Pat Levy (PL): When discussing legendary figures, be they in music or sports or any other field, it’s rarely their debut that grabs the headlines. You recount all the successes that span their entire career, a series of peaks that earned them the title of legend. The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die is as strong a statement as you can make with your first impression, a powerful mix of radio-ready hits and dark, introspective tunes from the New York hardcore master.
Ready to Die and Illmatic both came out in 1994 and gave New York City the shot in the arm it needed, pushing it right to the forefront of the hip-hop conversation. But while Illmatic has enjoyed 20 years of being the consensus greatest rap album of all time, it’s hardly a record you would throw on at a party, and while Ready to Die has its moments of intensity, even songs about the realization that Biggie’s a target for crime and accepting the inevitable fate of death are eminently quotable and impossible not to nod along to. Ready to Die is a portrait of an artist whose creative force was undeniable, who had lived the things he was talking about but hadn’t let them affect his charming persona too much, whose star was burning maybe too bright for his own good.
What say you, guys? Is this album as important to you as it is to me? Because I’d be remiss not to mention how hugely formative it was on my taste in hip-hop and that it was the go-to soundtrack for many blunt cruises in high school.
Michael Madden (MM): Long before I heard Ready to Die in full, I was familiar with a number of stupendous, tremendous Biggie songs, including “Juicy”, “Hypnotize”, and “Big Poppa”. Still, while those first impressions were of great respect, the album’s fateful scope was what deepened my appreciation for Biggie and for album making, what with the intro track (a timeline featuring his birth, a supposedly unprecedented subway train robbery, and other autobiography), the brutal finale “Suicidal Thoughts”, and, well, everything in between.
It became clear to me that Biggie wasn’t just an enormous man with an inimitable voice (though there is that voice; sorry, but Jamal Woolard, who played Big in 2009’s Notorious, had no chance of matching it dead-on). Nor was he defined by his ear for the production of DJ Premier, Easy Mo Bee, and Lord Finesse. As much as anything, he was capable of bringing to life the tension of his time in Crooklyn, whether it was with notes about his crack-selling years, his complicated relationship with his mother, or simply the gun talk.
In comparison to Illmatic, Pat is right that Ready to Die is more appropriate for social occasions (and particularly for hotboxing), despite the occasional heaviness. To me, it also sounds more recent, nearer, than Illmatic because Biggie was so consistent in projecting his personality and sense of humor. It sounds like he’s in the room with you, whereas Illmatic is more panoramic and external, defined by crystalline imagery and figurative language. These are all positives, of course — they just make for two different albums.
Sheldon Pearce (SP): I think it’s a safe assessment that Illmatic is the quintessential New York album and Ready to Die is the quintessential rap album, period. Illmatic is dense, heavy, and compact, almost like a sonic embodiment of the concrete jungle it was forged in, but Ready to Die feels more universal. That plays a role in the latter album feeling far less dated than the former because rap’s cultural hub has shifted away from the five boroughs. It has a crossover appeal, yet it remarkably maintains its street rap aesthetic. I often make a case for Ready to Die as the most well-rounded rap album from the genre’s most well-rounded rapper. There is nothing it fails to accomplish, and while it does get far more poppy and commercial than Nas’ deified debut, it gets just as gritty too.
Ready to Die was a game-changer for me personally as a young rap fan because it stood as tangible proof that being a rapper’s rapper didn’t require a pious devotion to technique over versatility. Biggie was far and away one of the best technicians of all time, yet he knew when to rein it in and present a more approachable face (think “Hypnotize”). Ready to Die is a testament to the importance of both craftsmanship and creativity, and he used them in tandem to create a solid blueprint for the great American rap album.
Will Hagle (WH): I’d say both Illmatic and Ready to Die are quintessentially New York and classic rap albums. They’re different because each artist brings his own perspective to the lyrics: Nas with his Queens street poetry and Biggie with his more straightforward descriptions of Brooklyn life. The boroughs and the personalities are different, yet New York is everywhere on those albums.
