Thursday, June 19, 2008

[003] Ready To Die

Album: Ready To Die
Artist: The Notorious B.I.G.
Release Date: September 1994
Label: Bad Boy/Arista
Producers: Easy Mo Bee, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Bluez Brothers, Chucky Thompson, Poke (Trackmasters), DJ Premier, Lord Finesse, Dominic Owens & Kevin Scott

“I never thought it could happen, this rappin’ stuff
I was too used to packing gats and stuff
Now honeys play me close like butter plays toast
From the Mississippi down to the East Coast
Condos in Queens, indo for weeks
Sold out seats to hear Biggie Smalls speak
Living life without fear; putting five karats in my baby girl’s ear
Lunches, brunches, interviews by the pool
Considered a fool cuz I dropped out of high school
Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood, and it’s still all good”
- from “Juicy”

“I know how it feels to wake up fucked up
Pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell
People look at you like you’s the user
Selling drugs to all the losers, mad buddha abuser
But they don’t know about your stress-filled day
Baby on the way, mad bills to pay
That’s why you drink Tanqueray, so you can reminisce
And wish you wasn’t living so devilish”
- from “Everyday Struggle”

“My shit is deep, deeper than my grave, G
I’m ready to die and nobody can save me
Fuck the world, fuck my Moms and my girl
My life is played out like a jheri curl - I’m ready to die!”
- from the title track

I feel like I should say this: I’m not entirely comfortable telling you that Ready To Die is the greatest Hip-Hop album of all time, but I’m doing it anyway. It’s not that it’s not good enough for the title, but it’s always felt more great than greatEST. From the start, any one of the top seven of the genre on this list – this, Paul’s Boutique, 36 Chambers, Illmatic, Low End Theory, Nation Of Millions, and 3 Feet High & Rising - could’ve taken the pole position. All seven are interchangeably essential to any collection of Hip-Hop, and of modern music. I expect that if you’re reading this then you own at least one of these albums, and hopefully all of them, even if you’d describe yourself as ‘not that into Hip-Hop’; exposure to these classic collections can at least better define your close-minded opinion. This may sound abrasive, but I don’t intend to be mean; it’s more of a defense mechanism, the same one that birthed this list in the first place – there has indeed been great music during my generation, and I just wish that my generation would fully embrace their own music instead of spending so much time with our parents’ music. It’s kind of depressing that I, a 31-year old Caucasian suburbanite (albeit in the shadow of Rap’s Gotham City home), know more about the storied history of Hip-Hop than a large percentage of African-Americans, specifically young people, and yet it’s “their music”. That feels wrong to me, and the problem is definitely not me liking Hip-Hop too much. It’s like, seriously, “Top Billin’” isn’t just a song that 50 Cent sampled last year! It’s one of the greatest singles ever!

There is a large part of me wanting to not make this a racial issue, but it is: Hip-Hop is the last great black art, and gets treated that way by so few of the African-American community and the blindly-following white consumer masses that make up the majority of its audience. There isn’t nearly enough respect flying around, and in many ways that’s the artists’ faults as well as the audience, the short-sighted program directors, and the two-bit “producers” with snap-track ringtone dollar signs in their eyes. Most any Hip-Hop acts bothering to try something new are usually trying too hard, forgetting about things like accessibility and universality, and coming off as too serious, and so they never hit, meanwhile those acts that are hitting are doing so song-by-song on iTunes, with no longevity in the plan. Fans download the one single, then roll over and go back to sleep before it’s time to hit the club again. The perceived “true” Hip-Hop fan – the staunchly defensive African-American who has grown up in one of the music’s meccas, from Queens or The Bronx to Compton to Atlanta to Chicago, etc. – will try and fight for the fact that yes, because blacks created Hip-Hop music that it is their music, but this ignores the fact that, as one of the genre’s greatest chroniclers, Nelson George, tells us in his essential 1998 book Hip Hop America, blacks abandoned Hip-Hop before it even got on wax, and it was kept alive as much by the early Puerto Rican break dancers and white Jewish businessmen who wanted to put money into it as it was by the few faithful black artists, and the fans it managed to salvage.

