The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ready To Die’ at 25: 9 surprising things about the era-defining album

The rapper's seminal debut album turns a quarter of a century this week (September 13)

The Notorious B.I.G.‘s ‘Ready To Die’ – his only album released in his lifetime – is widely considered to be one of the greatest rap albums of all time. Since its release in 1994, it’s inspired countless rappers in Biggie’s wake and secured his legacy as a raw and real storyteller. On Friday (September 13), it celebrates its 25th anniversary, so what better time to look back on some of the record’s more surprising elements.

It doesn’t romanticise thug life

The Notorious B.I.G. kept things real when it came to describing his life as a drug dealer, making sure to include the downsides of trapping, like the threat of being caught by the police or running into issues with other dealers. That honesty added an extra grit to ‘Ready To Die’ that means its still one of the most real portrayals of thug life in hip-hop. 

Contrary to popular belief, Biggie didn’t always freestyle the lyrics

Part of the folklore surrounding ‘Ready To Die’ paints Biggie as a rapper who had no need for a pen and paper, memorising his bars and delivering them off the top of his head instead. But that wasn’t always true – Method Man told Complex in 2011 that the late star had once shown him the lyrics to ‘The What’ as he was writing them, specifically the line “I’ve got more Glocks and tecs than you/I make it hot, n****s won’t even stand next to you.

One of its tracks was included in an anthology of African American literature

Way before Kendrick Lamar was picking up Pulitzers, Biggie’s tracks were also being recognised as masterpieces of writing. ‘Ready To Die’’s ‘Things Done Changed’, which explores how life on the streets had changed, was one of only a handful of hip-hop tracks to be included in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature.

The samples are on point

Before ‘Ready To Die’ was being sampled by the likes of Kanye West and Travis Scott, it was Biggie who was doing the sampling. While some samples were removed from the record after some legal issues, it still contains plenty of great interpolations, from Isaac Hayes’ ‘Walk On By’ on ‘Warning’ to Curtis Mayfield’s stone-cold classic ‘Superfly’ on ‘Intro’.

The baby on the cover was paid only $150

The sleeve for ‘Ready To Die’ features a small child with an afro sitting in the middle of an oasis of white space. While you might assume it to be a childhood photo of Biggie himself, the boy in question is actually Keithroy Yearwood. The now-25-year-old was hired through a modelling agency and paid just $150 (£121) for the shoot.

It didn’t get the recognition it has now until after its creator’s death

Sure, the reviews for ‘Ready To Die’ were good, but the record wasn’t the runaway success you might expect for something regularly near the time of best albums of all time lists. Instead, it missed out on recognition from the Grammys when its only nomination – Best Rap Solo Performance for ‘Big Poppa’ – lost out to Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’. 

Some of it is pretty dated now

Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis,” raps Big on ‘Juicy’. “When I was dead broke, man, I couldn’t picture this.” The track detailed the rapper’s rise to the top, with those two games consoles listed as luxuries beyond his younger self’s wildest dreams. Later, he adds a “50-inch screen, money green leather sofa” and “a limousine with a chauffeur” to his list, but it’s those initial picks that haven’t stood the test of time. These days, they just seem quaint compared to the VR machines he could have rapped about in 2019.

You could get a copy of the album by visiting Biggie’s Brooklyn house

It seems unlikely that any of today’s young rappers would be found pushing copies of their records from their homes, but Biggie did just that back in the ‘90s, according to Busta Rhymes. “I watched Biggie give away ‘Ready to Die’ and thought he was crazy,” he told Vlad TV. “From his house, dubbing the album on a double cassette deck and had a line in front of his crib on St. James like he was selling the best coke ever. That was like the most illest shit because it was his way of marketing himself.”

The title is chillingly prophetic

The record’s narrative charts Biggie’s journey from life to death, with the final track ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ finding him ready to end it all. The album’s title turned out to be something of a tragic prophecy – in 1997, two weeks before the release of his second album ‘Life After Death’, the rapper was murdered in LA.