Ready To Die Turns 20
Word around the campfire is that Biggie Smalls, when he was recording Ready To Die, wanted to record a track with DJ Premier and M.O.P. and Jeru The Damaja. Can you even imagine what that would sound like? How fucking incredible that would’ve been? There are precious few Biggie/Premier collabs, but every last one of them is a solid-gold classic. Premier’s creative peak coincided exactly with Biggie’s all-too-brief career. And Biggie could do no wrong during those Ready To Die sessions. Imagine if he was on a track with three guys who knew that Premier sound inside and out. Biggie could be as raw and rugged as M.O.P., and he could be as intense and cerebral as Jeru. If he’d been on a track with those guys together, he would’ve had to be both at the same time, and he could’ve done it. But Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs vetoed the plan. And here’s what kills me: Puffy was right. He wanted Ready To Die to have a slick, populist sense of focus to it, and that’s exactly what it had. As much as I want to hear that hypothetical collab — and I would punch a puppy in the eye to hear it — it’s honestly better that the song never had a chance to exist. Ready To Die is, for my money, the best rap album ever made. It is as close to full-length perfection as rap music has ever come. I have a hard time believing that any extra song, even that song, could make it better. Best to leave Ready To Die alone, to let it be great.
There are a few non-Biggie voices on Ready To Die. There are those shards of older rap classics on the intro track, those sampled swirls of old soul songs. There are those breathy Puffy interjections. There’s reggae singer Diana King growling all over “Respect.” But there is only one guest-rapper on Ready To Die, and that turned out to be a very canny casting decision. The one guy is Method Man, easily the hottest rapper in New York at the time, a guy who carried a mysterious forbidding energy to everything he did. Meth, at his peak, had a dangerous sing-songy purr, a way of hopping around the track while staying dead in the pocket. Everything he said sounded cool as fuck. He had gravity. And he’s in peak form on “The What”: “I spit on your grave, then I grab my Charles Dickens.” And still, Method Man loses. It’s not close. It’s not even a fair fight. Meth was used to RZA’s broken-piano minor-key evilscapes, but producer Easy Mo Bee’s warm, gooey soul-sample lope gives Biggie home-field advantage. More to the point, Meth is still making goofy pop-culture references and silly jokes, talking about his six-shooter and his horse named Trigger. Biggie is pure, unrefined cold-bloodedness. All his threats are concrete and tangible. He’s not playing. He bellows every word. He ends his last verse with, “Yeah, thought so.” It’s a ridiculous display of bravado. This song was Biggie going toe-to-toe with the best guy in the city, winning, and then keeping it moving. If he’s done a bunch more songs with other rappers, it would’ve just been a distraction. He did what he had to do. It’s the way he operated. On Ready To Die, Biggie didn’t really work within the rap universe of 1994. He worked above it.
Every single song on Ready To Die sounds like the final word in an argument. “Juicy” remains the best up-from-nothing inspirational song in rap history, transcending because Biggie knew how to take the specifics of his own life and make them resonate as something bigger, something mythic: “I never thought it could happen, this rapping stuff / I was too used to packing gats and stuff.” He never works to make himself sound larger-than-life. Instead, he’s vulnerable and goofy, remembering taping mix shows on the radio and freezing when the landlord cut the heat off, and using those hardships to luxuriate in everything he’d earned. But for all his warmth, Biggie could be chillingly cold and violent. And it’s hard to imagine a better crime narrative than “Warning”: Biggie playing the two sides of a stressful conversation, slowly building tension, layering on details until those details take on their own character. “They heard about the pounds you got down in Georgetown / And they heard you got half of Virginia locked down” — another rapper could’ve made a whole album out of the backstory that that one line implies, but here it’s just another narrative touch, a piece of the puzzle. But when he does make threats, he’s tense and concise, never wasting words: “Fuck around and get hardcore / C4 to your door, no beef no more.” It’s expert pulp-fiction storytelling, as vivid and brutal and economical as a Parker novel.
Biggie contained multitudes. The whole drug-kingpin character wasn’t exactly new in rap, but nobody had ever pulled it off with anything like Biggie’s level of panache. And he did it so well that everyone who came after, including his friend Jay-Z seemed to be playing catchup. But Biggie was, of course, never a kingpin. He was a midlevel street guy, and the album has even more power when he’s talking about the fears and hazards that come with that trade. He could confess to younger, dumber mistakes, sympathizing with his younger self but still conveying the idea that the decisions he was making were stupid ones: “Put the drugs on the shelf? Nah, I couldn’t see it / Scarface, King of New York, I wanna be it / Rap was secondary, money was necessary / Till I got incarcerated, kinda scary… Time to contemplate: Damn, where did I fail? / All the money I stacked was all the money for bail.”
