It couldn’t have been called anything other than Ready to Die. Biggie’s first masterpiece could pass for a Brooklyn Book of the Dead. A slow depressed zigzag through a rigged labyrinth, his Brooklyn is both cash machine and waiting casket. This is the underworld populated by callous highwaymen robbing for #1 Mom Pendants and bamboo earrings; there are hysterical offhand jokes, intricate gambling plots and early morning pager wake-ups. T-Bone steaks, sex and constant stress.
The universe meets the tightly wound boom of Christopher Wallace, a rotund genius born to a teenaged Jamaican immigrant—a pre-school teacher who doted upon and sheltered her son from the Clinton Hill of the crack era. If the Biggie of popular myth is the one created on “Juicy,” the reality was starkly different. As a kid, he had all three video game systems: Atari, Intellivision and ColecoVision.
The straight-A student eventually became a small-time drug runner, obliterating corner cyphers with a voice that sounded like it was already dead and sneakily alive, a cannonball baritone with a barber shop bounce. Jay wanted to be Sinatra, but Biggie was the only one with the requisite pipes. He could somehow make every word rhyme, the syllabic pacing inherently perfect, poetic in composition and profane in execution. He described himself as “black and ugly as ever,” but so charismatic and charming that he became “Big Poppa.” “Unbelievable” was just telling the truth.
So after Mister Cee first heard him, his path to stardom seemed almost ordained. The demo made its way to The Source columnist-turned-A&R, Matty C, who enshrined it in “Unsigned Hype,” the quickest way to get a deal in the early Clinton era.
Enter Puffy, the fledgling impresario of Bad Boy, seeking a star to mold, intrigued by what he read in a rap magazine. The Biggie he first tracked down was raw, unleashing cataracts of bars without hooks or song structure. You can teach that, but you can’t teach the noirish imagination and effortless versatility flashed on Ready to Die.
Upon its release, Rolling Stone called it the greatest solo rap debut since Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. Since then, its stature has only risen. In the aftermath of Christopher Wallace’s 1997 murder, it’s hard to interpret Ready to Die as anything other than ominous prophecy. The doomed and funky lamentations of a young seer rightly terrified that he’d never live to see his daughter grow up. It was an immediate hit, eliciting New York Times profiles, MTV airplay, and discussion of B.I.G. as Nas’ most real competition for “King of New York." Yet it didn’t go platinum until 1999, shifting only 57,000 copies in its first week.
It’s become a classic so canonized that all praise can’t help but feel empty. No adjective or second-hand color scheme can capture the shadowplay of dark and light that Biggie creates line-by-line, a sociopathic threat followed by a Louis XIV boast or a novelistic detail that freezes your backbone. There’s nothing Teflon about this album. Everything sticks to Big, every snaking fear and cancerous reality. He absorbs and internalizes it, spitting it back with fatalistic precision.
It’s the album as autobiography, the anti-hero's journey, 17 songs, interludes and skits that have become as immortal as their creator. It starts with the intro, another contribution from Puff, who imposed a beginning, middle and end onto Biggie’s wild unrefined creation. They might’ve appropriated the idea from Nas, but Biggie made it his own via his own literal genesis in the world.
Ready to Die opens with labor contractions and the strains of “Superfly.” From birth he’s umbilically bound through Curtis Mayfield, blessed with an illimitable reserve of soul. We hear “Rapper’s Delight,” a representation of hip-hop’s train car sweep across the Five Boroughs. A pre-adolescent arrest for shoplifting triggers a screaming match between his parents. Audio Two tells us to get money. The old motto isn’t much different from the new one.
Suddenly, we hear the Biggie of ’87, the stick-up kid out to tax, screaming at his partner not to back out, impossible to argue with. As the credits roll, Snoop Dogg’s “Tha Shiznit” whines, soundtracking Biggie’s departure from prison, as he embarks on the path to fulfill his brief brilliant destiny.
In light of the imminent coastal feud, it’s strange to consider how influential the West Coast was on Ready to Die. Snoop’s nasal twang and Dre’s pistols and palm trees epiphanies supply two of the album’s first samples. East Coast producers had been heavily mining Ohio funk since at least EPMD, but the hydraulic groove and the laid back pockets of “Things Done Changed,” “Juicy” and “Big Poppa,” are indebted to what was bumping out of Death Row. The “fuck everything sacred” slant almost invariably came from Ice Cube and N.W.A.
