Abe Beame apologizes to those who have been enjoying this series. He lost a hard drive with nearly half the articles, and it took him this long to extract them.
Biggie’s most important stories were his own. Prior to 1994, rappers had largely been entrenched reporters relating facts on the ground. Biggie defied the tradition by putting himself front and center — he became the story. See Ready to Die, where the introduction starts with his birth and early childhood years, and ends with his death.
2pac added to the chorus a year later with his claustrophobic masterpiece Me Against the World, but no one ever related a big picture narrative quite like Biggie on Ready to Die. Ghost and Rae may have chided him for using subject matter with a similarly mob mentality (and for biting Nas’ album cover), but they missed the point. If it wasn’t for Biggie, crack rap might have remained in the Depalma-esque, cliché-ridden realm of Kool G Rap-ish mafiosos eating steak and lobster with Cubans. Nothing prior to Ready to Die can match the autobiographic heft and dizzying highs and lows of “Juicy” and “Everyday Struggle.”
It’s no coincidence that those songs are grouped together practically dead center on the album. And one wants to imagine that “Everyday Struggle” following “Juicy” (a song that he didn’t think had as great commercial potential as “Machine Gun Funk”) was Biggie’s hard fought victory over Puff. The songs are obvious bedfellows, with Biggie first relating his joy at making it off the corner, then reminding his audience what he had to go through to get there and the scars the struggle left.
The sample, James Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit” is a song about ecstatic, sexual pleasure. In a different context, it’s strangely appropriate for the passion that bleeds through Biggie’s interpretation. “Juicy” defies repetition — for many of us, it will never get old. Biggie starts the narrative with his first interactions with hip hop. It’s a fairly novel approach, as ’94 was one of the first moments when hip hop was old enough for a kid to have grown up with. We conjure visions of Biggie as a child leafing through rap magazines, his ear pressed to a transistor radio at night.
But “Juicy” isn’t really about the culture. It’s about the joy of success, escaping poverty and attaining wealth. More importantly, it stresses the relief of no longer needing to concern oneself with money. Biggie achieves this through contrast. The song does scarcely more than elaborate on the transformation from ashy to classy, but through the specificity of his detail, Biggie turns the conceit into one of the greatest songs ever made—all emotional weight and defiant, elated energy.
He references his impoverished upbringing and the struggles that accompanied it. Then he shifts into the perks and luxury that come with fame, the label money and the stardom. He touches on eating sardines in a one room shack, hating your birthday, getting dissed by women you were too broke for, then shows us the video game systems, Queens real estate and marijuana stockpiles. Biggie puts it best, sneaking in a beautiful, simple truth: “Living life without fear.”
From hip-hop’s inception, there have probably been over a million recorded boasts concerning the respective wealth of the rapper. I wouldn’t take one of them over Biggie’s classic: “Phone bill about 2 gs flat/no need to worry my accountant handles that.” No other boast has ever imbued me with the same sensation of palpable joy — one that conveys the appreciation an artist has for his good fortune. What he’s saying is universal: there’s nothing like being able to take a bill for granted. We all understand.
It’s a powerful and personal story about a young man turning his life around. But its real charm isn’t the lavish wealth Biggie attains, but how important it is for him to stay true to who he is and what he’s gone through. The address and phone number haven’t changed, he’s getting all his friends high, he can take care of his Mom as well as his crew. It’s all good. That’s a sentiment you wouldn’t expect to hear from the protagonist of Ready to Die’s next track. While “Juicy” may well be the lasting message that Biggie’s remembered for, we can’t take it as his final word.
Calling “Everyday Struggle” one of the most brutal songs in Big’s catalogue is an understatement. It’s one of rap’s most uncompromisingly miserable works, completely devoid of hope or silver lining. While horror core and other homicidal hemorrhages in that vein can be characterized as “worse”, “Everday Struggle” strives for and attains a heartfelt realism that makes it more disturbing.
Over a melancholy water-marked keyboard loop from Dave Grusin’s “Either Way,” Biggie commiserates with those who might say that “Juicy” was too fluffy and optimistic. He charts the rise and fall of a drug kingpin, without a glimmer of happiness or satisfaction at any turn in the tale.
The act of dealing drugs is depicted as a grind like any other, except it this one comes with constant threat of arrest or death. Biggie opens with: “I know how it feels to wake up fucked up/pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell/People look at you like you the loser/sellin drugs to all the users, mad Buddha abusers/but they don’t know about your stress filed day, baby on the way mad bills to pay/that’s why you drink Tanqueray, so you can reminisce, and wish, you wasn’t living so devilish.”
It makes him sound like a blue collar-laborer who hates his job and his obligations. He expresses remorse at what he stoops to do to survive. It’s one of the first times the oft-glamorized and oft-vilified drug trade was sketched in such stark but mundane terms.
On “Everyday Struggle’s” second verse, Biggie takes us up the ladder to find the view isn’t rosy there either. A character “Two Techs” is introduced and defined by his brutality – the only purpose his presence serves is to be killed off in a small town because of a gun deal gone wrong. No longer broke as hell or dealing with petty assault charges, Biggie’s life is no easier. Now he’s running his own crew and capitalizing on New York’s cheap prices by moving product to areas of great scarcity down South.
Biggie uses a girl as a mule and lets her take the charge when she gets nailed. He loses a good friend over bullshit. At its conclusion, the Feds cinch the noose, while Biggie’s clearly deluded and doomed protagonist comforts himself with “a tech with air holes.” He says “True G that’s me, blowin like a bubble, in the everyday struggle.”
What’s clear is Big’s horror at the situation and the losses he’s suffered. With every success, there are serious consequences.