Notorious B.I.G. - Ready To Die - Review
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critics' view

New York City doesn’t sell drugs anymore. Sure, there are bike messengers that peddle weed packed in plastic jars and Russian mobsters who launder money through Coney Island auto-shops, but the kind of trap-house, dope-boy, Robin Hood archetype that still carries in cities like Atlanta has been wiped clean from tri-state folklore. This is undoubtedly a good thing—entrepreneurial city teens today hustle fashion trends to ogling editors instead of baggies to scraggly addicts. But the shift has fossilized a certain kind of rap album, like The Notorious B.I.G.’s debut Ready to Die, released in 1994. The lawlessness it describes—robberies at gunpoint on the A train, open-air hand-to-hand crack deals on Fulton St., shootouts with the NYPD—land unfathomably to most New Yorkers today. Young transplants and natives alike would rather hear old tall tales than experience anything near it firsthand; distinct from nostalgia, it's more like moving into a home where a murder occurred. The thrill is a combination of fear and gall, rooted in the security that the scene will likely never repeat itself.

But there may be something habitual in New York’s craned gaze backward. Note that B.I.G. opened Ready to Die by complaining about changes in the city around him over 20 years ago. Even then, the album was a reflection: an over-the-top, fisheye union address of the city’s waning crack era, and a reeling admission that something must have gone terribly wrong for it to have happened. Its intro maps B.I.G’s life against the sounds of various eras—’70s “Superfly,” ‘80s “Top Billin’,” and ‘90s Doggystyle—before the 21-year-old launches into “Things Done Changed,” an opening monologue that sets the chaotic scene. Life used to be about funny hairstyles, curbside games, and lounging at barbecues, he says, but “Turn your pagers to 1993,” and the story has taken an inexplicably dark turn. It goes unmentioned here, but hip-hop’s region of choice had changed too: New York’s first generation of rap inventors had given way to the West Coast, so it’s Dr. Dre’s voice we hear between verses, dispatching from Compton. “Things done changed on this side,” the sample declares, a savvy appropriation that characterized a rise in violence across coasts, and a shift in sound that B.I.G. hoped to correct.

In 1992, “a whole lot of niggas want[ed] Big to make a demo tape.” He’d been battling around Fulton St since he was 13, and was known in Bedford-Stuyvesant as a force, in music and otherwise. The demo he recorded, “Microphone Murderer,” along with a few other cuts, made it’s way to The Source’s Unsigned Hype column, then influential in hip-hop’s walled off media environment, and then to Bad Boy, where Sean “Puffy” Combs would sign him. But as the demo’s opening line specified, it was only at the nudging of his close friends that he pursued music—B.I.G. was splitting time between Brooklyn and Raleigh, where he’d set up a profitable drug operation. When his record advance didn’t land quickly enough, he went back to N.C. to pick up the slack, and Puffy called him, alternately begging and demanding the rapper stop hustling and return to New York, devoted to music for good. The day that he left, the Raleigh house he’d operated out of was raided by police officers.

What made Christopher Wallace pop-palatable amid such a gruesome backdrop was his humor, personality, and wit. He was a gruff, neurotic alternative to the ice-cool Snoop Dogg: if Snoop had bitches in the living room till six in the morning, B.I.G. was getting paged at 5:46, wiping cold out his eye. If Cali crossed over with low-rider funk from Parliament, New York would ride on block-party boogie from Mtume. And if taut flows were giving way to languid hooks, B.I.G. would tighten everyone back up. “Unbelievable” was the antithesis of “Juicy,” a love-letter to underground rap radio shows like Stretch & Bobbito, and to anyone with an oversized Land Cruiser (another change to consider—New Yorkers used to drive). “Those that rushes my clutches get put on crutches, get smoked like dutches, from the master”; you can hear the roots of “punchline rap” forming in Big’s puns and internal rhyme, and the ironic turns of phrase that kids like Cam’ron would intensify years later: “‘I thought he was wack!’—Oh come, come, now, why y’all so dumb now?”

At the time, the album was praised for its honest portrayal of the drug dealer’s internal conflicts, as opposed to sunny glorification of gang violence imported from L.A. Songs like “Everyday Struggle” and “Suicidal Thoughts” showed Big’s depth, frequent references to his mother showed his rearing, and casual dropping of words like “placenta” showed his coy love of language. B.I.G. was a smart kid that had (or liked) to do dumb things, the record suggested, itself a comment on the how genius gets sharpened when faced with obstacles, and an affirmation of rap as a platform for such genius to be realized, and monetized.

Despite its author’s youth, *Ready To Die *shows its age with its production. The beats already paled in comparison to the high-definition score of Life After Death, B.I.G.’s follow up album, and the tinny drums and swampy samples on tracks like “Me and My Bitch” and “Respect” probably played better on cassette than they do on Apple Music. At the time of the album’s release, more nimble producers were doing interesting work on neighboring albums—one could say Illmatic dried everyone in New York up of their best material. The major tracks on Ready to Die had to be heavy-handed, and the filler was just an excuse to hear Big keep rapping. “Big Poppa” was inseparable from Ron Isley’s “Between the Sheets” and snuck in a trendy, post-regional synth line that would perk up West Coast ears. The “One More Chance” remix became a smash crossover hit; the original included on the album is expectedly disposable. Even strong exhibitions of songwriting like “The What” or “Gimme the Loot”—one a duet with Method Man, the other with himself—are weighed down by loops from Easy Mo Bee, a dated producer who Puffy might’ve been smart to have axed shortly after.

Which brings us to the true triumph in Ready to Die—Sean Combs, who’s been able to spot a dollar hidden in the most unlikely places ever since, finds proof-of-concept for New York hip-pop that can carry from street corners to school dances, with the right sonic contexts, visual branding, and occasional ad-libs, a formula he’d apply to Mase, Shyne, and his own material thereafter. The sounds may have shifted, but the thesis remains: drug dealers have stories for days, and Americans want to hear them. We revere the salesman more than the politician, and B.I.G. could sell the hell out of the life he lived. Maybe not all that much has changed after all.

Matthew Trammell
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