More than just a black artform, Hip-Hop is essential to the way that the world sees America and the modern experiences of the African-American community within; I’m saying that we all need to understand that this music now belongs to all of us, that a lot of the white kids in the world learn about black culture from rap music, and it’s always been this way, and especially so since the music’s 1990’s commercial takeover, when Biggie Smalls came into our lives. Since his murder, the music has been in a rut, and there is no hint that it might ever recover. This is probably due to the fact that Biggie Smalls, as the last truly great ambassador of Hip-Hop, is also the greatest MC that ever lived, and he will remain so at least as long as our lifetimes; it’s kind of hard to follow that up. Don’t waste your time trying to argue this with me, because I’ve had years of practice with deluded 2Pac fans. I know all the contenders from Kane to G Rap to Marshall. The only concession I’ll allow is if you’re the type of music fan that prioritizes historical significance – whoever did something first is automatically the best – then I will allow Rakim, but that’s it.

As a side note, I might as well say this now, because it can be said about virtually every verse on Ready To Die and then we’d be here all night: Biggie was the all-time master of internal rhyme structures, and he trained his voice to match, exploiting vowels for all they were worth (something he admittedly learned from Rakim and honed while hanging out with 2Pac); to choose only one example – shit, to only choose ten – would be maddening, but I’ll give you this line from the first verse on the album: “Lounging at the barbeques drinking brews with the neighborhood crews hanging on the avenues”; read out loud, it’s perfectly clear what he was doing, but to hear him actually do it, playfully pulling at those U’s, it’s remarkable in its simple genius. His command of the English language was mind-blowing considering (a) he was a high school dropout, and (b) he never tried to sound smart by using big words. I know I’ll say this more than once: Biggie talked straight, no frills. Even with all his miniscule details, he still gave you the facts. Even beyond MCing, as a presence in music, the only Hip-Hop acts to rival him in the last decade have been Jay-Z and Outkast, and well, neither ever really got over the hump the way they needed to (Admittedly, Biggie benefits in retrospect from his early exit, as there are only two official albums to consider – he never had a chance to really falter). I guess Jay got closer to Biggie’s level, but he bowed out just as his momentum was getting good, and he ruined it by coming back and having to start all over again. Outkast…well, I just think they gave up.

Rachel works with my girlfriend, and is a white suburbanite like me, though you could argue she is more white than me as she doesn’t necessarily have an overwhelming interest in the history of black musics like I do. If I told you her musical interests include Billy Joel, Journey, Weezer, James Taylor, modern radio country and American Idol, you’d wonder how Biggie would fit into her life, but somehow he does. We were at a birthday party for one of their co-workers at a bar one night, and “Hypnotize” came on the jukebox. Rachel starts rapping along to the music, and she knows every word, nailing every phrasing, every inflection, moving with the music, becoming Biggie; she is, in that moment, Hip-Hop’s biggest fan, and in her eyes I see that look that a kid gets on Christmas morning. When the song is over, she pulls out a dollar, hands it to me, looks me dead in the eyes with a sly smile, and says “John, put on two more”. Now I have that look – she’s given it to me. I put on “Gimme The Loot” and “Juicy”, and we rhymed together. It was in this moment that I realized that this album had to be the number one Hip-Hop album on this list. Because really, it’s not about the album, it’s about Biggie Smalls himself. It’s not just that Biggie means so much to so many people, but what he means, and how. What does he mean to Hip-Hop, and what does he mean to the global community of people that like music? There is something infectious about the multi-facted personality of Biggie, whether it’s the hustler, the criminal, the lothario, the verbal technician, the comedian, or simply the entertainer. Rachel (or I) never hustled drugs on a corner to feed our (non-existent) daughters, but like a great movie, that’s the power of great Hip-Hop, and of The Notorious B.I.G.

I’ll go one further: my brother Ian currently resides in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, only a few blocks from where Biggie grew up – Biggie on St. James, my brother on Quincy. I have walked down those streets late at night, and I’ve seen the neighborhood at its calmest, most quiet, and also most unsettling and creepy. I’ve gotten the evil eye from corner boys or the Rastas across the street, and I’m comfortable enough to think that if they ever had beef and stepped to me, our mutual love of Biggie Smalls would have everything smoothed out in minutes. He is that neighborhood in so many ways, and vice versa. Even though he sold millions of albums and is one of the biggest names of the last two decades of music, there is a little-MC-that-could quality, a pride that comes in being a Notorious B.I.G. fan, the same kind of pride that Biggie himself had, making “fat, black, and ugly as ever” OK, and even sexy. Bed-Stuy oozes that from every bodega and brownstone. Whether he realized or not, Biggie’s straight talk made him the ultimate example of the young black ghetto male in America, and his inadvertent representation of that archetype to the rest of the world resulted in his iconic status.

