“Your Discman may be obsolete these days, but a near quarter century later, Biggie’s first-person storytelling, boundless lyricism, smart sense of humor, and charming persona on Ready to Die are as relevant and affecting as ever.”
In a short essay to go with his cocktail for Vinyl Me, Please’s reissue of The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, Koan Goedman, of Denver’s Bar Fausto, perfectly summarizes the way in which the Brooklyn rapper’s debut album holds up. It’s always tempting to compare a classic release such as this to modern fare, but Ready to Die is so monolithic in terms of its stature that it basically stands alone on its own pillar.
Now, of course, the album has been remastered for vinyl, and what’s surprising is that, as it’s remastered post-2006, this reissue contains the version of the title track and “Gimme the Loot” with their samples of the Ohio Players’ “Singing in the Morning,” despite them having been removed after the compact disc was originally released, and unavailable in later versions. “Machine Gun Funk” might have “Up for the Down Stroke” by the Horny Horns, but it’s not listed in the sample credits in the liner notes, so it’s tough to say, even if it sounds as if it might be there. Given the fact that most folks probably don’t have OG compact disc versions to compare to, that’s probably not a big deal, but it’s really cool to hear the album as it was originally intended, matching the attention given otherwise.
However, the same doesn’t go for the line in “Gimme the Loot,” wherein they edit out the word “pregnant” from “I wouldn’t give a fuck if you’re pregnant/Give me the baby rings and a #1 MOM pendant.” It would’ve been really cool if they could’ve dug up the tapes and given this to us in a clear, uncut, version, but again, I suppose most folks have heard it back-masked so many times that it doesn’t even register.
What does register is the fact that the skits on Ready to Die have not aged well. Graphic audio portrayal of Biggie getting fellated pops up at the end of “Respect,” and per a 2009 interview with producer Sean “Diddy” Combs, that’s actually what’s happening. I don’t quite know what would be more disturbing — the actual event recorded, or having to fake those sounds — but regardless, the moment grinds everything to a halt. The argument can be made that it just exemplifies the “don’t give a fuck” attitude on the record, and it’s a pretty valid point, but combined with the interlude “Fuck Me,” which has Biggie and Lil’ Kim having sex during a Jodeci song, it’s just like, “Hey, check me out: I can fuck, right?!” Sure, man. Sure.
But, seriously, even these complaints can’t take away from the fact that Ready to Die is colossal, and combined with the posthumous release of Life After Death, the Notorious B.I.G. has a near-perfect one-two knockout in terms of output. Trying to critique his debut at this point is like trying to push over a skyscraper with your bare hands. It’s just a lot of exertion that’s absolutely certain to fail, and people are going to make fun of you for it. All we can do, nearly 25 years on, is look at this album and recognize the brilliance of it, like the fact that “Big Poppa” is still a perfect slow jam, and goddamn if it won’t still have folks throwing hands in the air, or that “Me & My Bitch” is one of the best hip-hop love songs ever recorded.
Combs can’t flow for shit, but his production is impeccable. When the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers came out in 1993, the gritty ‘70s soul samples were absolutely perfect when combined with the chillingly spare beats. Combs took those same sort of samples and went the opposite direction, going big, and it’s like the flipside of the same coin. This is a big, lush record, but hits no less fully for it.
God, this album sounds so alive. It’s absolutely warm and full, and it positively rumbles out of the speakers. If there were a way to put a turntable in my truck so I could drive around listening to this version, I’d never listen to anything else. You can play this at neighbor annoyance levels with the windows open and you can hear it clear to the sidewalk, if not the street, and it’s crystal clear, without a hint of distortion. Granted, my neighbors weren’t thrilled that their 7-year-old learned some new words, but he’s definitely upped his musical taste a bit.
The packaging for Ready to Die might be the swankest Vinyl Me, Please release I’ve received in a year of subscribing. There’s the usual art prints and drink recipes included, and they’re nice enough — Bráulio Amado’s art has a nice ‘90s grafitti aesthetic to it — but the jacket grabs your eye immediately. It’s a matte finish, with embossed red metallic text, which would be dope enough, but when you slide the records out in their inner sleeves, you can see that the inside of the jacket is printed with the album’s title. Is it necessary? No, but it looks so cool, and it’s a fresh detail.
The inner sleeves are printed, with thank yous on one, and a complete breakdown of personnel and samples on the other. The vinyl is gorgeous, as well: it matches the colors of the artwork, with the first LP on red with white and black splatter, and the second on white with red and black splatter. It all comes sealed in a Japanese-style sleeve with a Vinyl Me, Please hype sticker on the front. It’s even my favorite kind of plastic sleeve, with the adhesive on the main sleeve, as opposed to the flap, so that you’re not constantly snagging the jacket every time you take the record out to play it. It’s a seemingly minor detail, but one that really wins over nerds like me.
Ready to Die was the September selection for the Vinyl Me, Please subscription. October’s release will be Moses Sumner’s Aromanticism. You can subscribe to Vinyl Me, Please at their website.
Editor’s Note: This piece was corrected after a reader pointed out an error.