Playing patron saint to drug dealers and pickpockets, the young and reckless Notorious B.I.G. brims with witty dialogue about a variety of transgressions, pushing boundaries for laughs and shock. He’s successful in that sense, but does best when he’s baring his soul, expressing anguish over his own poverty and mortality. This macabre fascination with death hangs over most of the album, lending a welcome and honest bleakness to the occasionally pedestrian production.
Vocally, Biggie Smalls is both high-pitched and baritone, coming off as laid-back when necessary or packing an aggressive punch when bestowing disciplinary action on enemies. It’s not hard to hear KRS-One’s influence on his gruff delivery, yet, his content leans more towards the personal, focusing both on his rage and depression. His violent side provides some of his most quotable dialogue and it’s fun to hear him execute the opposition with a playful aside like “touch my cheddar, feel my Beretta.” The more stridently anti-social elements of his songwriting are most likely efforts to provoke disgust, whether they be physical threats towards pregnant women or boorish sexual puns. It’s his perpetual references to suicide that are harder to shake off, reflecting a deeply troubled individual incapable of distancing himself from his past faults.
Alternately, his compassion for his mother is noted often and with particular gravity when relating to her struggle with breast cancer. He often comes off as sympathetic to the victims of violence, referring to a murdered lover gracefully, stating, “they killed my best friend.” Despite the occasional grotesque turn of phrase, Christopher Wallace is a canny rapper and talented writer, capable of spinning an amusingly gross metaphor or a touching truism. It’d be hard not to be shocked and touched by his work, often during the same song and in that order.
The accompanying beats are slick and well-made, but only match Big’s vocals in quality half of the time. There are no less than 8 producers on the album, with multiples occasionally sharing credit on an individual track. Too many cooks in the kitchen can make for a scattershot meal and certain efforts feel phoned-in and generic. The best tracks mirror the content of the vocals and Lord Finesse’s work on “Suicidal Thoughts” rewards Biggie’s bravery with suitably dark tones and an ominous drum stomp. Also of note is DJ Premier’s fast-paced, jazz-inflected “Unbelievable,” which matches the steady stream of sharp descriptors and snarky provocations perfectly. Otherwise, the production, overseen by Sean “Puffy” Combs, sinks or swims based on prominent drum beat, jazzy wind instruments and faint keys. Most do a serviceable job, especially when taking queues from reggae or utilizing deeper textures (organ, hissy synth, strings).
“Juicy” finds the perfect balance between vocal and musical brilliance, taking soft, echoed keys, staccato synth beats and strolling funky bass from Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” and throwing in syrupy, trippy flourishes. This canvas gives Biggie room to sketch his road from gift less Christmases and empty stomachs to diamond jewelry and paid bills. His story also ingeniously parallels Hip Hop’s rise from the underground to the mainstream, honoring what came before and injecting his own perspective. It’s no surprise that the first verse may be the most well-known in rap history, echoing childhood dreams that relate easily to the collective human experience and reflecting the stunning abilities of the storyteller.
Ready to Die doesn’t succeed through a unified production aesthetic, but through the power of the narrator. Wallace’s melancholy laces his passion for sex and crime with a vulnerable desperation. He may seem bold and brash on the surface of his radio singles, but the deep cuts bleed with tension, paranoia and regret. Knowing that he would be dead within two years only adds to the all-encompassing somberness.
The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready To Die was ranked #31 on Matt Deapo‘s Hip Hop Top 50, a ranking of 50 of the best Hip Hop albums recorded between 1978 and 2006, based on this consideration and these rules.