Unlike so many rappers of his generation who were hooked on Hip-Hop from an early age and took years to build their skills, Biggie hit the ground running, his development as an MC only four or five years from him picking up a mic to when he released Ready To Die, a masterpiece album, and his entire career fits nicely into a nine year span. We’ve all seen the VH-1 specials, but this is something that needs to be singled out: remember that Biggie was likely hustling drugs pretty much up to the second he was in the studio. This seems common place in Hip-Hop now, with countless rappers airing out their suspect and shameless exploits in the years since Ready To Die, but at the time, this was frighteningly new, and this fact, and the tirelessly detailed lyrics that Biggie wrote about the subject, form the reason why I positioned this as the top Hip-Hop album on this list. Quite simply, Biggie, and specifically his songs on Ready To Die, not only represent the black ghetto male in a general sense, but specifically the past, present, and future of the characterization. This isn’t merely a great album, it’s a social event, albeit one that took years to reveal itself fully; that is the ‘future’ part of the equation, so we’ll return to it.

Let’s get with the past: Biggie, with Puffy orchestrating the proceedings, begins the album with carefully chosen samples as backdrops to his tales. Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly”, not only the classic portrait of drugs in the inner city but also a signpost to 1972, the year of Biggie’s birth, gives way to “Rapper’s Delight” and the aforementioned classic “Top Billin’” by Audio Two, the soundtrack to a tumultuous adolescence as a stick-up kid. The “Intro” concludes to the sounds of Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Tha Shiznit”, the best song from 1993’s Doggystyle, with Biggie leaving prison with big plans. Those big plans, as he and Puffy would make abundantly clear in interviews for years, was to make an East Coast version of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and so again, the sample was not arbitrary. Like the “Intro”, the dancehall hybrid “Respect” also has Biggie revisiting his difficult entry into this world - “Umbilical cord’s wrapped around my neck / I’m seeing my death and I ain’t even took my first step / I made it out, I’m bringing mad joy / the doctor looked and said ‘he’s gonna be a Bad Boy!” – and his journey from troubled child – “So school I didn’t show up, it fucked my flow up” - to street corner hustler – “Put the drugs on the shelf; nah I couldn’t see it / Scarface, King Of New York, I wanna be it.” And in case you think he’s only glorifying the drug trade, he notes his downfall and incarceration – “All the money I stacked was all the money for bail” – for equal measure.

Turning his reminiscence outward to his community, the album begins in earnest with the epic “Things Done Changed”. As produced by Dominic Owens & Kevin Scott, “Things Done Changed” bathes the gray projects of days gone by with heavenly light in the form of rising cinematic strings, moaning 70’s horns, and cascading harp. This fanfare works with Biggie’s back-in-the-day narrative, and yet is in direct opposition when he flips his story to the present. He begins with the hopeful, but can’t even make it four bars without the darkness creeping in:

Remember back in the days, when niggas had waves, Gazelle shades and corn braids / Pinching pennies, honies had the high-top Jellies, shooting skelly, muthafuckers was all friendly / Lounging at the barbeques drinking brews with the neighborhood crews hanging on the avenues / Turn your pages to Nineteen Ninety-Three, niggas is getting smoked, G – believe me!

