Exploring self loathing in hip hop via Notorious B.I.G's 'Ready to Die' Album
Due to the subject matter there are quotes containing swearing and sexually explicit language in the following post. Please don’t read if you are easily offended.
This post came about after reading an excellent blog post by Unseen Flirt dissecting Notorious B.I.G’s ‘One More Chance/ Stay With Me Remix ,one of the most popular songs by one of rap’s most popular artists and considering whether it revealed him to be a ‘misogynist or insecure. Before I continue, I need state that I am not any type of expert, I’m just a fan of music and child of the 80s who came of age in the 90s loving, listening to and dancing to hip hop before it reached the colossal mainstream and commercial status that it has now. My musical tastes have widened since then but I think that lovers of music always have a soft spot for the music of their teens.
“The black Frank White
is here to excite and
throw dick to dykes
Bitches I like em brainless
Guns I like em stainless steel…” – The What, Notorious B.I.G
Misogyny in rap is a much discussed topic and it would be easy to write a whole essay on it but I won’t because I don’t think it’s that clear-cut, despite lyrics like those proceeding. In its original form, rap was the language of the poor and dispossessed, living in maligned, forgotten, often violent neighbourhoods.
In such neigbourhoods the world over, be they the barrios of Rio, the slums of Delhi, the shanty towns of Kingston, or the projects of Brooklyn, outlooks can be bleak, violence can be rife and life can be cheap. All life, male and female, young and old. It’s easy to pick out lyrics from a politically correct, often white, often comfortably well off, sensibility and say that lyrics by rappers like Biggie hate, degrade and denigrate women – some – but they speak to a wider more paranoid experience where nobody can be trusted. Not your girlfriend, not your old school friend, not your neighbour. Nobody. My response to unseen flirt, was that although misogyny was undoubtedly there , it didn’t tell the whole story as he had to consider the song in its wider context, that of the Ready To Die album (yes, I know that the version quoted by Unseen Flirt was a remix). I then began to think about the album from the self-hatred and insecurity angle which is one I’d not given much though to before.
Ready to Die is a landmark album. It was the debut of undoubtedly one of the greatest lyricists in rap history and as with many debut rap albums it has a strongly autobiographical feel. In fact it starts with a fictionalised audio montage depicting B.I.G’s moment of birth to the album’s present day (1994) inventively done to a backdrop of popular black music at each time phase. However, to explore the theme of self loathing I want to skip to the final track (on the original album release, not the 2004 digital remaster).
“When I die, fuck it I wanna go to hell
Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell”- Suicidal thoughts
So opens the first line from B.I.G from his first verse on the final song of the album. In our iTunes, MP3, single download, iPod shuffle age its easy to forget the power of the album and the importance of the sequencing of songs. Any body over 30 who ever made their own mix tape (or CD) for somebody that they cared about or wanted to impress will tell you how long in takes to get the order of songs just right. For any album, especially a debut it could be argued that the two most important songs are the first and last tracks. In the egocentric world of hip hop these are the ones that allow the artist to set out who they are, how they want their audience to consider them, the prism through which they must listen to the album (for the first track) as well as the sense of themselves that they want their current and hopefully future audience to be left with after the music has stopped playing ( for the final track). B.I.G could have ended with a more traditional ‘look at my prowess’ track such as Unbelievable but instead he ends with an aural suicide note in which he details his, self percieved, many failings and exposes the emptiness and frailty hidden beneath his hoes, guns and money posturing. This is in my view, a powerful statement. Self loathing seeps out of every pore of every line of Suicidal Thoughts and it is especially powerful to consider it against the proceeding songs where similar themes are touched upon but often fleetingly or from a different point of view.
