How The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ready To Die’ Shattered the Myth of Senseless Violence in Street Rap
With Ready to Die, The Notorious B.I.G. laid the blueprint for rappers on how to rap about the trauma they’ve experienced. Rappers like Mozzy, 03 Greedo, and Boosie Badazz were listening.
Honest exploration of mental health has become a predominant theme in hip-hop. Artists like Kid Cudi and Saba have been praised for their strength in vulnerable albums like Kids See Ghosts and Care For Me, respectively. Those projects explore issues like survivor’s guilt, depression, and anxiety. These are issues millions of Americans are dealing with, making them the modern archetypes of a country more depressed than its been in centuries.
It’s not taboo to sing “Push me to the edge, all my friends are dead” like Lil Uzi Vert did on “XO Tour Llif3.” Or, say things like “I hate being bipolar. It’s awesome” like Kanye West did on the cover of Ye. If modern artists are akin to famous visual artist Bob Ross — delicately laying their feelings on a canvas while subtly imploring society to draw along with them — then a project like The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 debut Ready To Die is a paintball shotgun fired at that easel, warning everyone to get the hell out of the way.
On the album’s title track, he frustratingly belted, “fuck the world, fuck my moms and my girl. My life is played out like a Jheri curl, I’m ready to die!” He talked about self-medicating and “livin’ everyday like a hustle, another drug to juggle” on “Everyday Struggle.” The album’s final track, “Suicidal Thoughts,” dealt with the grim self-loathing that manifested from a creeping suspicion that “death is calling” and feeling “worthless” in a community that “considered him the worst.” In all his utterances that he was ready to die, it was clear he wasn’t just in his feelings.
So many successive mainstream rap albums took their cues from Biggie’s magnum opus, not just with the track-for-everyone format Puff Daddy orchestrated, but in Biggie’s frank explorations of his existential dread. Biggie chalked up the laments of “Suicidal Thoughts” to weed in an interview. He, nevertheless, crafted a personal portrait of what pain looked like for a Black person trying to navigate the treacherous Brooklyn streets in the remnants of the Crack Era. The project singlehandedly negates the notion of “senseless violence,” as he bluntly explains the factors that lead people toward the violent crimes better than any clinician could.
And while the Brooklyn hoods he called home are now rife with murals of him, crafted by people who would have likely called the police on him, some things remain the same. The dread that he expressed under the throes of systemic oppression still exist, and there are more artists delving into their despondency in a similar package.
Artists like Boosie Badazz, Mozzy, and 03 Greedo are following in Ready To Die’s weighty footsteps. They are not just bluntly chronicling their surroundings, but penning rhymes about the toll that grief, poverty, and the specter of death can take on one’s mental health.
Paranoia, stress, anxiety and are all chief themes of their music, reflecting how little things done changed since 1994.
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Los Angeles’ 03 Greedo, who is currently serving a 20-year sentence for drug and gun possession, told Noisey last year that he lives his life in a “state of paranoia,” and felt he had nothing to alleviate it. That paranoia permeates the prolific artist’s catalog on mournful songs like “Small Dollas” and throughout God Level, the album released before beginning his sentence. “I’m from the sections where we smoke until it’s no love,” he rhymed on “Prayer For My Lost,” a mournful track where he also surmised that:
I don’t wanna die
Sometimes I’m like f*ck it ’cause I live a hellish life
Feel so broke ’cause ain’t no money by my side
I remember Lil Money by my side
Those lyrics might seem like a page out of Biggie’s rhymebook. But Greedo has vocalized that his favorite artist is Baton Rouge’s Boosie, a rapper known for his grippingly honest narratives and skill at succinctly conveying trauma.
While Boosie’s 808-driven, southern-fried sound has never sonically parallelled Biggie’s dusty drum masterpiece, they have expressed the same sorrows in their music. Boosie is perhaps most known for party-starting hits like “Wipe Me Down,” but the bulk of his catalog is better exemplified by 2016’s aptly named In My Feelings (Goin Thru It) album, where he simply refrains, “they don’t know what we go through, bruh” on “Smile To Keep From Crying.” That album was recorded after a tumultuous 2015, which included a successful surgery to treat kidney cancer.
On “Smile To Keep From Crying,” Boosie rhymes about his four year stint in jail fighting murder charges, losing his best friend Bleek to gun violence, and how he’s “on parole, one feet up in jail, one feet out the door/Lost three aunties in just one year, this ain’t the rain, this is the snow.” The literal and figurative coldness of that last line parallels in urgency to Big’s “my mom got cancer in her breast, don’t ask me why I’m motherfuckin’ stressed” summation on “Things Done Changed.” Both artists demonstrate that grief can be even more painful when it’s compounded and occurs alongside existing mental health battles.
Sacramento rapper Mozzy has become one of the game’s forebearers of what’s been deemed “pain rap.” In 2016, he told the Sacramento Bee, that his creative process is driven by his mood, and “sometimes I’m sad, I’m sick, I’m on drugs, I’m depressed.” While he started a commendable #KickTheCup movement, to curb syrup usage after the death of Fredo Santana, some of that sadness and depression is still resonant in his music. Like Ready To Die, the bulk of his 2018 Gangland Landlord album is comprised of gruff, unflinching depictions of life in his hometown. However, “Tear Me Down (Outro)” was a vulnerable moment where he reflected on his brother’s incarceration and how “I’m just thirsty for revenge. It’ll soothe the pain, and the prescriptions I be poppin’ don’t reduce the pain.”
That pain is often aggravated from feeling like there’s no one to talk to about it. While the stigma around mental health and therapy is lessening, it’s still a taboo topic in some communities. On “One Of Mines” Mozzy, rhymes “murder happen every daily, we don’t talk about that,” before painting the traumatic picture that “I think his lil’ girl was present when his body collapsed.”
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The tracks that Mozzy are best at exemplify the nearly symbiotic relation between pain absorbed and inflicted in impoverished communities. Mozzy rhymes on “Tear Me Down” that his pain will be soothed by causing someone else’s pain. On aforementioned “Ready To Die,” Big lays out a barrage of threats, but ends every verse threatening that he’s “ready to die,” hinting that his desire to inflict pain comes from his own despair. That despair becomes armor (and artillery) in places like the old Brooklyn, Baton Rouge, and Sacramento, and ends up being flouted in actions that are reductively misconstrued as “senseless violence.”
While artists like Kid Cudi and others have been framed by the media and their core fan bases as antitheses to gangsta rap because of the ease in which they dish their frailties over sonorous soundscapes, many street artists have been just as open about their mental health struggles. Biggie was chief among them with Ready To Die. He died at just 24; and 24 years from the release of his seminal studio debut, more attention should be paid not just to his potential as Brooklyn iconography or spot as “King Of New York,” but for his influence on showing hoards of artists after him that it’s OK to be real about mental health.
*This story was originally published in 2018.
Andre Gee is a New York-based journalist. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.