Ready to Die is a musical landmark if ever there was one. For starters, this release finished the job started by Onyx, Black Moon, Wu-Tang Clan and Nas, in cementing New York’s return to rap prominence in the mid 1990’s. Additionally, Ready to Die gave the world of music what became one of its greatest recordings; of any genre, and any era. And, as if these things weren’t enough, this album brought us two men that would leave indelible marks on Hip Hop in the years to come: Bad Boy Entertainment CEO Sean “P-Diddy” Combs, and his record label’s flagship artist: The Notorious BIG.
In its time, Ready to Die represented a union of kindred spirits; two ambitious New Yorkers with megawatts of star power, and their very livelihoods hinging on this album’s success. P-Diddy, then known as both “Puffy” and “Puff Daddy”, was an impresario born in Harlem that went from promoting parties at Howard University, to VP of A&R at Uptown Records, in less than 2 years. The Notorious BIG a.k.a. Biggie Smalls (Christopher Wallace) was a curb server from Brooklyn, who began rhyming for sport as a teen in the late 1980’s. A freestyle tape Biggie made in 1991 was passed on to Mister Cee, the DJ for Brooklyn icon Big Daddy Kane. Impressed by what he heard, Mister Cee had Big record a more polished version of the original tape, which Cee then presented to Matty C, who edited Unsigned Hype, a new artist showcase column in The Source magazine.
In 1992, the paths of Notorious BIG and Puff Daddy crossed, when Puffy, who regularly perused the Unsigned Hype column, secured a copy of Big’s tape, and contacted him soon thereafter. After signing with Uptown in late ’92, Biggie made impressive cameos on songs for labelmates Mary J. Blige, Heavy D & The Boyz, and dancehall artist Supercat; and in early 1993, Big bombed solo with “Party & Bullshit”, a raucous banger from the film Who’s The Man? ; that virtually stole the show from every over song on its soundtrack. In July of ’93, Puffy was fired by Uptown Records CEO Andre Harrell, and he took Biggie Smalls with him upon his exit; making BIG the centerpiece of his own label, Bad Boy Records. As 1994 began, both Biggie and Puffy were under the gun; Biggie due to a newborn he needed to support legitimately, and Puffy from having to prove he could captain his own ship. With the aid of LaFace Records CEO L.A. Reid, Puffy secured a distribution deal with Arista Records for Bad Boy; and in the late summer of ’94, both he and BIG came up aces through Biggie’s debut album: the near-perfect Ready to Die.
Ready to Die unfolds in almost cinematic fashion; a format that’s both apt and tragic. The album chronicles the life of a twenty-something man, from his birth to his violent death. It’s a schematic that’s perfect for The Notorious BIG to exhibit his brilliant storytelling abilities, and tragically ironic due to BIG’s own demise less than three years later. From the opening moments of Ready to Die, The Notorious BIG and Puff Daddy put listeners on their toes. The three-and-a-half minute “Intro” (produced by Puffy) is a disturbing, semi-dramatized look at Biggie’s life before he was signed. Well-chosen songs from various time periods, including Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly”, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”, Audio Two’s “Top Billin”, and Snoop Dogg’s “Tha Shiznit”, punctuate each era of Biggie’s life; from his early 70’s birth to his release from jail in ’93. The “Intro” then gives way to “Things Done Changed”, the album’s first full-length song. Produced by the team of Dominic Owens and Kevin Scott (of Hi-Class Productions), this cut uses isolated drums and a blood-curdling melody to slowly build tension, and to give Big space to render a chilling piece on ‘hood politics, and how gunplay has replaced hand-to-hand combat as the preferred problem-solving tool. The next several numbers are the tightest song sequence on the album, and not coincidentally, all are produced by Brooklyn producer Easy Mo Bee. “Gimme The Loot” is an ingenious larcenist tale; that takes cues from legendary Bronx fabulist Slick Rick. On this cut, BIG plays dual roles; of two thieves executing felony capers: one the calculating leader of the team, and the other his ultra-violent henchman; and along the way, BIG gives a truly magnificent performance, with an assist from Mo Bee’s jeep-knocking instrumental. “Machine Gun Funk” is the next collab between Mo Bee and Biggie, and Mo’s hypnotic soul clap track is the perfect platform for an impressive performance from Big, where he deftly mixes dry wit with thug venom, and balances these techniques with breathtaking ease. On “Warning”, Easy Mo Bee slips a bassy, demonic loop of Isaac Hayes’ often sampled “Walk On By” into the background; while Big continues in the tradition of Slick Rick: playing a baller that learns of a plot to assassinate him, from a close friend that BIG also voices. “Ready To Die” is a blissful marriage of lyrics and production, with Notorious BIG playing a despondent savage that flirts with death, and Easy Mo Bee constructing a morbid G-Funk beat splashed with church organs. And the street corner thumper “The What” features the album’s lone frontline cameo, from Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man, whose trademark raspy flow complements Biggie’s husky tone, and who shows great chemistry with BIG as they spit back and forth, over yet another sublime Easy Mo Bee track.