That New York-ness is what initially detracted me from Ready to Die and Biggie in general. Growing up in Illinois, the coastal debate should’ve been insulting, but my allegiance was with the West Coast. It felt like betrayal to listen to Biggie because 2Pac was the best rapper, whether I actually believed that or thought so because that’s what I was taught to believe.
Hip-hop is New York’s best creation, but the origins of the genre were of little concern to me when I first started listening to music. I’m only giving all this personal background to make it clear that my opinion should probably be discredited considering the 10-year-old me first started listening to Biggie after watching “Big Poppa” help a pitcher secure a victory for his team in Hardball. At least that took place in Chicago.
Over the years, though, the East vs. West debate has lost its relevance, and Ready to Die has transitioned from heavy rotation in my Discman to a regularly streamed Spotify choice. It’s better than any of 2Pac’s albums thanks to its cohesiveness, the catchiness of the singles, and the depth of the surrounding tracks. Biggie stands the test of time because there’s a familiarity in the way he speaks, a recognizable goofiness and friendliness despite the menace that can be found in his lyrics.
As far as the album’s importance, I agree with all of you. As Sheldon said, Ready to Die is universal. Along the lines of what Mike and Pat said, it serves a dual purpose: equally enjoyable with a pair of headphones or in a social setting. It’s a New York cultural artifact, but it’s also a hip-hop classic on a much larger scale.
PL: I think Biggie, and this album in particular, paved the way for rappers to straddle the line between entertaining and intellectual. Because in the years since, dozens of rappers have come up holding their humor and smarts in equal regard. Songs like “Just Playing (Dreams)” balance out tracks like “Suicidal Thoughts”, keeping the listener engaged through every possible mood or mindset. For a rapper to be as self-aware but also so full of hubris is something that can exist more in 2014, and I think a lot of that is owed to B.I.G. French Montana comes to mind, another New York rapper but someone who carved his own lane and has a sound all his own. He carries on the tradition of thinking of yourself and those around you, but he still understands that people are people and that having what you have doesn’t make you immaculate or some kind of deity. What do you guys think?
MM: Yeah, there are two poles with Biggie — the pulpy storyteller and the jacuzzi-dwelling charmer — and I don’t think Nas, Pac, or a single Wu-Tang clansman had a comparable grasp on both elements in their own work. I think the storytelling and self-awareness ultimately make Ready to Die. It’s for sure that 2Pac was the bookworm of the two eventual rivals, what with his taste for Machiavelli and all, but I agree with Will that Ready to Die is the best album between them. Its cinematic elements, including the sequencing and skits, are proof that Big was just as interested in Pac in creating something resonant and lasting.
The dealmaker for me, as far as Big’s storytelling goes, is “Suicidal Thoughts”. Can I just speak my piece about what a crushing masterpiece this song is? The efficiency of his primary rhyme scheme (AABB) maximizes the impact of his confessions. There are no extraneous words. He simply shows something we could’ve anticipated going back to “Ready to Die” or “Everyday Struggle”: that all this dealing, robbing, and general paranoia has taken a toll.
Suddenly, eerily, Big is “a worthless piece of shit,” as he tells Puffy over the phone. He’s thinking about all the times he lied to and stole from his mother. He’s sure he smokes too much weed and lacks respect for the women in his life. The end of the song is never in doubt, but the one gunshot blast and Puffy’s calls of “Ayo Big!?” are chilling regardless. Life after Death starts with the suicide’s immediate aftermath and Puffy saying, “We was supposed to rule the world, baby. We was unstoppable.” If you listen closely, you can hear that sense of loss already welling up in his voice in the closing seconds of “Suicidal Thoughts”.
Evidently, I wish Biggie would have recorded more material as intense as “Suicidal Thoughts”. But he did have that entertainer half, too. It’s displayed in the back-and-forth between him and his naive younger self on “Gimme the Loot”. It’s also at least a little funny whenever a real fatso brags about his gracefulness in the bedroom, which he does all over the place. There are hilarious little moments, too, like the weed-induced coughing fit that appears at the end of “Gimme the Loot” and the goofy interpolation of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” on “Machine Gun Funk”. Basically, Biggie didn’t let his artistic focus keep him from having fun with this shit.
