There’s a moment, about halfway through Ready to Die, when the Notorious B.I.G. begins to sound like a motivational speaker. The first line of "Everyday Struggle" is "I know how it feel to wake up fucked up"; you can picture the headset mic, hear the high school kids giggle at the cuss word. Big commiserates with the audience. He understands why they're so stressed out, knows the weight of waking up, feels the specter of bills. "I remember, I was just like you," he raps. He didn’t want to get a GED, he wanted to get paid. So that's what he did—off of the little vials that littered Bed-Stuy and the bigger shipments he took with him down to Raleigh. The story has a familiar arc, one that bends toward redemption and then toward wisdom you can package by the seminar.
Only that's not where Big ends up. The song's second verse ends with his friends murdered or in prison, its third with him terrified, resigned to a war with the cops who know his first name. The only time he exudes anything like joy is when he raps about fleeing an assault charge. The chorus is the bottom of that downward spiral: "I don't wanna live no more ."
The death Big raps about on his debut album—the one he succumbs to at its end—is not the mythic one that Tupac seemed to court on his own records. Big would come around to that later: the last song on Life After Death is called "You're Nobody (‘Til Somebody Kills You)." But on Ready to Die, the fatalism is not large or defiant—or mythic. It’s small, ugly, and inevitable. On that final song, before he finally pulls the trigger, he says that he doesn't want to go to heaven, because God probably wouldn’t let him stay in bed all day.
Ready to Die was recorded in two distinct periods. There were the first sessions, when Big was a ravenous kid who'd been signed to Uptown Records by an eager young A&R guy named Sean Combs. From his earliest demo tapes, Big had a superhuman sense of timing, a charisma that bled through the mic, a feel for how to make a word or phrase seem muscular or menacing or like something out of a high-comic radio play. But through 1993, he rapped in a slightly higher register than the one you remember from "Hypnotize," and seemed more like he was searching for the frayed edges of his voice. He was unquestionably in control, it was just a different kind of control. This is when Big cut songs like "Gimme the Loot"—a knotty little masterwork which sounds, vocally, like a duet with a more manic version of himself.
Those 1993 songs are full of crime—petty crime, violent crime, crime that isn't catalyst for personal growth or narrative motion. The kind of crime that exists because hungry young men need to eat. It can be brutal (the infamous anecdote about robbing pregnant women for "#1 MOM" pendants on "Gimme The Loot") and even embarrassing (on the album’s intro, he plays his teenaged self, robbing a train because his mom won’t let him hold any money). He raps about it animatedly. He’s vivid, he’s detailed, he can be slyly or uproariously funny. He tells you exactly where he keeps the Mac-10 in the Land Rover. Taken as a whole, these vignettes paint Big’s life as perilous, materially difficult. They also show what a staggering gift he had for narrative: no two stories have the same entry or exit point, the same mechanism for getting the characters to interact, the same energy. "Loot" has a loose cannon friend who brags that he’s "been robbing motherfuckers since the slave ships," while "Warning" plays out through a series of rumors, filtered through clipped calls on maybe-bugged land lines.
That first round of sessions ended when Combs was fired from Uptown. It threw Big into the sort of purgatory many developing acts stay stuck in forever. That’s when he went down to Raleigh, setting up shop on the city’s south side and moving as much work as he could. His friends down there knew him simply as "Fat Chris." (Big would later rap on "Everyday Struggle" about making trips down south with the help of cheap cars scored at the "Toyota Dealathon.") But of course, Combs brokered a deal with Arista to launch his own label, Bad Boy, and start morphing into a vision he called Puff Daddy. In ‘94 he begged and dragged Big back north and into the studio to finish the album. This is when Big’s voice dropped a little lower, became a little huskier, his delivery slicker and more restrained. Combs/Puff was letting his ambition run wild, too: the cop shootouts on "Machine Gun Funk" wouldn’t have to be smuggled onto the radio, because he was going to have Big rap over Mtume and the Isley Brothers and aim straight for the pop charts.
The word from these sessions was always that Big resented being pushed in that direction, but on the records themselves he seems to fully commit: "Juicy" is one of the most wrenching songs to ever sound that happy, from the childish joy at being able to pay a $2,000 phone bill, to the giant earrings he’s clasping for his daughter, to the way he says his mom "smiles every time my face is up in The Source." Many obligatory pop songs that got shoehorned into rap albums of this era feel just that—obligatory. These feel like they came straight out of Big’s veins.
And yet in the context of the album, both of those songs might as well have come out of some sort of fugue state, separate from the flat-circle horror of Die writ large. ("It was all a dream" can take on a bleaker tone.) Where the early batch of songs was balanced by Big’s devilish sex raps ("Friend of Mine," the original "One More Chance"), "Poppa" and "Juicy" sound as if they come from a man on the other side of some unbridgeable divide. The Biggie from "Gimme the Loot" wouldn’t be caught dead in a bar that serves wine. And so look at the sequencing. "Big Poppa" is followed immediately by "Respect," where we learn that Big was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, "Juicy" by "Everyday Struggle." There’s no illusion of a way out.
Yet Ready to Die was finished with smoke and mirrors: DJ Premier gave Big the "Unbelievable" beat for only $5,000, since the budget had been blown and it was the last piece added before mastering. Method Man—one of the biggest rappers in the country at the time—was paid only halfthat for his contributions to "The What?," and had to chase down Puff to get the money at all. There’s also the famous story of the "Juicy Fruit" flip, which Pete Rock claims Puff heard at his house, then had his own team recreate on the cheap. The money would come soon, though, and everyone would eventually get paid: Puff was correct in predicting a lavish future for him and his star.
But the important, and distinct, thing about the debut album is that it outside of the two aforementioned singles, it doesn’t seem to aspire to those mansions and Benzes. In fact, it leads the listener far away from them. On the famous closer, "Suicidal Thoughts," he frets that his mother—the one who smiles wide when she opens The Source—must not love him anymore, must wish she’d aborted him. Elsewhere he’s stealing from her purse, ignoring her pleas to stay away from hustling, even shouting, at one point: "Fuck the world / Fuck my moms and my girl." What "Suicidal Thoughts" makes clear is that Ready to Die is the product of fear and despair that are crushing as they are self-sustaining—so powerful that even their greatest documentarian wouldn’t dare to claim victory over them.