The cynical violence of Notorious B.I.G.

The cynical violence of Notorious B.I.G.

“Ready To Die”, the art of storytelling gangster of New York

Bad Boy / Arista, 1994

The beginnings of a young thug from Brooklyn

Before he became a global star, Notorious B.I.G. was just a young thug from Brooklyn who dreamed of making money, who dreamed big. If he was dreaming big, he probably didn’t even imagine becoming such an icon of urban culture. And when you see where he started from, the prowess is simply exceptional, like his talent, unique, prodigious, as we rarely see.

In reality, the young Christopher Wallace, born of a school teacher mother, was a rather brilliant schoolchild but also a disruptive one. Raised in a very precarious family after his father left home when he was two years old, he started dealing drugs at a very young age, 12, to make some money, while starting to rap on the street at the same age. Later, in high school, he got involved in even less scrupulous business before leaving school at 17. He was arrested several times for carrying an illegal weapon or drug trafficking and even went to jail. But in parallel, the young artist continues to rap.

When he got out of prison, he recorded a demo without much conviction, but which was noticed by some actors of the Hip Hop scene and earned him a mention in the famous Unsigned Hype category of the 1992 edition of The Source. Puff Daddy having noticed him arranged him a deal with Uptown Records, the label where he was working at the time. A few tracks were recorded at that time before Puff Daddy got fired and founded Bad Boy Records. The second part of Ready To Die will then be recorded, in early 1994.

The pessimistic vision of a young rapper without landmarks

Ready To Die will be in some way the summary of Biggie’s life, from his childhood until the release of the album, with a title that, like the content of the project, will be very cynical. Ready To Die is an album that is surprisingly prone to despair with a sort of inescapable fatality in the stories told. Biggie proposes a pessimistic vision of life with a disconcerting coldness, but it is also what makes his success. His stories are fatally bloody yet real, drawn from the author’s own experiences. If he waters down slightly to give a little drama and provoke a certain attraction, the stories are nonetheless inspired by real-life events. This appeal is obviously provoked by B.I.G.’s flawless narration and writing, worthy of mob movies, there is something cinematic here. But Biggie also adds a moody atmosphere with an almost permanent sense of unhappiness and reflections on himself and the emptiness of inner city life.

The album naturally starts with an introduction recapping his life on samples ranging from Curtis Mayfiled to Sugar Hill Gang to Snoop Dogg. A metaphor on the stages of his life, from childhood for Curtis to Snoop Dogg, released one year before Ready To Die. Things Done Changed focuses on the changes taking place in the ghettos of New York with brutal and violent neighborhood stories. While the stories told have an immediate effect, Biggie’s reflection on the darkness of the street that changes men is interesting, over a production composed of a few piano notes taken from The Main Ingredient. Everyday Struggle and Ready To Die will be other stories that always end in a bloodbath with a sense of despair. The first one works on a loop covered by Dave Gruisin’s Either Way and the second one on a riff of Singing in the Morning by Ohio Players. While the original tracks may sound upbeat, the producers here manage to make it something much more moody, perfect for Biggie’s stories.

Gangster stories in an uncomplicated violence

Gimme The Loot has to be the most schizophrenic song in Hip Hop, yet the two characters played by Biggie, himself and his alter-ego, are both equally tormented and violent. It tells the story of two characters who are ready to do anything to eat, from simple theft to killing, with a totally cold and uncomplicated violence. Machine Gun Funk offers an ego-trip full of bragging but the beauty of this track lies in the punchlines and clever puns as Biggie knows so well how to do. Accompanied by Method Man, The What will be another ego-trip with striking punchlines, the performances of the two rappers are simply exceptional, a charisma and an elocution to make the best emcees swoon, on a riff of Can’t Say Enough About Mom by Leroy Hutson.

Warning tells a story of jealousy of a rival clan that is after his money with all the quarrels and violence that ensues, but Biggie takes the opportunity to slip in a few words about the dangers, or rather the hazards, of wealth and fame. Even when Biggie takes on the subject of love on Me & My Bitch, he does so with a disconcerting vulgarity and coldness, yet he seems sincere, but nothing really seems to get to him. And even if things seem to be beautiful for once in the life of a criminal, the story always ends in a bloodbath, like a fatality to which Biggie got used to, but here it seems to move him a little more than a simple murder that has finally become commonplace.

Bad Boy’s pop-oriented touch

A few more teasing tracks are going to be invited in this momentum of violent despair. I named the three singles of the album, Juicy, Big Poppa and One More Chance. If these titles remain exceptional, we feel that they are slightly different from the album by their optimism, they are also titles that were written in the second wave of recording sessions, and which were more or less imposed by Puff Daddy. Biggie was convinced to record them by the latter, the rapper finding them too “soft” for him. Nevertheless, Biggie manages to do something with them. Juicy is a praise of enrichment while telling his steps in Hip Hop. Big Poppa and One More Chance are more sexual. In fact, these tracks will be the first of the new trend more oriented RnB/Pop instilled by Puffy, and which will be notably one of the trademarks of Bad Boy. If they are particularly successful here thanks to the pen of Biggie, it will unfortunately not always be the case for the other artists of the label.

Other tracks don’t seem as striking or memorable, but that’s also partly because they’re next to great tracks on one of the best rap albums of all time. Put them on another album and they have, for some, the ability to be the best track. Respect and its guitar production covered by KC & the Sunchine Band carries by its Reggae vocals of Diana King. Unbelievable produced by DJ Premier is as raw as an uncut rock where Biggie can express himself wonderfully, which will be covered by Michael Jackson on Invincible. Friend of Mine is more anecdotal and its fast and electronic production is a bit irritating. Although it presents an impeccable rap of Biggie, it remains a song a little disappointing in the whole.

With Suicidal Thoughts, the album concludes on a cynical note that is strangely reminiscent of its title, but also invites us to take our destiny into our own hands, less fatalistic than before. Biggie shares his dark thoughts with a poignant and moving darkness, he knows he’s going to hell and accepts his fate. The song ends with his heartbeat slowing down to a flat silence. Petrifying. Ready To Die.

The producers do a very good job overall with funk infused productions that are generally dark, except for the singles that bring a little more joy. But we do not necessarily retain the productions on Ready To Die, and this is a good thing. Biggie stands on his own with his calm flow and perfect diction, but also with his punchlines and his smashing puns, accompanied by his cold vision and his uncomplicated cinematographic violence. It’s Biggie that we remember here.  

Ready To Die has a perfect narrative in a brutal atmosphere. If there are unforgettable tracks, others can be slightly different from the album while being exceptional, especially the singles. Nevertheless, some tracks are dispensable, and the album could easily have been cut by two or three tracks. Ready To Die may not be perfect, but it remains an exceptional album and a key piece of the New York gangsta Hip Hop renaissance, largely due to Notorious B.I.G.’s writing and presence.

By Grégoire Zasa

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