Notorious BIG - Ready to Die
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Constructed like a David Lynch film— Ready To Die’s confusingly fluid timeline defies any logical analysis. What exactly was Biggie’s situation during the album’s recording? Was he an established, wealthy musician looking back on his ghetto days? Or was he still living in the slums, dealing drugs and trying to eke out a living to feed his daughter?
He may have been both of those things at different stages in its creation, but Ready To Die’s track sequencing jumbles the order to the extent that a unifying theme or conclusion is hard to find. It begins with Big’s birth and ends with his death—but the structure in between is anything but linear. Biggie hops from lifestyle to lifestyle, mood to mood—but any switches from fiction to reality are unclear, and basically down to the listener to pick apart. Is this album a self-fulfilling fantasy of a more prosperous existence? Or a wealthy musician struggling to separate his old lifestyle from his current, more luxurious one? Is Big on the outside looking in, or the inside looking out?
Biggie’s belief system and code of morality are equally hard to fathom. Is he a devoted husband and family man? Or a misogynistic womaniser, content to play the field? Is he a sensitive street poet? Or a violent criminal, lucky enough to make a living describing his reckless lifestyle?
The record’s power stems from this sense of uncertainty. Following the intro, our narrator introduces us to his ghetto life on “Things Done Changed”. A commanding mixture of synth swirls and buoyant horns—it’s also Notorious Big at his most morally aware. Slamming the rising penchant for violent crime in his neighbourhood, he yearns for the days of “summertime cook-outs” when “motherfuckers was all friendly”. But, while Big is aware of the unpleasant nature of gang violence, he’s equally inclined to revel in it. Straight after this wistful, almost sentimental cry for unity, we are treated to the gleefully sadistic “Gimme the Loot”. Notorious Big and an accomplice embark on a horrifying crime spree, which concludes in a shoot out with the cops. Along the way, they threaten to “leave niggers in the gutter” and quarrel over who should rob a young woman of her fur coat and diamonds. It shouldn’t be an enjoyable listen—but the brutality of the beat, and the bracingly dark humour are undeniably thrilling.
Biggie’s happiness fluctuates wildly. He’s frequently weighed down by despair—and suicide is threatened on “Everyday Struggle” (“I don’t wanna live no more / Sometimes I hear death tapping at my front door”). Before the album is out, he will have acted on this threat. Closer “Suicidal Thoughts” is a starkly beautiful telephone conversation between Big and a croney—a late-night cry for attention which concludes with a goodbye (“I’m sick of talkin’”) and a self-inflicted gun-blast to the head.
One can conclude that Biggie was a troubled, depressed man. But once again, this is just one side of the story. In between the two aforementioned tracks that detail his desire to leave this life, he is embracing it to the full. “Juicy” is the album’s glorious pop song—with a sweet female vocal hook on the chorus, and an infectiously juddering bass-line. Biggie casts an eye back to his troubled times in the a squalid one-room shack (“No heat / Wonderin’ why Christmas missed us”) and gives thanks for his new-found wealth (“Damn right I like the life I live!”). “Big Poppa” is his lesson in the art of seduction—Biggie relishing the opportunity to detail his preferred pulling methods—all set to an exquisite groove and joyous sing-along chorus (“Throw yo hands in the ay-ar / If youse a true playa”).
These happier tracks contain mentions of Jacuzzis and champagne—so it’s fair to say they’re written from the perspective of a rich man. Are we to take it that life has been peaches for Big since he became a pop star? Certainly not. “Warning” demonstrates the setbacks that come with success, as Biggie gets word that some old acquaintances are on the way to his house to grab a share of his wealth (effectively stripping him of the “fur coat and diamonds” he was so keen to steal on “Gimme the Loot”). Luckily, he’s prepared for this sort of thing—feeding his guard dogs gunpowder, and indulging in some twisted violent fantasies to get in the mood (“I leave pain / Bloodstains on what remains of his jacket”).
But, if there’s one constant throughout the record, then it’s the presence of Voletta Wallace, Biggie’s mother. She is the source of his morality: any shame he holds for his violent actions stems from the fact that it will disappoint her (on “Suicidal Thoughts” his expresses sadness that his mother “don’t love me like she used” and asks “If I died would tears come to her eyes?“) His drive to succeed is also down to her—his desire to make money is not selfish, he wants to repay her for all she has done for him (on “Juicy” he sings “She loves to show me off of course / Smiles every time my face is up in The Source”).
Sweet, hypocritical, sensitive, violent, depressed and jubilant—these words could all fittingly describe Big at various points on Ready To Die. At the album‘s close, we are left with more questions than answers. Great art demands it.
By: Kilian Murphy
Published on: 2004-06-22