, the combination of rhythm and lyricism Biggie displays throughout the whole album is what wins the album and makes it so great. The beats are all designed to help establish a mood and compliment the lyrics, so many fans of new hip hop, mumble rap, and dance club hip hop anthems might not love this album. In order to truly enjoy this record you need to engage with it and pay attention to the lyrics. At the very least, it definitely is not an album to just put on in the background and passively listen to. You need to HEAR Biggie.
This record is very, very different from any recommendation I have made in the MTP so far, but it’s a necessary inclusion considering its importance in the history of hip hop. I really enjoy this album, but I’m a lyrics first guy when it comes to rap. I hope that you all find at least some level of appreciation for this record, even if it isn’t quite your cup of tea.
Even if you don’t like it, it’s all good baby, baby.
DJ Boogie, excited to close out the 2nd Monthly MTP.