Here is the beginning of our present, where Biggie’s personal experience on the corners of Bed-Stuy directly informs the musical screenplays he’s writing, and eventually the global idea of the ghetto male. Somewhere along the line, he nicknamed himself both the “Black Frank White” after Christopher Walken’s drug kingpin in The King Of New York, and the “Rap Alfred Hitchcock”, and not just because he cut a similar famous silhouette. The visions of violence from here on out on Ready To Die are explicit to say the least – “Talk slick, you get your neck slit quick, cuz real street niggas ain’t having that shit” – but never cartoonish or gratuitous; they’re carefully measured to not sound outlandish, and in doing so, you never doubt that these may indeed be things that Biggie saw or did (as opposed to other MCs whose criminal forays were maybe too good to be believed). I’ve talked before about the ‘grim reality’ of ghetto life, especially on Nas’ Illmatic and Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers, but where the former might excel in intelligence and insight, and the latter excels in brute force, Biggie wins by cutting down the middle with plain speaking. He doesn’t mince words, illustrating the stress - “I stay seeing bodies with the muthafucking chalk around it” – the fear – “Little muthafuckers with heat wanna leave a nigga six feet deep” – and the paranoia of adding the criminal world on top of the corrupted ghetto one – “And we’re coming to the wake to make sure all the crying and commotion ain’t a muthafucking fake”.

That paranoia is soaked into the grooves of the throbbing “Warning”, one of the great productions in 90’s Hip-Hop, a massive bump that’ll rattle your car trunk. Easy Mo Bee produced this and five other of the album’s fifteen songs, but because those six are the most by one producer, with the rest of the tracks spread around, it’s Mo Bee’s thick, enveloping funk and heavy beats that provide the sonic signature for the album. Over this beat, Biggie wonders ‘why niggas want to stick him for his paper’, but really, it doesn’t matter; all that matters is that he knows exactly how to deal with the threats to his throne…

Call the coroner; there’s gonna be a lot of slow-singing and flower-bringing if my burglar alarm starts ringing. What you think all the guns is for? All purpose war, got the rottweilers by the door, and I feed them gunpowder so they can devour the criminals tryin’ to drop my decimals…
Bet you Biggie won’t slip; I got the Calico with the black talons loaded in the clip so I can rip through the ligaments, put the fuckers in a bad predicament, where all the foul niggas went. Touch my cheddar, feel my Beretta, buck what I’ma hit you with you muthafuckers better duck. I bring pain, blood stains on what remains of his jacket, he had a gun, he should’ve packed it, cocked it; extra clips in my pocket so I can reload and explode on your asshole. I fuck around and get hardcore, C-4 to your door, no beef no more, nigga…

This is par for the course, and would later conflict with his real life as a celebrity, inspiring the single “Mo Money Mo Problems”. But his defensiveness is only one element of his criminal narratives. The fear he intends to instill in his victims in the flawless “Gimme The Loot” portrays Biggie at his most vicious. I’ll say this for as long as I live: this song is possibly the single most impressive performance by any MC, at least to date. Biggie lays down what on paper appears to be just a bunch of jack-move boasts about “robbing muthafuckers since the slave ships”, but he strings them together as a conversation between two thug partners, rapping as both people, at different pitches, with different flows. I thought it was a guest rapper for months before I realized; it remains jaw-dropping even after the thousandth listen, regardless of whether you’ve been desensitized by the album’s most extreme violence described in the lyrics. Biggie illustrates that these crimes are often spawned by the desperation of poverty – “When it’s time to eat a meal I rob and steal, cuz Ma Duke ain’t giving me shit, so for the bread and butter I leave niggas in the gutter” – and that the lengths that people will go to - “You’re talking to the robbery expert; step into your wake with your blood on my shirt” - is very possibly disproportionate to what they get out of it – “Niggas come through, I’m taking high school rings too; bitches get strangled for their earrings and bangles”.

The breezy “Everyday Struggle”, riding over the same drums as Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray”, focuses on the day-to-day grind of the street-level dealer, and again the poverty of the inner city. The song is key to Biggie’s world because it shows us the hypocrisy of his existence; one second he expresses genuine remorse for his profession, wishing he wasn’t living ‘so devilish’, then the next he sounds almost gleeful about ways to make more money dealing. His operation gets raided, his friend gets murdered, and his woman gets sent up the river for being his drug mule, moaning, “I'm seeing body after body, and our mayor Guiliani ain't trying to see no black man turn to John Gotti”, but then he turns around and plays proud poppa to his daughter. It’s this mapping of the gray areas in the criminal world that Biggie is so incredible at, not unlike the best directors in film, showing the duality of the evils of society, the loving family man who happens to be getting his whole neighborhood hooked on crack.

