Twenty years ago, Christopher George Latore Wallace -- also known as The Notorious B.I.G; Big Poppa; Biggie -- made an indelible mark on the landscape of popular music with the release of his debut album, "Ready to Die." Biggie created a tour de force that is considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of all time. The 17-song opus was constructed on the sobering veracity of being young, black and bred in an unforgiving environment. Nevertheless, the album was not without its buoyancy, as the singles "Juicy" and "Big Poppa" were sluiced in a soulful-pop receptivity that appealed to broader audiences. These singles were sunny diversions from Biggie's sonic obscurity, thanks to an array of symphonic production and the marketing gifts of Sean "Puffy" Combs. "Ready to Die" is a multifaceted masterpiece, but its driving force is Biggie's supplication for America to recognize a young black man wrought with the fear and rage of existing in a life rooted in continuing stagnation.
The terrors that Biggie expressed through song were not unconventional; he served as an ambassador for a generation who were lineal descendants of the crack era. Biggie and his contemporaries were exhausted of their vexatious confines and were willing to capture a piece of the American dream by any means necessary. The complicated ordeals of daily survival led Biggie to a depressing disposition he openly embraced in his music -- a disposition that steered towards thoughts of suicide. When Biggie waxed profanely about his mother, the mother of his first-born child and wishing his birth had been aborted, his lyrics did not resound as desperate grasps for shock value; they were reflections of his true feelings. Biggie's anecdotes were not always appealing, but they were always his truths.
The release of "Ready to Die" discerned a gleam of hope for Biggie to escape his anguish. Through his God-given talent, the 22-year-old emcee was allowed the opportunity to escape the horrific scenery of poverty and crime that was rampant in his pre-gentrified domiciliary of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. "Ready to Die" was irony at its finest; this young black man was now able to profit from his suffering. Although he would never forget his unpretentious beginnings, he was no longer entombed within them.
Even after fulfilling his dream of success, he was still paranoid of all detractors. In a 1994 feature written by cultural critic Touré for the New York Times, published approximately three months after the release of "Ready to Die," Biggie's fear and wariness of his environs were still present as he encompassed his home base of Fulton Street:
1994 can arguably be described as the zenith of hip-hop's golden age. On his introspective track, "This Can't Be Life," Jay-Z perfectly summed up this vivid emergence:
"Every time the front door of the apartment building opened, he leaped up to see who was climbing the stairs. On this day, there were a pair of black 9-millimeter Rugers under the mattress in his bedroom. 'I'm not paranoid to the point where -- 'He paused. 'Yes, I am. I'm scared to death. Scared of getting my brains blown out.'"
"It's like... '94/'bout the year that Big and [Craig] Mack dropped and "Illmatic" rocked/outta every rag drop, and the West had it locked..."
Jay Z has often expressed the impression Nas' "Illmatic" and "Ready to Die" made on his illustrious career. This is true of many hip-hop devotees who obtained inspiration from this classic era. Nas and Biggie were the Crown Jewels in hip-hop's budding monarchy. Both young men were skilled emcees who approached their masterpieces from diverse vantage points. Whereas Nas was chronicling the happenings of his Queenbridge housing project with a journalistic flair, Biggie lamented his qualms while laying on an allegorical therapist's chair -- candidly exposing his feelings about being a young black man in America.
Biggie approached his material with the same vigor as visionaries who came before him. Specifically, he talked about a rage that seemed to specifically consume the black male psyche. A rage that inspired the psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs to write a book detailing the upshot of social oppression; a book that was published several months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. James Baldwin touched on this rage. So did Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. From Invisible Man to the invisible bully, the rage of young black men remains ubiquitous.Watching a white, middle-class family quote the nervy zeal of "Warning" with comedic delight, things seem like they have improved during these 20 years since the release of "Ready to Die." Biggie's music has been gentrified just like the house he grew up in. However, after observing Ferguson, Missouri swelter before our eyes following the shooting of Michael Brown, it is confirmed that the fear and rage in young black men is incessant. Surviving antagonism, whether conversant or unacquainted, remains at the top of our collective agendas. Even after he finally made it, Biggie wore his fear and rage like birthmarks. The genius from Brooklyn made sure to remind us that he was always adjacent to his past life:
"Because the streets is a short stop/Either you're slingin' crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot/Shit, it's hard being young from the slums"
Some things never change.