25 Years Later: The Timelessness of The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ready to Die’

25 Years Later: The Timelessness of The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ready to Die’

Behind every great fortune, there lies a crime.

In a letter sent to his school teacher George Izambard, the late French prodigy Arthur Rimbaud wrote: “The suffering is tremendous, but one must bear up against it to be born a poet, and I know that’s what I am.” A poet wasn’t merely a writer to Rimbaud, a poet was a thief of fire.

Christopher Wallace, born 81 years after Rimbaud’s passing, did not call himself a poet, but throughout his 1994 debut album, Ready to Die, under the hip-hop pseudonym The Notorious B.I.G., the Brooklyn-born rapper found the words to describe coming of age as a black man in a New York City that burned of cocaine smoke and sung the harmonies of gunfire.

On the album’s cinematic intro, a baby is born. Vignettes follow, revealing an impoverished upbringing. The baby, now a grown man, ends the song by sticking up a train ― a thief of money, not fire.

The first six songs that follow the intro ― “Things Done Changed,” “Gimme the Loot,” “Machine Gun Funk,” “Warning” and “Ready to Die” ― all encompass the ache of poverty and how starved bellies manifest into a language of violence, robberies and drug dealing. Ready to Die is an album made by a natural-born rhymer who saw the humor in the struggle, who found poetry in the tremendous suffering that unfolded in an unfair world.

The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, doesn’t skip a detail lyrically. The beatings are brutal, the sex is pornographic, the joy is inspiring, the stress is suffocating. It’s writing rooted in fantasy and realism ― too vivid to be imaginative, too unbelievable to be trusted as authentic.

Along with razor-sharp storytelling, Biggie grounds Ready to Die as an autobiographical period piece with emotional nuance. There’s sincerity found across the 19 tracks, but few lyrics better represent Biggie’s earnestness than the timeless statement made before the album’s lead single “Juicy” begins:

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 that called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter and all the niggas in the struggle, you know what I’m sayin? It’s all good, baby baby.

In December ’94, three months after the release of Ready to Die, famed author, culture critic, and prominent hip-hop journalist Touré wrote an impressive profile of The Notorious B.I.G. for The New York Times titled “POP MUSIC; Biggie Smalls, Rap’s Man of the Moment.

“Though many rappers exaggerate about the lives they led before becoming performers, some are actually former drug dealers. Few have ever been as open in detailing their criminal past as Biggie Smalls, and none have ever been as clear about the pain they felt at the time,” he wrote, praising Ready to Die as a balanced and honest portrait of a dealer.

Almost 25 years later, over the phone, Touré is still enamored with the duality of the late rapper’s debut. “Yeah, you’re selling this poison, but you’re doing it for family,” he exclaims, still amused by a drug dealer who berated his neighbors for suggesting how he chose to feed his daughter.

The way Touré views it, Ready to Die added layers to a character often depicted as only treacherous. “Nobody thinks they’re the villain or the bad guy, right? You’re always the hero of your movie,” he says.

Duality is essential to the underworld narrative on Ready to Die. In this story, no one is pure and everyone is hungry, which leads to unethical decisions and unwavering paranoia. Even success is tainted (“Damn, niggas wanna stick me for my paper”).

“I’m scared to death. Scared of getting my brains blown out,” Biggie confessed to Touré, an admission that came three years before his violent, unsolved murder. But for all the fear that B.I.G carried, there was equal, if not more, love for the rising rap star.

“Dude was big,” Touré recalls, finding no better way to describe Biggie’s career growth following Ready to Die. “Coming out of the Apollo that night, cars were playing his music. He was the total package. It was no performance. He was just real.”

Robert Christgau, one of the first and most revered legends in music criticism and the former Village Voice chief music critic and senior editor, wrote his review of the album in 1999, not 1994, for a book collection. “I’m outraged when anyone gets robbed, beaten, or pimped, descendants of slaves especially,” Christgau wrote, a visceral reaction to the “Gimme The Loot” lyric, “I’ve been robbin’ motherfuckas since the slave ships.” The next sentence begins, “Hence, I’m not inclined to like this motherfucker. But the more I listen, the more I do.”

“On the one hand, that’s a great line,” Christgau remarks to TIDAL, adding, “but on the other, it offended me.” Christgau’s review of Ready to Die doesn’t solely touch on urban survival, but also malevolence. For all Biggie’s lovable charm, there’s cruelty in a line like “I be beatin’ motherfuckers like Ike beat Tina.”

The duality of Biggie’s persona isn’t lost on the veteran music writer. “I’m a critic; I write about music, but I’m moralized, and I don’t have any shame about it,” he says. “I think about the ethics and the moral meaning of everything I listen to, that doesn’t mean I can’t overcome my objections and be taught things about my prejudice.”

Brutal honesty aside, Christgau came to appreciate the brilliant method of B.I.G.’s rap abilities. “The way he delivers [his lyrics], he’s skillful and seemingly offhand,” Christgau says. “His rapping is very spoken and yet, at the same time, deeply and subtly musical.”

Christgau’s praise for B.I.G.’s skillset is mirrored by Touré. “Big was great with the voice, but I think as time went on, we saw that he was even greater with the pen,” he says, highlighting the precision of his delivery.

The seasoned hip-hop scholar cites “I Got a Story to Tell,” from Biggie’s posthumous, sophomore album Life After Death as a premier example of the storytelling prowess that The Notorious B.I.G. held. How he merged rapping and talk, serious and comedy. Both music critics fondly recognize Life After Death as the superior album, where the depths of Biggie’s talents are fully realized.

That’s not to discredit what Ready to Die offers. Christgau calls the project a “musical accomplishment,” “phenomenal” and “unduplicated,” while Touré goes broader. “A guy who could rock the streets, but could be studied in universities the way JAY-Z and Nas are,” he says. “Especially in terms of his songwriting. He could hang with the hard rocks, hang with the comedians. He had all the techniques, all the styles.”

September 13 marks 25 years since Bad Boy and Arista Records presented the world with Ready to Die. The album is a masterpiece to most, to some, the gold standard for a hip-hop debut. The project stands as the moment The Notorious B.I.G. became a poet that stole more than fire, he stole hip-hop’s heart. Two and a half decades on, Biggie Smalls’ complicated tales of living and dying for the Benjamins are timeless as ever.

(Photo by Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

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