Even the silken lothario character of “Big Poppa” famously (apocryphally?) came from 2Pac telling Biggie that if he wanted to sell records, he “had to rap for the bitches.” It’s a Born to Mack mentality that you can trace clearly back to Too Short (who Biggie would conscript for his sophomore album’s “The World is Filled.”)
It’s easy to memorialize Frank White for the alternately jiggy and mournful icon that he turned himself into. But in those formative years, he was still dependent on his early inspirations and the visionary capitalist hallucinations of Puff. His decision to feature a baby on his album cover felt uncomfortably close to Illmatic, leading Ghostface Killah and Raekwon to sneer their “Shark Niggas (Biters)” taunts on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
Puffy’s insistence on looping the Isley Brothers (“Big Poppa”) and Mtume (“Juicy)” led traditionalists to lampoon him for using rudimentary and reductive techniques—a sell-out move only mitigated by Biggie’s unimpeachable skill. Even Easy Mo Bee, who produced much of the album, refused to do it, forcing Puffy to form what eventually became his “Hit Men.”
But any complaint appears insignificant when you hear Biggie rap. “Gimme the Loot” sounds as radically original today as it did in the fall of 1994. Even then, one rapper spitting both sides of a back-and-forth dialogue wasn’t particularly new. Slick Rick deployed the tactic in 1988. Positive K used it with absurdist perfection for his 1992 single “I Got a Man;” while Redman battled Reggie Noble. But when Biggie raps as both sides of himself it feels like it completely reinvents the possibilities inherent to hip-hop—with a younger, screechy-but-sadistic gunman trading war stories with a hardened veteran thief.
“Warning” details a sinister assassination plot from some Brownsville goons who heard about his multi-state criminal syndicate ring. They know about the Rolexes and Lexus with Texas plates, the street pharmaceutical reign that stretches down the spine of the Eastern seaboard. If a lesser rapper would just issue generic malice, Biggie suffuses his words with a waxen glow and meticulous rhythm: “There’s gonna be a lot of slow singing and flower bringing if my burglar alarm starts ringing.”
Few rappers have ever been that visual. I once asked Lil Wayne who he thought was the greatest rapper of all-time and he looked at me perplexed, as if there was no possible debate. Biggie was his automatic answer. He could discover pockets where none ostensibly existed, tell intricate pulp stories without paper, dictate rhythm to the beat, write pop hooks and underground burners and do both with an infinite musicality.
Take “Unbelievable,” the lone DJ Premier beat on the album. In search of one more song to score a Timberland stomp, it was Biggie who implored Primo to loop “Impeach the President.” When they needed a hook, he suggested scratching in “Your Body’s Calling” by R. Kelly. Initially skeptical, Biggie insisted it would fit perfectly, and when the legendary producer picked up the 12-inch a few days later, he discovered it to be true.
If cinematic is the operative cliché, the notion traces back to Ready to Die. You hear the footsteps thundering, the guns discharged, the heart beating and eventually coming to a final demise. Even the sex scene on the “Fuck Me (Interlude)” was real, allegedly recorded during an inspired Lil Kim and Biggie collaboration. “Juicy” wasn’t documentary, it was a movie—the platonic rags-to-riches hip-hop song, the reinvention myth as American dream, as quintessential to the canon as The Great Gatsby.
If there’s a spiritual core to the record, it’s in the internal war between get-money nihilism and morally agnostic optimism. It’s evident on the title track, where he echoes, “I’m ready to die and nobody can save me. Fuck the world, fuck my moms, and my girl.” A similar refrain rains down on the thundering “The What,” where Method Man comes as close as anyone ever did to out-rapping Biggie, as they scream, “Fuck the world don’t ask me for shit.”
There’s a misguided ahistorical conceit that pretends that emotional rap began with Drake or Kid Cudi, but if you listen to “Everyday Struggle” or “Suicidal Thoughts,” the depression, post-traumatic stress and desire to end it all is as raw as anything ever recorded. We remember this album for the indelible hits and B-Side anthems, but consumed in totality, it’s a document of pain and rage, a ferocious reprisal at a calloused world as angst ridden as anything Nirvana ever did.
It’s easy to forget that Biggie kills himself at the end of the album. The engineers say that during the recording of that final scene, they turned all the lights off and as soon as the bullet sound rang out, Biggie actually threw himself on the ground, creating the Richter quake that closes the album, an imaginary corpse for only the time being. Nothing left to be said.