If there’s a narrative thrust to Ready To Die, it’s in Biggie’s conflicts with his mother, a woman who would become famous as a public mourner after his death. On first song “Things Done Changed,” he’s describing the savage age he grew up in, but he’s reveling in it, not mourning the supposedly-more-innocent time that had passed. There’s a twinge of bitterness to the song (“Back in the day, our parents used to take care of us / Look at ‘em now, they even fuckin’ scared of us”), but there are more threats, more boasts about the guns he’s carrying. Throughout the album, he mentions arguments with his mom, ignored advice, times when he got kicked out of the house. He lists his mother’s breast cancer as the reason he’s stressed. He gives off a vague impression that he knows he’s wrong during all his fights, but he never changes his ways. On the album-ending “Suicidal Thoughts,” he gets so deep into his own failings that he portrays himself killing himself, shooting himself in the head while he’s on the phone with Puff. It’s a weird and telling ending to such an otherwise-triumphant album, and a chilling listen in light of the way Biggie’s life would end just three years later. That ending, and those arguments with his mother, turn every moment of overcoming the odds into a hollow victory, and they add pathos to an album that could be exultant. On Ready To Die, every silver lining has a cloud.
I haven’t even mentioned Biggie’s voice yet, a booming clarion that cut through everything around it. That voice was malleable — he loved playing two different characters on the same song, and he could always make both of them distinct — but it was a bulldozer, not a finesse instrument. That voice was all blunt-voice power, which made it all the more startling when you noticed the writerly poise that went into so much of what Biggie was saying. There are turns of phrase on Ready To Die that couldn’t possibly be any better-crafted. “I don’t chase ‘em, I replace ‘em”: I think I giggled with stupid glee for 20 minutes the first time I heard that line. “How you living, Biggie Smalls? In mansion and Benzes, giving ends to my friends, and it feels stupendous”: That’s probably my favorite good-life line of all time, a note-perfect description of how good it feels to help the people around you. There’s a reason why so many rappers have stolen so many lines from Ready To Die at various points: When those lines entered your brain, they wouldn’t leave. (There’s also the reprehensible shit, the robbing pregnant women and “talk slick, I beat you right.” But in the way the album discusses Biggie’s own failings, it’s possible to think of those moments as Biggie adding more moral wrinkles to his character. That’s how I’d like to think of them, anyway.)
It’s fascinating, these 20 years later, that an album this layered and thoughtful and intense ever worked as pop music, and the world has Sean Combs to thank for that. Puffy knew Biggie had a once-in-a-generation talent, and he knew that you could take someone as raw as Biggie and present him as a movie star by building songs like setpieces, sparing no production-value expenses and piling on the opulence. The samples are warm and lush and heavily orchestrated, sweetened with widescreen production touches like the ones Dr. Dre was applying on the other side of the country at the same time. There are so many perfect, subtle little flourishes on Ready To Die: The way the intro drums switch from one speaker channel to the other on “Things Done Changed,” the slight crackle on the phone line in “Warning,” the way Biggie’s voice doubles up on the phrase “New York, New York” on “Respect.” And songs like “One More Chance” and “Big Poppa” are so slickly textured that even Biggie’s massive voice feels calm and soothing.
In a way, Ready To Die sounds even more current 20 years later than Illmatic, the other impossible-not-to-discuss New York rap masterpiece of 1994 — and that was an album explicitly designed to stand outside of time. Ready To Die was focused on sounding current in 1994, but rap has never gotten over it, and we still have stars like Rick Ross who are trying to equal its sense of larger-than-life cool. Illmatic is an absolutely incredible album, but one of its greatest assets is the way Nas sounds like he’s lost in a dream, completely trapped within his own head. Biggie doesn’t sound like that. Even when he’s rapping about workaday struggles, he radiates impossible confidence. He was 21 and 22 when he was recording Ready To Die, and he sounded like he already knew he was the baddest motherfucker in the whole city. Think of how you were at 21 or 22. Imagine feeling that self-assured. It’s impossible. It doesn’t compute. And that’s one of the things about Biggie’s way-too-early death that stings the worst: If he sounded that confident, that put-together, at 21, how would he sound now? While you think about that, let’s watch some videos.