In a letter sent to his school teacher George Izambard, the late French prodigy Arthur Rimbaud wrote: “The suffering is tremendous, but one must bear up against it to be born a poet, and I know that’s what I am.” A poet wasn’t merely a writer to Rimbaud; a poet was a thief of fire.
Christopher Wallace, born 81 years after Rimbaud’s passing, did not call himself a poet, but throughout his 1994 debut album, Ready to Die, under the hip-hop pseudonym The Notorious B.I.G., the Brooklyn-born rapper found the words to describe coming of age as a black man in a 1987 New York City that burned of cocaine smoke and sung the harmonies of gunfire.
On the album’s cinematic intro, a baby is born. Vignettes follow, revealing an impoverished upbringing. The baby, now a grown man, ends the song by sticking up a train ― a thief of money, not fire.
The first six songs that follow the intro ― “Things Done Changed,” “Gimme the Loot,” “Machine Gun Funk,” “Warning” and “Ready to Die” ― all encompass the ache of poverty and how starved bellies manifest into a language of violence, robberies and drug dealing. Ready to Die is an album made by a natural-born rhymer who saw the humor in the struggle, who found poetry in the tremendous suffering that unfolded in an unfair world.
The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, doesn’t skip a detail lyrically. The beatings are brutal; the sex is pornographic; the joy is inspiring; the stress is suffocating. It’s writing rooted in fantasy and realism ― too vivid to be imaginative, too unbelievable to be trusted as authentic.
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