Rap’s early 1990s exodus from its home turf of the south Bronx, where hip-hop was founded in the mid-1970s, to the West Coast and its summertime G-funk sounds, pioneered by Dr. Dre and his associated acolytes, might have marked a significant sea change for the evolving genre and its culture. And while it’s true that albums by N.W.A and fellow Californian rappers did shift perceptions of what rap was about, filtering gangsta sounds through the spectrum of samples and scratches, the East wasn’t about to sit back and see their art wholly appropriated by rival factions.
Come September (13th) 1994, New York had its trump card: ‘Ready To Die’, the debut album from a young Brooklyn MC by the name of Christopher Wallace, better known to a growing fanbase as The Notorious B.I.G., AKA Biggie Smalls or simply Biggie.
The album played a pivotal role in revitalising the East Coast rap scene, instantly assuming a place beside the likes of Nas’s ‘Illmatic’ (Spotlight feature) and Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ as a classic of the time – and further evidence that the Big Apple’s best had progressed substantially from the days of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa.
Years have taken their toll on many 1990s rap releases, but the strongest have survived intact, unblemished. ‘Ready To Die’ is amongst this crop of rare collections, as compelling today as it ever was. Autobiographical of impression, the album chronicles its maker’s criminal past, his drug-dealing at the age of 12, with Biggie’s sleek but loose flow a perfect vehicle for digressive lyricism and bold storytelling.
His songs are to the point, hitting hard – and yet, ‘Ready To Die’ doesn’t lack accessibility. Wallace’s rhymes may embrace sinister themes, touching on violence and poverty, but their juxtaposing with pop-savvy arrangements proved to be a terrific draw.
The likes of ‘Juicy’ and ‘Big Poppa’ were huge hits, rags-to-riches tales exploring Biggie’s new lifestyle and lyrical leanings, spotlighting wealth, women and high fashion. What was once fantasy was becoming reality, and Biggie’s wordplay was his own diary, documenting the encroaching lavishness that cast into shade what used to be an everyday struggle. There’s a real cinematic edge to proceedings, lyrics drawing fully realised images in the mind’s eye, gangsta rap and street poetry colliding like never before with widescreen effect.
Every sing-along leads to the album’s heart-breaking finale, though. ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ is a stark contrast when held against preceding ‘money, hoes and clothes’ expressions of excessiveness. Here, the 22-year-old ponders suicide, culminating in a call to Puff Daddy, the record’s executive producer (and founder of its label, Bad Boy Records).
The opening line alone is telling, an immediate turn to the dark side after so much positivity: “When I die, f*ck it, I wanna go to Hell / ‘Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to f*cking tell.” At the climax, Biggie takes his own life, the sound of a shotgun preceding a slowing heartbeat, closing the conceptual structure of ‘Ready To Die’ – this is a life story stuffed into 68 minutes, and every soul living today will some day be extinguished, one way or another.
Of course, few could have predicted what came next: how reality elected to mirror fiction, and Biggie would die in a drive-by shooting in 1997, murdered by a still-unknown assailant. His legacy is tremendous, though, omnipotent almost, with hundreds of rappers since inspired by his “flashy ways”. ‘
Ready To Die’ was the only solo album Christopher Wallace released in his lifetime, but it’s one that will always endure close to the top of rap’s finest-ever records.
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Words: Jonathan Hatchman / Mike Diver
Read the original article in Clash #98 and online at clashmusic.com.