Excuse Christopher Wallace — aka the Notorious B.I.G. and aka Biggie Smalls — for not sounding more enthused. While recording his debut album, Ready to Die — released 20 years ago this week, on September 13, 1994 — the 22-year old former drug dealer had a sick mom to care for and a baby girl to feed. Just because he had a record deal, there was no guarantee the Brooklyn rapper would make it through his 20s alive.
And yet Biggie was cool with that — so cool, in fact, that he called the record Ready to Die. The title is as complex as the man himself. Depending on the track, it speaks to his fearlessness, his nihilism, and his unique brand of New York City pragmatism. Throughout these 17 songs, there’s a sense Biggie could go at any moment, and on tunes like “Everyday Struggle” and chilling closer “Suicidal Thoughts,” he welcomes the bullet as a source of relief.
Death wishes aside, the Biggie heard on Ready to Die is a guy bellying up to life’s buffet. He’s a man of hardy appetites — for money, food, women, blunts, booze, and the thrill of the hustle — and he raps with the easy-does-it delivery of a guy who’s just polished off a steak dinner or finished a round of lovemaking. His bellowing voice suggests lungs filled with cigar smoke and a throat coated with Welch’s grape juice, his beverage of choice in the Top 10 single “Big Poppa.” Whether he’s spinning semi-autobiographical crime narratives or indulging in lover-man fantasies, he never lets the crippling stress wreck his flow.
In that way, Ready to Die — which reached No. 15 on the Billboard 200 — is similar to Dr. Dre‘s The Chronic, a record Biggie admired enough to sample on track two, “Things Done Changed.” Relative to Dre’s West Coast game-changer, though, B.I.G.’s East Coast landmark is harder, darker and less song-oriented. It’s funky, and thanks to executive producer Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, there are plenty of pop hooks. It’s the story of a young man succumbing to the pressures of his environment.
The bleak anti-pop moments serve the record well, giving B.I.G. plenty of room to throw his weight around, lyrically speaking. As a youngster, Wallace was a gifted student, and even though he went astray as a teenager — getting into the drug game and eventually serving nine months in a North Carolina prison — his rhyming and storytelling are testaments to his intelligence. His songs mix fantasy and reality, and unlike so many of his peers, he rarely, if ever, glorifies the gangsta lifestyle. Even when he’s celebrating, he’s looking over his shoulder.
His paranoia, it turns out, was justified. On March 9, 1997, just weeks before the release of his sophomore effort, Life After Death, Biggie was gunned down in Los Angeles. The case remains unsolved, and conspiracy theories abound, but one thing is for sure: Biggie was one of the all-time greats.
Read on to get our track-by-track take on Notorious B.I.G.’s classic debut.
“Intro”: Every great rapper fancies himself a superhero, and every superhero needs an origin story. This is Biggie’s, and make no mistake: It is a story. In 3:20 of cinematic embellishment, he takes us from his birth — with “Super Fly” playing in the delivery room — to a daring subway robbery that lands him behind bars. Along the way, he discovers hip-hop, the source of his super powers.
“Things Done Changed”: The key line of this dark, sample-driven tune comes at the end: “Shit, my momma’s got cancer in her breast / Don’t asked me why I’m motherfucking stressed.” His mother’s illness isn’t the only reason he’s bugging out, though. His Bed-Stuy ‘hood has turned into a Wild West of guns and crack, and where his neighbors used to hold barbecues, bodies are piling up.
“Gimme the Loot”: There were originally six samples on this song, none of which distract from the brutal wordplay. Biggie plays two roles — stickup kid 1 and stickup kid 2 — and while the one he portrays with his usual voice seems more experienced, both are coldblooded, and neither comes across as the voice of reason. “From the Beretta, putting holes in your sweater,” the higher-pitched one raps at 2:50. Not to be outdone, baritone B.I.G. rhymes “doorknockers” with “blakka, blakka, blakka”– the sound of him blasting some poor woman for her earrings.
“Machine Gun Funk”: “So I guess you know the story / the rap side, crack side,” Biggie spits in the third verse, having spent the first two asserting his cred as both a gun-toting criminal and a mic-smoking MC. As he does throughout Ready to Die, he draws parallels between the two, and the shrill, repetitive chorus — sampled from Lords of the Underground‘s “Chief Rocka” — underscores the sense of urgency one needs to succeed in either vocation.
“Warning”: Over producer Easy Mo Bee’s smooth Isaac Hayes sample, Biggie once again plays two characters, himself and “Pop,” a buddy from the barber shop who’s just uncovered an “intricate plot” involving some bad dudes looking to jack our hero. This time, Biggie rhymes “Beretta” with “cheddar,” and rather than let the gunmen come and snatch his cheese, he vows to get high and pack extra clips. “Hold on,” Biggie says at the end. “I hear someone coming.” It’s all over bar the shooting.
