There are times when reality just jumps up and bowls you over, leaving you immobile like a frozen loaf of Wonder Bread. It’s hard, it’s cold and its nutritional value is negligible. Christopher Wallace, better known as the Notorious B.I.G., released his classic hip-hop album Ready to Die on Bad Boy Records 20 years ago today, quickly becoming recognized as one of the greatest hip-hop offerings of all time. Everything about it screams 90's hip-hop; from production by DJ Premier, Easy Mo Bee and Lord Finesse, to its themes of cocaine cowboy fairy tales and running gun battles, the album became an instant classic whose influence lives on in today's culture of hip-hop. It was the only studio album released while B.I.G. was alive.
The syrupy, sometimes slurred delivery of Biggie permeates the set, and was the envy and bane of both competitors and would-be successors. From the very first song listeners are drawn in, experiencing uncontrollable head nodding. On “Things Done Changed,” Biggie reminisces about a simpler time on the streets. The serious beat of “Gimme the Loot” served notice to the roster of hood anthems across the nation, establishing a new rallying cry that spread like wildfire through the realm of stick up kids. Biggie continued the fuel supply for the hood with “Machine Gun Funk” and then cemented his position of power by blasting through the concrete with his legendary “Warning”, a track that contains one of the most memorable opening lyrics in hip-hop history:
“Who the f*** is this, paging me at 5:46 in the morning, crack of dawn'n, now I’m yawnin’, wipe the cold from my eye. See who's this paging me, and why…”
Ironically, the album’s title track is not even one of the best tracks on the album; in terms of lyrical composition the track was actually forgettable. But B.I.G. served notice once again with “One More Chance”, displaying his uncanny ability to combine hardcore street dude and smooth ladies man into one imposing persona. Utilizing DeBarge's "Stay With Me", Biggie put his sexual prowess on display for all, creating one of the greatest party bangers of all time that was, and is, a mandatory inclusion for every DJ's playlist.
As was often the case with 1990s hip-hop, Ready to Die featured a light-hearted interlude that served as a naughty "halftime" like moment for fans at the midpoint to the album, starting the second half with "The What” featuring Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan. He electrified the lyrical atmosphere again with what I feel is the most inspirational and heart-felt offering on the entire set, "Juicy". Liberally borrowing from the classic Mtume song of the same name, Biggie recalls a time before affluence, a time of struggle and hope, creating lyrics that today's generation can still recite at the drop of a dime, despite not even understanding the influence or existence of "Word Up" magazine.
His lyrical descriptions of survival continues with one of my personal favorites, “Everyday Struggle". The track is actually very simple and circular in motion, but the beat break is classic 90s hip-hop. Lyrically, this is about as close to an apology as Biggie ever got on wax. “Me & My Bitch” was a ghetto love story of manipulation, misogyny, dysfunctional love and regret. But the Bluez Brothers beat is one of those tracks that seems to grow tendrils that reach through your ears and dive into your soul. In addition, it contains one of the most popular lines in all of 90s rap: “Lie together, cry together…I swear to God I hope we f****** die together”
“Big Poppa,” arguably B.I.G’s most commercial friendly offering of all time, features Wallace utilizing his charismatic flow to paint a picture of VIP royalty over an Isley Brothers beat. That is followed by the reggae-themed “Respect” and “Friend of Mine.” "Unbelievable" is the most perfectly crafted offering of the entire set, letting the world know who was the illest around while serving notice to everyone that Brooklyn was coming, positioning it as the place to be for today's New York implants.
"Live from Bedford-Styvesant, the livest one, representing BK to the fullest!"
In closing, Ready to Die continues upon its path of death taunting with the eerie suicidal confessional "Suicide Thoughts."
Though it was impossible to imagine at that time for Biggie or even his biggest fans, Ready to Die was incredibly prophetic. B.I.G. was murdered days before the release of his second studio album Life After Death in 1997. Ready to Die was the rare quadruple platinum hip-hop offering. The single "Big Poppa" was nominated for a Grammy at the 1996 Grammy Awards. In 2003 the entire set was ranked 133 on Rolling Stones list of 500 greatest albums of all time and in 2006 Time magazine included Ready to Die on its list of 100 greatest albums of all time.
20 years later, Christopher Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie, lives on through the album which blessed us with some of the greatest tracks and lyrics of all time. While it may not have the commercial success of today's hip-hop, there exists no doubt that Ready to Die continues to influence and impact present culture through the music that the world recognizes and uses across all walks of life, and that makes it legendary.
20 years later, he's STILL the illest.