Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 100 Most Dynamic Debut Albums Ever Made, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
If you were imagining a poster-child for someone who made hip-hop what it is today, the late, great Christopher Wallace a.k.a. Biggie Smalls a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G. would probably not be what most people would envision. The Brooklyn-born legend was a 6’3” lumbering behemoth, weighing anywhere between 300 and 380 lbs. (depending on who you asked), with a booming voice and a lazy eye. Yet he indisputably changed the course of hip-hop music with his debut album Ready to Die and is rightfully known as one of the best emcees the genre has ever produced.
Much is made of the importance of tracks like the autobiographical “Juicy” and the club anthem “Big Poppa.” Not only were these tracks massive commercial smashes, but they also introduced Biggie to a worldwide audience, helped establish the Bad Boy Records juggernaut, and defined the sound of New York and commercial hip-hop for years to come.
But as has been detailed many times before, much of Ready to Die features Biggie’s tales of pain, paranoia, and misery while trying to survive as a drug dealer and street criminal. Though the rhymes and stories he creates are mostly fictional, he does so with an acute eye for detail, giving them a palpable sense of reality. At the same time, Biggie could also have a little fun, cutting loose with tales of his sexual escapades and spinning some of the best lyrical braggadocio of his era. Beats-wise, he worked with already established giants like Easy Mo Bee and DJ Premier, as well as up-and-comers like the Trackmasterz and Carl “Chucky” Thompson. Together, they created unique musical backdrops that audiences could rock to in the club or just nod their head to while listening via their Walkmans.
Ready to Die is one of those few albums that provides a little something for everyone and still succeeds. As much as anyone in hip-hop, Biggie provided a template for future rap superstars to maximize their sales and still maintain their artistic credibility. Come for the feel good pop tracks, stay for the tales of murder and lyrical conquest.