On a few occasions, Ready to Die ratchets up the earnestness in its subject lines. “Juicy”, the album’s gold-selling first single, unites a flavorful, familiar melody (from Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit”) with angelic backing vocals (from Bad Boy girl group Total), and inspiring, rags-to-riches verses from BIG, who beats the odds and wins the game of life, and makes us feel like we’re sharing his victory with him. On “Everyday Struggle”, Biggie Smalls peels back the layers of pretense that normally govern drug dealing tales, and portrays a depressed dope pusher; who serves weight out of necessity, and has no other choice but to hustle to his doom. And “Me & My Bitch” is a ride-or-die narrative, about a thug who finds the Bonnie to his Clyde, but loses her when his enemies come after him, but kill her instead.
Besides his reputations as a meticulous lyricist and storyteller, The Notorious BIG became a star due to the Casanova identity P-Diddy helped craft for him; and with his loquaciousness and natural charm, Biggie is more than convincing as a player.“One More Chance” is a humorous touting of Big’s sexual prowess, with Big smashing dimes by the dozen over a track that melds elements of Grover Washington Jr. (the drums from “Hydra”), the Jackson 5 (a sung reinterpreting of “I Want You Back”) and DeBarge (a keyboard melody similar to “All This Love”). The butter-smooth “Big Poppa” samples the vamp and main groove from the Isley Brothers hit “Between The Sheets”, and is a prequel of sorts to “One More Chance”, where Big details how his mack game unfolds, and how he entices women to come home with him. And “Friend Of Mine” is an illustration of what happens when seductions go wrong, where a spiteful Big turns the tables on a girl that two-times him, over a percussive boogie bounce track from Easy Mo Bee.
Ready to Die ends with a diverse trio of cuts, which display the skill, versatility, and emotive value that made The Notorious BIG an all-time great. “Respect” has a lilting shimmy, derived from a loop of George McCrae’s always dependable “I Get Lifted”, as well as a vocal assist from reggae fusion singer Diana King, who chants the hook. And with these elements behind him, Big unfurls a stark timeline of his life; that runs from his date of birth in ’72, to the ripe old age of 22 in 1994. DJ Premier (of Gang Starr) produces “Unbelievable”, and not surprisingly, Primo steals the show with his lone production appearance; giving the tumbling dice treatment to a drum loop of The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach The President”, and merging it with an R. Kelly vocal break. Biggie, not to be outdone, flows like the Mediterranean Sea, in a spiraling, stream-of-consciousness style that stuns the cerebellum. And the curtain closes with “Suicidal Thoughts”, a Lord Finesse-produced number that’s as disturbing now as it’s ever been. In just under three minutes, Biggie begins the final countdown during a phone call to Puff Daddy; and both the album and Big’s life end with the sounds of a single gunshot, and a frantic Puffy calling for him.
The Notorious BIG carried this album squarely on his shoulders. For this disc, Big’s rhyme flow changed considerably from the energetic, higher-pitched rhyme style he used in his early days at Uptown. Though his old flow was impressive, the newer flow; a slow, thick, articulate monotone, worked extremely well, and possibly helped him graduate to superstar status. Thank P-Diddy for that, as he encouraged the change.
But, most notably, Biggie Smalls flaunted his full skill set on this album. Big was like an amalgam of some of rap’s greatest MC’s. He had Big Daddy Kane’s vocab and gift with wordplay; Slick Rick’s storyboarding and character-creating abilities; Rakim’s autopilot flow and beat-riding skills; and Kool G. Rap’s knack for verbal picture-painting. Being that he embodied the best traits of some of rap’s most revered MCs, is it any wonder Notorious BIG became a legend himself?
In its time, the impact Ready to Die had on the world of music was swift and immediate. The album sold more than 4 million copies in the United States, spawned two platinum singles (“Big Poppa” and the “One More Chance” remix) and one gold single (“Juicy”) and gave the Big Apple its first marquee player that stood par with the stars from the West Coast. In the years to come, Ready to Die garnered a staggering number of accolades; being declared one of the greatest albums in recorded music history, by publications as diverse as The Source, Rolling Stone, and Time. Sadly, this album’s creator would not live to bask in his well-earned glory. In March of 1997, on the eve of the release of his sophomore album (1997’s Life after Death), The Notorious BIG was gunned down in Los Angeles, bringing a close to what could have been a long and illustrious recording career. Although he didn’t live to reach his full potential, Notorious BIG left a vaunted legacy in his brief time on Earth. The brilliance and magnetism that burned so brightly within him carried Big’s name well into the 21st Century, with many emcees – including Brooklyn contemporary Jay-Z – both paying homage to and drawing influence from his work. The original 1994 edition of this album is now out of print, due to a sample clearance snafu that led to it being removed from stores in 2006. However, an enhanced edition of the album (Ready to Die: The Remaster) was issued later that same year, ensuring that Biggie’s masterwork lives on. No matter which edition you have, Ready to Die is still an exceptional album, brought to us by one of rap’s most magnetic figures.
To listen to mp3 songs from Ready to Die, click here.