Don’t Forget about Ready to Die, Hip Hop’s Great Gatsby

This year Nas’s Illmatic was re-released for its 20th year anniversary. On October 2nd, the documentary, Nas: Time is Illmatic, had a special one-night screening in theaters all across America. This is the first rap album in history to be so wholeheartedly embraced by mainstream Western popular culture. I am happy to see Nas carry the genre so well. However, I wish another album released the same year would get the same amount of love, namely, Ready to Die.
On Ready to Die, hip-hop’s most dynamic and memorable character comes to life, the cinematic Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie Smalls. The sample-driven “Intro” skit places you right in the middle of life in 1970s Brooklyn. Biggie is born into a world of conflict, poverty, and criminality, and quickly gets caught in its traps. By the end of the intro’s skit, we hear him being released from jail. He emphatically declares that he has “big plans.”
In the next song, “Things Done Changed,” Biggie explains why his big plans for the future do not look promising if he stays within legal bounds. His mom, and other hard-working parents in Bed-Stuy, are proof. She did all she could for them, but they were still miserably poor: “It’s hard being young from the slums / Eating five cents gum, not knowing where you next meal is coming from.” So he delves deeper into the illegal underworld.
The next fourteen songs are an amazing adventure. We travel with the world’s biggest, baddest, and most loveable gangster. In “Gimme the Loot,” he is a world-class robber more than eager to tell us all the details of his successful heists. In “Warning” he’s got nearly half of the American drug world locked down. However, there are jealous friends out to get to him. But Biggie, always aware, attacks them first: “In a sec, I throw the tec (Tec-9) to your fucking neck / Everybody hit the deck, Biggie bout to get some rec (recognition) / Quick to leave you in a coffin, for slick talking.” With all this money and recognition, the girls begin to flock to him also. His famous singles, “One More Chance,” “Big Poppa,” and others, explore his extravagant parties and intimate relations with women.
All this, and I have yet to mention the album’s classic single, “Juicy.” Here, Biggie is on top of the world. No longer forced to sell drugs and rob for money, he’s now got a new—and legal—occupation: rapping. This autobiographical track is the one of the most celebratory songs in rap history. He epitomizes the ideal American self-made man. Reminiscing on his earlier days in poverty makes all he has now that much more precious: “50 inch screen, money green, leather sofa / Got two rides, a limousine with a chauffeur.” He is able to provide for his mother like he always wanted to; and not only his mother, his “whole crew is lounging / celebrating every day, no more public housing.”
But there is another side to this rags-to-riches success story. It creeps in and out of the plot as the album progresses. On “Ready to Die,” he cries: “My shit is deep, deeper than the grave, G / I am ready to die and nobody can save me.” In “Everyday Struggle,” he soberly reflects on his criminal lifestyle, saying: “I don’t wanna live no more / Sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door / I’m living every day like a hustle /Another drug to juggle, another day, another struggle.” His conscience weighs on him so heavily that he drinks Tanqueray to forget about his devilish ways.
Still, with all the foreshadowing, the last song is a devastating blow. “Suicidal Thoughts” is when the great house of cards comes crashing down. Biggie Smalls calls a friend late at night and confesses that he deserves to go to hell: “All my life I been considered as the worst / Lying to my mother, even stealing out her purse / Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion /I know my mother wished she got a fucking abortion,” and from there he continues deeper down into the abyss. He rhymes nonstop for nearly two minutes before he takes his own life.
Notorious B.I.G.’s uncanny storytelling ability and clever wordplay have you hooked from song to song. You visualize every step he takes on the street, every ounce he sells on the corner, and every gun he pulls on a victim. He gives you all the particulars about the lavish parties: the glasses of Chardonnay he sips, the Lexus GS3s he smooth talks ladies in after shows, the T-bone steaks he can now afford to eat, and the L’s he smokes in Jacuzzis with women. As crazy as it all sounds on paper, he somehow makes you believe every word.
Sure, the album has a few throwaway—and inexcusably misogynistic—lines, and even one or two throwaway songs. You will not hear anything of the sort on the impeccably economic Illmatic. Furthermore, Nas’s Illmatic probably gives one a more accurate depiction of inner city life in NYC, and a broader scope. But Notorious B.I.G created a singular character that is still unmatched, and he brought that character’s storyline to a most poignant and befitting end. No album will take you higher, or bring you lower, than this one. Ready to Die is the Great Gatsby of rap. The “mic ripper, girl stripper, the Henny sipper” will leave you in awe, but like Gatsby, he will also leave you in tragedy. Neither characters could escape their past or actualize their Platonic conceptions of themselves. They both pay the ultimate price while trying to fulfill the elusive American Dream.
On October 3rd, the documentary Nas: Time Is Illmatic was made available on ITunes. I encourage you to watch it, and check out the re-released Illmatic XX. But please, make sure you also listen to Ready to Die. Please.