Illmatic vs Ready to Die

“Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot”
The Notorious BIG, “Everyday Struggle”

This piece is part of a series comparing two massively influential hip-hop albums, Nas’ Illmatic and The Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die. See the first section here and the second section here.

The story that Biggie tells in Ready to Die, at least in the first two acts of the album, is the American dream. He gets a second chance once he is released from jail and makes good on it. It’s the rags-to-riches story. From the bottom of the bottom to the top of the top. This quality, coupled with the more radio-friendly cuts, is what made Ready to Die the smash success that it was. We all desperately want the same for ourselves. No matter where we come from, the desire to achieve more is distinctly American.

While Illmatic has been vastly commercially successfully in the ensuing 20 years and widely acclaimed by hip-hop fans, it did not have the same impact in popular culture. It is more niche than Ready to Die. While the artists are more similar than different, the message of Illmatic is too real for the masses. Biggie certainly paints a gritty, honest picture of urban decay, but he gives us relief. He makes it out and gets rich. Nas does not release the tension in that way. Illmatic is unrelenting and more challenging to the listener. Not to say that Ready to Die is compromising, but Nas doesn’t give us the satisfaction.

Nas is showing us the American nightmare — the reality the results from the system failing it’s most at-risk citizens.

At this point, Nas is not claiming king. He is a young man in hell, sharing his everyday with the world. And what we see is ugly.

Another key difference between the two rappers is that Nas got to actually have a career. He’s put out 10 albums, including genre stretching collaborations and most recently, the excellent Life is Good. Biggie didn’t get the chance to do so. His sophomoric album, Life After Death, released right after his death, is the only other offering from the Brooklyn great. We don’t get to see what he would have developed into. Nas got to experiment with his music and many of it wasn’t good. It took him almost 10 years to put out another truly great album after Illmatic, but at least he got to try. Biggie was not afforded the same luxury.

Debut albums are meaningful in every artist’s career. The development of the debut album is unique from every subsequent project they will work on.

Illmatic and Ready to Die were 20-some odd years in the making.

Nas and Big had been thinking about these albums their whole lives leading up to their recording and release. One of the best artifacts of Biggie’s youth is a video of him battling someone in Brooklyn at 16 years old. Some of the rhymes we hear him spit in this clip are on the album.

There are similar anecdotes about Nas during the writing process for Illmatic. Compared to the year or so (typically) between the first and second albums, the gestation period for the first album is long. For Biggie and Nas, that period is the most formative years of their lives. Especially for Nas, the transition into manhood is at the crux of his perspective.

Biggie and Nas, as contemporaries, give us living depictions of their worlds with Ready to Die andIllmatic. While there are distinct differences in the storytelling, the images are equally vivid and important. These albums, and the gangster rap that exploded into pop culture during this era, informed all of America about the realities of urban decay. And for that reason, they are massively important.