By the age of 22, Christopher Wallace had already lived quite the life. By naming his debut Ready to Die, the Brooklyn rapper bluntly encapsulated both his fearless, take-no-prisoners lyrical style and his perpetual sixth sense that death could come for him at any time. While hardly the first to rap about the pleasures and pitfalls of drug dealing, The Notorious B.I.G. elevated the form to a divine art of brutal honesty. “I remember when he was doing the title track, I was a little disturbed,” Easy Mo Bee, who produced several of the album’s standouts, tells Apple Music. “‘You’re saying you’re ready to die? What’s up, Big?’ He told me, ‘I’m going through a lot...I’m tired of being up there hustling, my mom is sick, I have a baby on the way.’ He was going through a lot of pressure.”
From the autobiographical “Things Done Changed” onwards, Biggie Smalls spoke directly, without distillation, about Brooklyn crime and culture, connecting instantly with those in the know while compelling others less attuned to catch up. The violence and costs of the hustle are laid bare on the stick-up-kid anthem “Gimme the Loot” and the closer “Suicidal Thoughts,” which ends with the sound of him killing himself while on the phone with executive producer/mentor Sean “Diddy” Combs (then known as Puff Daddy), who pleads for him to reconsider.
But against the backdrop of violence and death, Big mixes in moments of aspiration and confidence. On the seminal breakthrough single “Juicy,” he professes his love of hip-hop through a deeply personal come-up narrative so exemplary that few, if any, have come close to matching it since. The song, which samples Mtume’s 1983 R&B classic “Juicy Fruit,” is one of the first examples of Diddy turning extremely recognizable past hits into commercial hip-hop gold; the shiny, familiar production helped Big’s gruff voice and tales of a “common thief” find radio and mainstream success in a year when the biggest rap hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 was Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue’s “Whatta Man.” “In the early process [the album] was Biggie at his most purest, rawest form,” Brooklyn DJ Mister Cee, associate executive producer and the man often credited with discovering Big, tells Apple Music. “Diddy stepped in and said, ‘Hey, man, we gotta make some radio records...’ Diddy had to convince Big.”
“When he played ‘Juicy’ for Big, it was just like, ‘What the fuck is this?’” Lil’ Cease, Big’s childhood friend and frequent collaborator, tells Apple Music. Obviously, Diddy won over Big, who, says Cease, “perfected” the formula—street-hustler rhymes softened by glossy, radio-ready production—sketching a blueprint that JAY-Z, 50 Cent, and rap stars of today still follow.