It’s a simple cover—a white backdrop behind a black and white photo of the ultimate universal symbol of human innocence, vulnerability and new life: a baby. He sits at the center of the cover, doe-eyed and cross-legged, sporting nothing but a diaper, a pensive stare and a miraculous fro for someone who likely weighs no more than 20 pounds. In jarring contrast to his youth, he hovers above the album’s title: Ready To Die.
Until now, this cover hasn’t been featured on an official vinyl edition of Ready To Die since the album’s release in 1994. Since then—both for the cover’s visual power alone and the overall impact of the album—it’s become one of the most recognizable album covers of all time.
The design alludes to the most condensed version of the lifecycle possible, the guaranteed bookends. But at the time Notorious B.I.G. recorded the introspective bangers on Ready To Die, it was the version he was facing. On one hand, he was facing the possibility, reality and inevitability of death and chronicling it into an album, and on the other he had a baby girl at home to feed. Once you slide the record out of its sleeve and put it on, the first thing you’re confronted with is an autobiographical timeline reduced to 3 minutes and 24 seconds, naturally starting birth.
Ready To Die wasn’t the first cover to take advantage of impactful infant imagery, and it certainly wasn’t the last. Released 6 months after Nas’ Illmatic, which features a baby Nas on the front, Biggie’s cover even spurred controversy claiming the cover was a Nas rip-off. Ghostface and Nas even took digs at Biggie on Raekwon’s “Shark Niggas (Biters)” and “Last Real Nigga Alive:” “Bad Boy biting Nas album cover.” And whether by direct reference, influence or coincidence, the list of monumental albums with little ones on the front after 1994 is massive; everyone from Drake to Nirvana to Lil Wayne to the Cranberries.
Though all the controversy, praise and fame, Ready To Die was one of the most talked-about album covers. But for 17 years, the mystery remained: Who is the baby on the cover? Listeners contended nearly every possible answer to this question. Perhaps the most logical—especially given the Nas rip-off accusations—was that the picture was of Christopher Wallace himself. Others thought perhaps it was Biggie’s daughter T’yanna, born a year before the album’s release, or one of Diddy’s kids. Some thought it was just some random kid of someone close to the album—everyone from a hairstylist’s kid to a friend of a friend. The record company couldn’t even confirm the baby’s identity, unable to find records that far back.
Finally, in 2011, the New York Daily News confirmed that he was booked traditionally though a modeling agency in an interview with the kid on the cover—then-18-year-old high school senior and Bronx native Keithroy Yearwood. His mom—who had a plethora of baby pictures to confirm Yearwood was, in fact, the baby on the cover—even told the publication that the famous head of hair feature on the cover made it hard for him to book other modeling gigs. And despite being the face on top of 4 million copies, Yearwood made just $150 for two hours of work. But then again, the baby on the cover probably could have guessed just as well as anyone that this was about to be one of the most iconic albums of all time.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.
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