Biggie mirrors that duality with his take on women, equally schizophrenic. In many places on the album, he plays the misogynist, treating women like they’re there just for his entertainment; he never reaches the Compton level of rudeness, the ‘bitches ain’t shit’ idiom, but a song like “Friend Of Mine” (the album’s weakest song) puts him damn close; the only difference is, for Biggie, he let’s slip that his attitude might have resulted from initial hurt – “When I like you, then you go and fuck my friend, bitch”. Similarly, he spends all of “One More Chance” crowing dirty about how he’s got the “cleanest meanest penis” that will “shatter your bladder” and “make your kidneys shift”, but in the sex skit that immediately follows, when he fucks his girl so hard that she falls off the bed, the first thing out of his mouth is a sheepish “sorry”; his objectification is foggy at best, because at the other end of the spectrum, the G-funky “Big Poppa” is talking strictly to the “ladies in the place with style & grace”, while the chorus calls out to the “honeys getting money playing niggas like dummies”, casting the females in the superior position.

Biggie doesn’t spend the whole album rapping about the streets and the girls – he is an MC after all, and MC’s have to talk about themselves and how awesome they are. There’s no shortage of that on Ready To Die, but what sets Biggie apart is his sharp sense of humor. How better than to describe Biggie’s skills than “Unbelievable”, also the name of the classic track produced by DJ Premier, where the astounding wordplay and punchlines come fast, like the immortal diss, “Your life is played out like Kwamé and them fucking polka dots” or the darkly comic, “The gat’s by your liver, your upper lip quiver; get ready to die, tell God I said hi”. On “Machine Gun Funk”, he’ll “get up in that ass like a wedgie” and he’s “beating muthafuckers like Ike beat Tina”, but it’s the first verse of his smoked-out freestyle duet with Method Man, “The What”, that pretty much packs a laugh a line: niggas is “soft like a Twinkie filling”, their “style is played out like Arnold on that ‘Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?’”, Biggie’s going to “throw dick to dykes”, and he wants “the fuckin’ fortune like the Wheel”. Then he finishes you off by dropping the infamous hiccup into the second verse, something no one saw coming.

It is Biggie as an influence that makes Ready To Die point towards the young black males of the future. He could have never known when he recorded these songs that they would become guides, textbooks, and new rules for the next generation of corner boys and stick-up kids. To look at the ghetto youth of today, and their up-and-coming generation of MC’s, is to know that Biggie’s lyrics are now project manifestos. He lays it out quite easily in “Things Done Changed”, more so than all his other classic lines:

If I wasn’t in the rap game, I’d probably have a ki’ knee deep in the crack game / Because the streets is a short stop; either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump-shot

That line rings true to so many young black males’ daily stresses and limited life-paths, and throughout the album, frank lessons like that were taught unintentionally. Without a doubt, many have gotten ideas of the drug trade from this album, although hopefully they’ve realized that Biggie put it down and walked away, toward a mic, and never went back. It may be more of the same exploitation that he’s been known for since Biggie’s passing, but when Puffy made Da Band learn all the lyrics to “Juicy” up on MTV, there was a specific reason: it is the quintessential rags-to-riches rap song, Biggie in the limelight cuz he rhymes tight. Not only does it convey the struggle to get over (to revisit Curtis’ Superfly), or the overwhelming relief to have made it, but it pulls in all the themes of the album: the reminiscence of back-in-the-day, trying to put the sinning and gats behind him, reconciling with his Mom who had kicked him out. It’s never all positive – surely there are some young men who have unfortunately learned how to mack it to girls from “One More Chance” or “Friend Of Mine”, but the end result is usually something closer to “Me & My Bitch”, which despite the title and its tragic tale, is a song of devotion that, at its base intention, is a good message. The terrifying title track and even more upsetting “Suicidal Thoughts” go a long way to detailing his penchant for violence and depression, but Biggie made sure to explain in pretty much any interview that these are just stories about his past, before he was an MC, and that when he said he was ready to die, he meant he was willing to give 100% to the Rap game; if you risk it all, you must be ready to die.