“All my life I been considered as the worst”- Suicidal thoughts
Low expectations since birth and childhood run as a theme throughout Ready to Die. In a verbal introduction to the song Juicy (one of his biggest hits ) he dedicates it to “all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’…” and as a throwaway line in Respect the doctor delivering him takes one look at our infant protagonist before predicting “He’s gonna be a bad boy”. In many of the more testosterone fueled tracks on the album we see B.I.G reveling in this image and playing up to it, almost in a self-fulling prophecy (playfully echoed, outlined and mirrored later by Eminem in Role model and more angrily to some extent in The way I am ). Indeed, a song like Gimme the Loot, with its lyrical content and background refrain of ‘I’m a bad boy’ could be seen to glorify such a perception and taken in isolation would be a song that would justify cries from rap’s detractors of glorifying crime and violence with B.I.G gleefully and (in my mind) mischievously declaring “I been robbing motherfuckas since the slave ships” However, it is not for nothing that Christopher Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G is consistently in the top 10 of many lists of greatest rappers of all time. His music is more nuanced than a cursory listen may allude to and his lyrics can be reflective, commenting on wider society as well as other’s perception of himself.
“Considered a fool
Cos I dropped out of high school…
Stereo types of a Black Male misunderstood
But it’s still all good” – Juicy.
Like all of us, B.I.G is a mass of contradictions he raps about how his street contemporaries fear him and how he actively chose crime and drugs as a way to riches as a youth but on Suicidal Thoughts we see him lamenting the path that he chose prior to rap.
“Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion
I know my mother wished she got a fuckin’ abortion…
…I wonder if I died, would tears come to her eyes?
Forgive me for my disrespect, forgive me for my lies”- Suicidal thoughts
The above hints at a deep and ongoing insecurity that is alluded to throughout the album, B.I.G’s fear that his mother doesn’t love him. This often unspoken fear is the root of many insecurities for many people. It can drive us to destructive behaviors throughout our lives if our parents don’t care for us, who else will? Why should we care for ourselves? Surely we are worthless? Conversely for some it can cause us to seek to become overachievers to prove that we are worthy of love and that we are worth the attention. Look, see what I did? I’m good enough. I got a promotion. I’m a multi millionaire. Others think I’m worthy of respect, so should you.
Throughout Ready to Die both impulses appear to be at work alongside an ambivalent attitude towards his mother. The introduction to the album has B.I.G outlining the trajectory of his life from birth, through to his delinquent adolescence and subsequent incarceration. An exchange with his criminal accomplice has implied parental neglect as a justification for the robbery depicted
“Just listen man, your mother givin’ you money nigga?
My moms don’t give me shit” – Introduction
This idea is continued on the eponymous track, Ready to Die, “My mother didn’t give me what I want, what the fuck?” However, the use of the word ‘want’ does not point to neglect here, instead making the listener wonder if B.I.G has unrealistic (given his current position) material desires. He now seems to be railing against his mother for her inability to provide for his luxurious wants “Rolexes to the Lexus, gettin paid, is all I expected.” Despite referring on several tracks to the struggle that his mother, as a single parent with “no spouse in the house” had finding money to raise him and remembering that he often had cheap but nourishing “sardines for dinner” in their “one room shack” B.I.G still explodes with anger when thinking of his lot in life and the comfortable lifestyle that has been denied him
“Fuck the world, fuck my moms and my girl
my life is played out like a jheri curl” – Ready to die
In more reflective mood B.I.G acknowledges that his behaviour may be unreasonable and that having a criminal son was difficult and a burden
“That’s why my mom hates me
She was forced to kick me out, no doubt” – Every day struggle
He even reflects that, as children, he and his friends used to be cared for by their parents but their repeatedly and increasingly violent and criminal behaviour has made them monstrous figures “Look at them now, they even fucking scared of us.” Ultimately, like most of us, B.I.G wants to be a source of pride to his mother, on Respect he notes how she implores him to choose a new path and start respecting himself before it’s too late. Fast forwarding to his successful rap career and the wealth and fame that it has bought he is now adjusting to a new more positive relationship with his mother “Mama smile when she see me, that’s surprisin’…” As B.I.G celebrates his ascent up the socio- economic ladder on Juicy, he also delights in sharing the trappings of his wealth with his mother and her obvious pride in him when she sees his face in national music magazines.