SP: I’m not sure it’s safe to say Ready to Die paved the way, per se, because Outkast stumbled upon a similar formula on their own months earlier, and AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted came out four years prior. But Big definitely helped redefine the rap archetype. The magnitude of being New York’s undisputed kingpin as rap began truly tapping into mainstream viability made him a face of the multifaceted personality, but the tides had already started shifting.
I think Ready to Die’s true genius is in Big’s ability to play any role; he shows you every side of his character, and he seamlessly transitions from one face to another. He can make a joke about a stick-up (“I’ve been robbing muthafuckas since the slave ships”) or get overtly erotic (“When it comes to sex, I’m similar to the Thrilla in Manilla/ Honeys call me ‘Bigga the Condom Filler’”). There is great depth to his character on the record, and he uses a forthright style of penmanship to show the listener every part of his story. Biggie was the Swiss army knife of technicians. He never rapped like a skilled craftsman, though he was; he rapped like he was trying to convey his message in the clearest way possible. Songs like “Warning” and “Suicidal Thoughts” are chilling glimpses into thug noir, while “Respect” and “Juicy” are introspective cuts on opposite ends of the sonic spectrum. In any and every moment, Biggie Smalls just wanted you to get it.
I think it’s also important to note that Big almost completely removes the romanticism associated with drug dealing and street life from his narratives, yet it never becomes an arduous listen. Think about a song like “Everyday Struggle”. A really suave MC like Jay Z could have never made this record because he relies so heavily on the perception that dealing drugs is all about operating from a position of power. That’s another underrated facet of this album: its sharp sociopolitical commentary, which never bashes you over the head with the problems plaguing inner city communities, but instead shows you what’s going on from a first-person perspective. With Ready to Die, Big created an album that almost flawlessly covered all its bases and painted a vivid, complete picture of the criminal element using a rare brand of elucidation we haven’t seen since. It is a marvel of modern storytelling.
WH: Jay Z rapping “Everyday Struggle” is a hilarious mental image. He wouldn’t make it through the first line of the hook without sounding phony. And we all know Jay is tight grill with the phony, which is why a song like “Hard Knock Life” stays true to his personality, flashy from start to finish. Jay flows infinitely like the memory of Biggie, but he doesn’t possess the same mastery of straightforward, descriptive storytelling. It’s ultimately impossible and pointless to compare those two in terms of talent, but Sheldon made a great point about Biggie’s unglamorous portrayal of street life.
It’s also true that Ready to Die covers all the bases of Biggie’s personality without losing the sound that ties it all together. Ready to Die has everything an album needs, from Method Man to the requisite beef track “Who Shot Ya” and everything in between. It’s really all good.
PL: Biggie is the rap game’s heavyset uncle who has all the great stories your parents don’t want you to hear. Like, instead of regaling the listener with a list of girls he has been with, he rattles off the names of all the celebrities he wants to sex. It seems like the most evident through-line in this whole conversation is how much Big’s personality separates this album from others, not just at the time it came out but in the years since as well. While others have flirted with the formula Biggie was working with, no one has ever really touched an audience the way he did, and I honestly don’t know when we’ll see another rapper capable of what he could do seemingly without effort.
20 years after Ready to Die dropped, we’re still analyzing it and discovering new ways that it’s relevant or affecting. Not analyzing it in a “well, it’s been two decades, let’s see how this holds up” way, but in a “this important album has finally reached an anniversary so we can dive back in and have another go at examining the master at work” way. That’s the sign of true greatness, and despite not being old enough to enjoy it when it first came out, I consider myself lucky to just exist in the same universe that once housed such a talent and, despite his far-too-early departure, left us with some of the best hip-hop the ’90s had to offer.