Looking at it from that angle, the title of the album takes on a whole new meaning: Biggie Smalls’ decision to be an MC, as opposed to a drug dealer, is his great risk; he’s saying he’s ready to die for Hip-Hop, and therefore walking away from crime. Since Biggie emerged as a part of New York’s gritty resurgence, motion picture kingpin figures like Pacino’s Tony Montana and Walken’s Frank White have become icons to the young ghetto male. But what do those characters have in common? They die in the end. They fail. They get shot and killed because there weren’t ready to die by Biggie’s way of thinking – they couldn’t see the risk of walking away as a good one. Biggie’s success made him, right or wrong, into the ultimate ghetto role model, but after the fact. Of course he died in the end too, but that’s his tragedy – he “left the drugs alone” and uplifted himself, he did what he could, but it was someone else’s lack of vision, not giving their 100%, that made them think taking the greatest MC from the world was a good idea.

But we have the music forever. I’m calling this the best Hip-Hop album of the last twenty years (and, essentially, ever) not because the collection of songs is unmatched, but because it contains the best work of the best MC, and if you want to represent an entire genre, shouldn’t you pick the artist who’s best at it? In my #6 entry on DJ Shadow, I reference the 150th issue of The Source, and the best feature is on Biggie Smalls being named the greatest MC of all time. The magazine hints at the most sound theory I’ve ever heard: It’s not that he’s the better than any one MC, whether it’s the lyrics of Rakim, the flow of Big Daddy Kane or Eminem, the passion of 2Pac, the storytelling of Slick Rick, Ice Cube, Kool G Rap, or Scarface, the charisma of LL Cool J or Jay-Z, the intelligence of KRS or Chuck D or Nas. It’s that The Notorious B.I.G. is as good as all of them. That’s why he’s the greatest of all time, and that’s why Ready To Die is #3. Bow before the King of New York.

01. “Intro” [interlude]
02. “Things Done Changed”
03. “Gimme The Loot”
04. “Machine Gun Funk”
05. “Warning”
- Home Invasion interlude
06. “Ready To Die”
- Answering Machine interlude
07. “One More Chance”
08. “#!*@ Me” [interlude]
09. “The What” [feat. Method Man]
10. “Juicy”
11. “Everyday Struggle”
12. “Me & My Bitch”
- Interview interlude
13. “Big Poppa”
14. “Respect” [feat. Diana King]
- “I don’t be doin’ this” interlude
15. “Friend Of Mine”
16. “Unbelievable”
17. “Suicidal Thoughts”

"Gimme The Loot/Big Poppa" [live in Philadelphia, 1994]
from the documentary The Show

"Warning" [uncensored video]

"Juicy" [uncensored video]

"Unbelievable" [live in Hartford, 1994]

- BONUS: "Intro" [audio]
- BONUS: "Things Done Changed" [fan video]
- BONUS: "Gimme The Loot" [audio]
- BONUS: "Machine Gun Funk" [audio]
- BONUS: "Warning" [live]
- BONUS: "Warning"/interview [live in Philadelphia, 1994]
from the documentary The Show
- BONUS: "Warning" [audio]
- BONUS: "Ready To Die" [audio]
- BONUS: "One More Chance" [audio]
- BONUS: "The What" [audio]
- BONUS: "Juicy" [live in Baltimore]
- BONUS: "Juicy" [audio]
- BONUS: "Everyday Struggle" [audio]
- BONUS: "Me & My Bitch" [audio]
- BONUS: "Big Poppa" [uncensored video]
- BONUS: "Big Poppa" [live at MTV's Spring Break '95]
- BONUS: "Big Poppa" [audio]
- BONUS: "Respect" [audio]
- BONUS: "Friend Of Mine" [audio]
- BONUS: "Unbelievable" [live in Atlanta, 1994]
- BONUS: "Unbelievable" [audio]
- BONUS: "Suicidal Thoughts" [audio]

- BONUS: "Warning/Juicy/Me & My Bitch" medley [live at The Apollo, 1996]
- BONUS: "One More Chance (Stay With Me Remix)" [video]
- BONUS: "One More Chance (Stay With Me Remix)" [live video]
- BONUS: "One More Chance (Stay With Me Remix)" [live at The Apollo]
- BONUS: "One More Chance (Stay With Me Remix)" [live on Martin]
...yes, the Martin Lawrence sitcom. Seriously.

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