The West Coast is running the Hip Hop charts. Death Row Records, powered by Dr.
Dre's potent brand of g-funk, has become a leading force in the recording
industry. Artists from New York, the birthplace of Hip Hop, have taken a
backseat to their left-coast brethren and seen their dominance fade. This is
the climate that the Notorious B.I.G.
enters in 1994 when he unleashes his Ready
to Die. Undoubtedly serving as B.I.G
.'s defining work, the album is as reflective as The Wonder Years, only it's filled with painful recollections
instead of fond memories. It has been designated everything; the album that
brought the East Coast back and one that redefined the mid-90's sound. But the
only description that fits is its most noble - classic.
The first of several seminal songs together, DJ Premier put his stamp of approval on the young rapper and laced
him with "Unbelievable." The song lives up to its title as it is not only one
of Primo's finest sampling exploits,
but displaying Big's awe-inspiring flow
like no other. The Hitmen, a
production squad that lives up to its name, sets the musical direction for Ready to Die. Their skillful use of
samples and interpolated music is deceptively low-key with a subtle flair, much
like Biggie. As he morbidly raps, "I'm ready to die and nobody can save me,"
on the title track, Easy Mo Bee
complements the dark mood with a concoction of funky drums and layers of eerie,
disappearing strings. Mo Bee also
mans the boards on several of the album's best tracks, including "The What,"
which features the Notorious and Method Man trading lines like two men
who have worked together for years.
Though the Brooklyn-Shaolin connection is a natural fit, B.I.G.'s best collaborator is himself.
Using well-placed tonal changes and vocal inflections, he creates stellar songs
like "Gimme the Loot," a schizophrenic salute to armed robbery. He reflects the
thought process of two identities looking to prosper the ski-mask way on this
ultimate stick-up anthem, displaying his creativity and knack for dramatic
storytelling. That same talent remains throughout the album, especially on "Warning,"
where he gruesomely promises, "There's
gonna be a lot of slow singing and flower bringing/If my burglar alarm starts
ringing." More than just grandstanding, Biggie Smalls'
intimidating conviction adds some grit to Slick
Rick's orating abilities. It's become standard for emcees to talk about
violence, but he's anything but standard. His seamless transition between moods
and characters makes listeners believe that they are sitting on a stoop,
listening to a friend relay a story about past exploits, a skill few artists
have duplicated since.
Biggie delivers chilling lyrics
in which he wishes for death ("Everyday Struggle") and then poetically
follows-through on that desire ("Suicidal Thoughts"). But in spite of his
persistent depression, he's capable of dusting off the dirt that surrounds him.
The celebratory "Juicy" remains one of Frank
White's greatest and most-revealing songs. Part-autobiography,
part-declaration-of-success, it rekindles the funk of Mtume's "Juicy Fruit" to document the star's transition from
Brooklyn knucklehead to magazine cover story. Though the Jamaican-tinged "Respect"
also describes his rise from poverty, "Juicy" is more expressive, and summed-up
with great simplicity: "Birthdays
was the worst days/Now we sip champagne when we thirsty/Uh, damn right I like
the life I live/'Cause I went from negative to positive and it's all... (It's all
"Juicy" and the lady-enticing "Big Poppa" help humanize the gun-crazy
artist. The songs chip away at his self-depreciating loser portrayal, so he's
no longer an angry teen looking to rob a subway train or push crack. Though Ready to Die is deeply-rooted in his
uncaring attitude towards life and violence, Notorious B.I.G.'s personable nature takes away from that Bad Boy image. That's the reason so
many emcees have tried in vain to reignite his ability to simultaneously hold
the respect of their peers and a sway over the listening public. Most of all,
it's the reason that we'll always love Big