“Ready to Die”: The wah-wah guitar sample gives a dreamy feel to the album’s most nihilistic cut. “Fuck the world, my moms, and my girl,” Biggie raps, “My life is played out like a Jheri curl / I’m ready to die.” To the extent he cares about anything, it’s money, and he’ll bust caps “from Tallahassee to Compton” to get his hands on it. He pursues wealth almost compulsively, without joy, and that brings an air of tragedy to his criminality.
“One More Chance”: Biggie doesn’t just excel at slinging rock and busting rhymes. He’s also a first-rate lover. Here, following a series of answering-machine messages from scorned women, he big-ups his bedroom game with the same menacing tone he brings to his shoot-’em-up fantasies. Apparently, sex with B.I.G. could mean damage to your internal organs, though the girl singing the modified Jackson 5 hook doesn’t seem too concerned.
“Fuck Me (Interlude)”: When it comes to bedroom talk, there’s dirty and then there’s flat-out nasty. On this skit, which takes place mid-coitus, Biggie’s lady gets off on listing all the disgusting food — pickle juice, chicken gristle, etc. — the rotund rapper consumes on the regular. No strawberries and whipped cream for these two freaks.
“The What”: The only rapper to guest on Ready to Die is Method Man, and the Wu-Tang Clan MC does Staten Island proud. Although “The What” has a hook, the song is really just an excuse for two of NYC’s finest to go back and forth, mixing brags, threats and pop-culture references. Biggie gets in a great line about Diff’rent Strokes; then Meth one-ups him with a colorful Charles Dickens name-check.
“Juicy”: At last, Biggie lets his guard down and allows himself a few minutes of triumph. On this alternate version of the rapper’s life story — one where music, not crime, plays the central role — there’s only one reference to guns, and it’s past tense: “I never thought it could happen, this rapping stuff/ I was too used to packing gats and stuff.” Built around an instrumental mix of Mtume‘s 1983 funk tune, “Juicy Fruit,” this Puffy-produced track presents Biggie at his most loveable. The man on the mic is no monster. He’s just a guy who wants a Super Nintendo and a Sega Genesis — a dream plenty of young men shared in the early ‘90s. Damn right he likes the life he lives.
“Everyday Struggle”: Sadly, the good vibes of “Juicy” dry up fast. With “Everyday Struggle,” B.I.G. is back to rapping about the constant stress in his life. The first and last verse make reference to his daughter, and amid all the macho posturing, he lets on that he’s a little ashamed of his criminal behavior: “Baby on the way, mad bills to pay / that’s why you drink Tanqueray, so you can reminisce / and wish you wasn’t living so devilish.”
“Me & My Bitch”: The sampled string sounds give this a soap opera feel, which makes sense, since “Me & My Bitch” is a dramatic love story about Biggie falling for his female counterpart—a pistol-packin’ mama who’s not afraid to hide his car keys or chuck his clothes out the window. It quickly goes from Young & the Restless to Bonnie & Clyde, though, complete with unhappy ending.
“Big Poppa”: The smoothest track on the album — and the only one to challenge “Juicy” for the title of most celebratory — features a lush Isley Brothers sample and, amazingly enough, a plea to stop the violence. “You got a gun up in your waist, please don’t shoot up the place,” Biggie raps in the chorus, realizing that blood in the hot tub will only kill the mood. “Big Poppa” marked the rapper’s first Top 10 hit, solidifying his image as a sweet-talking G of wealth and taste.
“Respect”: Dancehall singer Diana King owns this cut, which amounts to yet another Biggie Smalls creation narrative. In this version, Biggie is haunted by death from the very beginning and born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He survives, but that’s just the beginning of his troubles. Subsequent years bring guns, drugs and incarceration. “Me holla respect,” King sings in the chorus, her barking patois repping Biggie’s Jamaican roots. Her words signaling sympathy for his plight: “Gun men alone, keep gun men friend.”
“Friend of Mine”: Easy Mo Bee’s backing track is the disc’s most danceable, though Biggie’s not chatting about cruising the club for “honeys.” “Friend of Mine” is his justification for loving and leaving ’em — a practice that was evidently born of being cheated on. In the third verse, he fights infidelity with infidelity, only to discover that women get upset when you sleep with their sisters. “You know that ain’t right,” goes the hook — an admonishment that applies to all involved parties.
“Unbelievable”: The most memorable part of this last-minute addition is the beat, composed by DJ Premier and made all the better by the R. Kelly sample Biggie suggested for the chorus. Otherwise, “Unbelievable” is more gangsta bravado, much of it delivered with enough creative spark to suggest it wasn’t all darkness in Biggie’s world. “I got three hundred and fifty-seven ways/ to simmer sauté, I’m the winner all day,” he raps. He’ll kill you with his wit and his .357.
“Suicidal Thoughts”: All the sadness and self-loathing of the previous 16 tracks come to a head on “Suicidal Thoughts,” one long verse presented as a late-night phone call from B.I.G. to Puffy. “Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion/ I know my mother wished she got a fucking abortion,” he raps, resolving in the final bars to end the life that Voletta Wallace wouldn’t. Ready to Die ends with a gunshot and the sound of Biggie’s heart slowing to a halt. It’s the inevitable conclusion, but it still knocks the wind out of you.