“Thinkin’ back on my one-room shack
Now my mom pimps an Ac’ with minks on her back
And she loves to show me off, of course
Smiles every time my face is up in The Source” – Juicy
The final aspect of self loathing that I’d like to consider having looked at other’s low expectations and parental relationships is B.I.Gs wider relationship with women and perceptions of his sexual and physical attractiveness.
This is interesting given how I was prompted to write the post based on a different article considering his misogyny. In keeping with most rappers, a large proportion of references to women on the album relate to sexual encounters with them or other as ways to display B.I.G’s sexual prowess. Indeed the original, extremely sexually explicit, version of One More Chance amounts to little more than B.I.G proclaiming the variety of women he has satisfied and the precise ways in which he has done so. Women and his, self-proclaimed, sexual competence can be seen, in B.I.Gs eyes as another thing to brag about, just like his cars and his guns and his money. In one song he crows about cheating on one of his girlfriend’s with her more attractive sexually adventurous sister and he recommends that his male listeners do the same
“She’s sayin’ I dissed her ’cause I’m fuckin’ her sister
A message to the fellas, that really gets’em pissed, uh”-Friend of mine
So far, so predictable but on Suicidal Thoughts we have reference to a similar (possibly the same) situation which this time has stirred feelings of self-disgust and regret in B.I.G
“My babies’ mothers 8 months, her little sister’s 2
Who’s to blame for both of them (naw nigga, not you)
I swear to God I just want to slit my wrists and end this bullshit.”
Later in the song he raps that as a result of his very public cheating he wouldn’t blame his girlfriend for hating him and being glad that he is dead after his panned suicide. The self hatred related to women runs deeper than this though. Notorious B.I.G was a clever and intelligent rapper but he was not traditionally attractive, indeed his chosen rap name and his many aliases, Biggie Small’s, Biggie and Big Poppa allude to the fact that he was physically obese.
On Juicy, he reminisces about how he didn’t always used to attract the type and volume of women that he does now in fact “Girls used to diss me” presumably because in his mind he was unattractive to them.
“Heartthrob never, black and ugly as ever” – One more chance (Remix)
B.I.G doesn’t deny or try to sugar coat his physical appearance, indeed on what is possibly his most romantic and female-friendly song, deliberately sampling The Isley Brother’s romantic soul classic Between the sheets, he actually revels in having his desired conquests call him Big Poppa
“(I love it when you call me Big Pop-pa)
To the honies gettin money playin niggaz like dummies”- Big Poppa
Many people who are insecure about an aspect of themselves instead make it into a strength or mock themselves before others can in a self preservation strategy. This could possibly be the strategy behind the Fuck Me interlude where in a fictionalised sexual encounter between B.I.G a woman, we hear his partner in the throes of ecstasy calling B.I.G various names related to his blackness and – via the medium of food and number of references- his weight.
“Black mothafucka…black Kentucky Fried Chicken eatin’
…black mafia ass … Oreo cookie eatin’, pickle juice drinkin’
Chicken gristle eatin’, biscuit suckin’, MUTHAfucka
V8 juice drinkin’, slim fast, black greasy muthafucka
In the above monologue B.I.G adresses what detractors or enemies might say about him in a humorous way which also puts a massive middle finger up to them as it’s uttered by a woman in a moment of uncontrollable pleasure caused by his skills.
So returning to the original title of this post, exploring self loathing in hip hop via the ready to die album… yes the album contains the usual posturing, sex and bragging about material goods that has come to be associated with the rap/jip-hop genre but there are several more reflective moments than might initially be expected and clear undertones throughout of self doubt, insecurity and at time outright self loathing from Notorious B.I.G, who outside of his rap persona is just Christopher Wallace who on quiter moments away from his entourage believes that he was
” Born sinner, the opposite of a winner”