On the opening track of his debut album, Christopher Wallace (aka The Notorious B.I.G.) rapped “Damn, shit done changed”. He was right. With the release of Ready To Die on 13th September 1994, the rap game would never be the same again.
The quadruple-platinum Ready To Die is a hip-hop classic, an unparalleled piece of craftsmanship which must surely rank as one of the greatest debut albums ever released. At just 21 years old, Biggie displayed ability and skill which completely belied his youth and relative inexperience. The album presents a rapper with complete control over his craft; a master of flow who could switch effortlessly from laidback nonchalance to chilling intensity in an instant. Each track tells a different story, whilst cumulatively fitting into the overall narrative arc of a young man rising from the streets to superstardom. The key to this was Biggie himself. An immense storyteller, he took huge pleasure in displaying his impressively vast vocabulary, bending it to his will in increasingly wild and inventive fashion.
Grounded in a gritty realism, Ready To Die is not afraid to confront all manner of emotions. From track to track, we witness a different variation of Biggie. One moment he’s at his swaggering, cocky best – the bombastic player on top of the world – yet in an instant he’s a young man drowning under the mounting pressures of adulthood. The album is at its most joyous when Biggie indulges in his braggadocio. Hits such as ‘Juicy’ and ‘Big Poppa’ see Biggie in full celebratory mode, flaunting his wealth, style and charm to full effect. This is the rapper at his coolest: an untroubled, laidback, gentle giant of a man. Nonetheless, it is in his moments of introspection that the true genius of Biggie Smalls is unveiled. Tracks like ‘Everyday Struggle’, ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ and ‘Ready To Die’ are strikingly honest and reveal a depth which is unusually rare amongst rappers even now. Crippling doubts, self-loathing and desperate thoughts flow out of Biggie’s lyrics, in stark contrast to the carefree image presented in ‘Big Poppa’ and ‘Juicy’. The sight of a man publicly grappling with suicidal thoughts was ground-breaking for hip-hop: an overwhelmingly masculine genre where vulnerability and weakness were condemned.
Ready To Die also stands out as an outstanding piece of production. The official debut of Notorious B.I.G. was also the introduction to Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy) and Bad Boy Records. Years before he would evolve into the rap superstar and Bad Boy Svengali, Puff acted primarily in a production role – to brilliant effect. His slick, seamless appropriation of samples from soulful hits of the ‘70s and ‘80s marked out Ready to Die from the crowd. Combining the chilled vocals of Biggie with funky samples pushed hip-hop into the mainstream, with ‘Big Poppa’ peaking at No.6 on the Billboard Hot 100. A trailblazer in every sense, Ready To Die also served notice to the West Coast that the East Coast was ready to reassert their dominance.
Almost twenty-four years later, it is undoubtable that Ready To Die has stood the test of time and sits, near untouchable, at the pinnacle of hip-hop music. The album is peerless; every track plays out like a mini-story with Biggie as the narrator in chief. With just one feature, the Method Man featuring ‘The What’, the star is undisputedly the Big Poppa himself. His tragic death in 1997, cruelly robbed the world of a transcendent talent who displayed more quality in his two-album discography than most artists do in an entire lifetime. At least we’ll always have Ready To Die.
Listen to it – you will not regret it.
Ready To Die was released on September 13 1994 via Bad Boy Records