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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ready to Die" turns 26 this year, calling for a reflection on his impact on the genre. 

Things Done Changed: Hip-Hop and 'Ready to Die,' 26 Years Later

Twenty-six years ago this month, The Notorious B.I.G dropped his legendary album, Ready to Die. 1994 was an absolutely riveting year, not just for pop culture but for the world. “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” both hit theaters less than a month apart, while Amazon got its start in a garage in Bellevue, Washington, and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president. Needless to say, 1994 was also a magical year for music. Beck’s Mellow Gold and Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain which defined the alternative/indie niche while elsewhere in hip-hop Nas’s Illmatic would eventually become one of the most critically acclaimed rap projects of all time. But on Sept. 13, 1994, under the brand new label Bad Boy Records, Ready to Die introduced the world to hip-hop’s most recognizable superhero, Biggie Smalls.

Ready to Die is the only Biggie album ever released in his lifetime, but it’s a heaping helping of hip-hop perfection that is more than satisfying. The album is semi-autobiographical, starting with Biggie’s birth in the “Intro” and ending with his eventual suicide in “Suicidal Thoughts.” It’s as close as an album can get to a movie, with a generous amount of skits and interludes, giving it an almost conversational feel at times. Rather than simply having them as their own separate tracks, the skits and dialogue are woven into songs, adding elements of storytelling and narrative. Lyrically, Biggie never fails to impress, as one gets the sense he could flow continuously for hours on end. His flows and rhythms intertwine beautifully with the boom-bap beats, one never distracting from the other. Biggie has clever lines and hilarious remarks, but they never feel forced. In fact, he makes them feel completely natural, as if his listeners wouldn’t expect anything less than lyrical perfection.

Musically, Ready to Die is the epitome of 90s boom-bap. Sample-based beats are driven by funky bass lines.  Plenty of record scratching and analog drum sounds make the music feel very live. Throughout the album, atmospheric sounds and effects in the background create a gritty, ambient soundscape that thoroughly fills the stereo width of one’s headphones. However, there is plenty of distinct creativity. On the third track “Gimme the Loot,” Biggie pitches up his voice for half of his verses, having a rap conversation with himself. “One More Chance,” the seventh track, begins with running through an answering machine, revealing the wide range of women trying unsuccessfully to contact Biggie.

Twenty-six years later, in 2020, hip-hop has changed substantially. However, it’s unquestionably the top genre worldwide. Not only is it the most popular, but it’s never been more accessible and there is quite the surplus.  Streaming Services like Soundcloud make it incredibly convenient for a rapper to record an entire album in his bedroom, upload it, and become an internet sensation.  Thus, choosing current rappers to reflect upon in the context of Ready to Die was daunting, but we’ll go with three — the wildly popular Pop Smoke and Juice WRLD, and the lesser known duo Blu & Exile.

While Pop Smoke and The Notorious B.I.G’s music sound like they could be from two separate planets, the two are eerily similar in a few ways. Both hailed from Brooklyn, and both rappers had their more-than-promising careers cut tragically short. They were each shot and killed in California. Despite these similarities, though, these Brooklyn rappers generations apart sound almost nothing like each other. While many of Biggie’s songs begin with a skit or a sample, many Pop Smoke songs begin in an increasingly predictable way — with a producer tag. Hip-hop has always been a highly collaborative genre. This is especially true nowadays, with producers placing a telltale audio bite in songs they engineered to stake their claim.  However, Biggie’s all star lineup of producers on Ready to Die — DJ Premier, Lord Finesse, and Sean “Puffy” Combs to name a few — clearly believed overall album flow was more important than having their signature embedded in the music.  For example, the way the last word, “Brooklyn,” of the skit at the end of “Me & My B*tch” leads into the next track “Big Poppa” is a stroke of genius. Listening to a Pop Smoke album all the way through, the songs seem detached and not nearly as interconnected. This is simply an artistic choice, and with today’s society’s ever-declining attention span, it’s absolutely a smart commercial choice. Lyrically, Pop Smoke errs on the side of melody and autotune. This is a stark contrast from Biggie’s more monotone, steady vocal tone. He’ll fluctuate occasionally for emphasis, whereas Smoke’s voice rises and falls consistently throughout a track. In the realm of hip-hop, Pop Smoke’s style can most closely be described as drill or trap, which relies heavily on computerized sounds and a heavy bass line. There are similarities and differences here, as Biggie easily has a more analog, retro sound, but also uses a heavy bass line to keep his beats moving. Clearly, bass has remained an important constant in rap.  Furthermore, the seemingly random samples that carried boom-bap beats of old are less present in modern trap, but are certainly still there.  For example, on “For the Night,” Pop Smoke uses a very similar wah-wah sound effect that Biggie uses on the fifth track of Ready to Die, “Warning.”

Another rapper that also tragically lost his life on the cusp of his global takeover, Juice WRLD occupied a place in the up-and-coming emo rap genre. Musically, Juice and Biggie are far apart on the hip-hop spectrum. Juice WRLD’s fast-paced trap is often melodically based on guitar sounds and samples, with Juice’s autotuned voice providing an additional high-register melody. It sounds very colorful, and a bit chaotic. Meanwhile, Biggie’s slower, dark, brooding boom-bap beats paint a completely different mental image. Sampled conversations and skits repeatedly appear in Ready to Die, and while Juice doesn't employ nearly as much of this, there is a sample of an argument in the intro of “Lucid Dreams,” which is widely considered his breakthrough song. Evidently, the importance of sampling and dialogue in rap isn’t completely lost on this trap-oriented generation.  

Biggie could flow endlessly and eternally, the same can’t be said about Juice WRLD mainly because of the production style. On “Bandit,” Juice’s flow is distinctly broken up, meaning his verse wasn’t recorded in just one take.  In other words, the vocal track sounds broken up line by line. Moreover, listening to an entire Juice WRLD album, the memorable part of most songs tends to be the hook. While this is true for lots of popular music today, on Ready to Die, Biggie’s non-stop flow and lyrical witticisms are what holds one’s attention.

Indeed, the chart-topping rap of today tends to be mostly trap, but not all modern rap follows suit. Take Blu & Exile, the Los Angeles based producer-MC duo that has been in the rap game since their debut album in 2007.  With production reminiscent of eEarly Kanye West and Pete Rock, Blu & Exile are one of the closest things to boom-bap you can find today. Their tracks are awash with mouth watering samples and record scratches for old-school hip-hop fans, and the modest production style of Exile transports you directly to the 90s. The wordplay of Blu is one of the most impressive aspects of their music, as he, very similar to Biggie, spits slick lines that work well musically and don’t seem forced — “To say it simple/yo we simply the best” — on tracks like “True & Livin.” Blu also exhibits a deep vocabulary, similar to Biggie, but for the most part it’s devoid of the slang and street terms used so frequently in Ready to Die. In their most popular song on streaming services, “Dancing in the Rain,” an intricate guitar melody accompanies the boom-bap drum and bass. Musically, this is an elemental crossover between modern trap — which loves guitar melodies — and classic boom-bap.

Across this modern musical landscape, we might have a wider range of music than we’ve ever had before. As evidenced, hip-hop represents this perfectly, as it can take on so many forms and sounds. The hip-hop tradition is constantly being carried on by new voices, creating their own legacy while paying homage to the old. In 2020, Ready to Die stands as a fundamental classic that's ideas are still evolving and mutating in modern rap.

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