In the opening sequence of Ready to Die, Sean Combs steps into the delivery room, fiercely urging Voletta Wallace to keep pushing. As Curtis Mayfield bleeds into the foreground, a newborn Christopher Wallace’s first cries become a first redemption and the first signifier that a bad motherfucker fought his way out the womb to wreak havoc on the world. We later learn on “Respect” that Wallace almost died in this moment: After 10 months in the womb, he found himself entangled in the umbilical cord, almost never seeing the light of day.
“Umbilical cord's wrapped around my neck /
I'm seein' my death and I ain't even took my first step /
I made it out, I'm bringin' mad joy /
The doctor looked and said, ‘He's gonna be a Bad Boy!’”
Christopher Wallace arrived on May 21, 1972, but the world made the Notorious B.I.G. He refers to this birthday as the worst day more than once on his classic introduction, illustrating the intense poverty of his Bed-Stuy upbringing via the ethos of a heartless bastard that’ll kill anyone, bang any woman and do whatever’s necessary for the fetti. In an irony darker than the skin he wore and the soul he sold us, the Superfly album and film both arrived in July 1972, meaning this soundtracked birth was badass enough to transcend time itself.
Returning to the intro, the next movement transitions from Christopher’s birth to early adolescence. Judging by the use of “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang, he’s around seven or eight. His parents are in the middle of a heated argument, and the man who plays his father is threatening to send little Christopher away for his bad behavior. The following movement depicts our first shade of Biggie, age 15: Audio Two’s “Top Billin’” has the boroughs ablaze, and Biggie’s debating a subway car robbery with his homeboy. Tired of starving and being broke, they proceed to stick everyone up. As that fades, we’re brought to the ’90s as Biggie leaves cell block C-74 while Snoop and Dre had the game on smash, “Tha Shiznit” ringing off like a freedom song no matter the prison guard’s reassurance that he’ll return. And he never did.
Before rapping a single verse on the album, the Notorious B.I.G. guides us through his reality via a sampling of hits from his life. Continuity be damned, Ready to Die moonlights as Biggie’s collage of deep nostalgia, lifting its memoir-like qualities from the cultural figures and signifiers of his youth that formed the Biggie Smalls who became a legend. As we bear witness to Christopher’s growth and Biggie’s tragedies, we get a crash course in the records and individuals that shifted his taste, brought him in the game, and gave a score to pivotal moments in his life. Though he spent his childhood in the ’70s, his ’80s adolescence is in full bloom even when we’re not paying attention. Much like the hip-hop of that era—where samples reigned supreme and lawsuits had yet to dismantle the core—Biggie dialogues with the world and the records speak back to him. There’s tribute and interrogation, a push and pull as the New York he knew disappeared before him.
“Things Done Changed”—the first Ready to Die track with rapping—remains the most overlooked example of how this dialogue functions throughout the record. It starts with the way the hook’s laced together:
“Back in the day /
Things done changed on this side /
Remember they used to thump, but now they blast, right”
As the drums and bass are lifted from two Main Ingredient records from 1974—“California My Way” and “Summer Breeze,” respectively—the first line’s lifted from 1988’s “Vapors” by Biz Markie and the remaining lines are lifted from 1992’s “Lil’ Ghetto Boy” by Dr. Dre. Recontextualized together by Darnell Scott, the hook frames the entire album: Biggie’s navigation of the several lives he’s led in his short stint on Earth. After leaving the pen and returning to the Crack Era of Reagan and Hoover and Giuliani, he recalls the fashion trends and neighborhood traditions like passing signs of the times, his adolescence disappearing into a harrowing new reality where the children can’t play outside and the youth are far too grown with guns, rocks and pagers. With a dash of the recent past and the not-so-distant future at his disposal, Biggie’s stroll down the unimaginable continues the work of Biz and Dre. The former finds Biz recalling memories of the homies being rejected before they got put on; the latter depicts Dre as a young OG back on the block, so maladjusted to the changes that he meets his own death at the hands of someone just like him.
“I was never into girls, I was just into my music /
They acted like I wanted to keep it instead of trying to use it /
But now things switched, without belief /
‘Yo, Biz, do you remember me from Noble Street, chief? /
We used to be down back in the days’ /
It happens all the time and never cease to amaze”
—Biz Markie, “ Vapors” (1988)
“Things done changed on this side /
*Remember they used to thump, but now they blast, right */
But it ain't no thang to me /
Cause now I'm what they call a loced-ass OG /
The little homies from the hood with grip /
Are the ones I get with cause I'm down to set trip /
‘Nigga, I'm bigger than you, so what'cha wanna do?’”
—Dr. Dre, “Lil’ Ghetto Boy” (1992)
Dedicated to “all the niggas in the struggle,” the single “Juicy” remains the most coveted example of Biggie’s immense love for the culture that paved his way to a better tomorrow. And the first verse cemented itself in time as the quintessential rags-to-riches anthem, one of the only rap verses that’s breathed for over two decades as common parlance in pop culture even if the person shouting the refrain has never explored rap past jukebox irony. There’s a narrative precision surpassing today’s maximized reliance on branding; when Biggie rattles off the Private Stock he drank or the Bambu papers he rolled in, there’s no lingering ad revenue sensibility in his tone. One isn’t as quick to wonder who paid him to say what he rocked, he just spoke the facts as part of the story. Upon closer inspection, “Juicy” is the processional of a new prince on the throne: it’s a literal rap sheet of the people, outlets and processes that made him the phenom he became.
At heart, Christopher Wallace is a superfan like the rest of us, and “Juicy” is traceable to markers in his life as well. He spoke on rockin’ cassette tapes and catching Rap Attack on the radio as a kid, likely around the same time his parents were arguing over his bad behavior. Around that same time, Shawn Brown dropped the “Rappin’ Duke” video as a rapping John Wayne when Mr. Wallace was a dreamer and everyone thought hip-hop was doomed to die like the disco before it. The Word Up! issue with Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine? It dropped in 1990, when Biggie was one foot in, one foot out, somewhere between violating his probation and moving the work down south like he said on “Everyday Struggle” and “Respect.” And the DJs he shouts out towards the end? A legendary lineage from Harlem to the Bronx, all responsible for breaking and molding Biggie’s come up. Right then, in 1994, the gratitude dripped from the edges of a newfound optimism. Biggie Smalls told the truth because Christopher Wallace left the block alone. Soon after, rap began to feed his daughter, he married Faith Evans and he became a legend.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.