Both dropped classic 1994 LPs that soundtracked the streets of NYC. But there can only be one king: Was it Nasty Nas or Biggie Smalls?
In 1994, two heralded New York City rappers released superior debut albums within six months of each other. That spring, Nas fulfilled prophecy with Illmatic, a project that’s been hailed as one of the best albums (if not the best) ever since its release. Then, a week before the summer officially concluded, the Notorious B.I.G. gave the world Ready to Die, making the Brooklyn native a household name that September. While Illmatic was met with widespread critical acclaim, Ready to Die earned approval on critical and commercial levels, a testament to Biggie’s versatility as an artist.
It was a year of triumph for both rappers, but does Biggie’s mass appeal solidify him as ‘94’s MVP while relegating Nas to Rookie of the Year? Not quite.
There was eager anticipation for Illmatic, as many a rap know-it-all hailed Nas the second coming of Rakim. Though he possessed an uncanny ability to not only flip syllables with ease, the relationship between the words he used and their meaning was brilliant from a contextual standpoint. For example, take the way he describes aging as the “essence of adolescence” leaving his body on his 20th birthday on “Life’s a Bitch.” The album opened with incredible storytelling (“N.Y. State of Mind”) and Nas brought it to an end by exhibiting a radiant confidence in his own ability (“It Ain’t Hard to Tell”), which served as a strong parting thought for listeners. Add production from the best of that era (DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor, Q-Tip, L.E.S.), and the end result is one of the most revered albums ever made.
Five months later, Ready to Die arrived amidst less initial excitement. It was the first project released on Puff Daddy’s new venture, Bad Boy Records. The album got a huge promotional push from its lead single, “Juicy.” Chronicling Biggie’s rise from drug dealer to recording artist, his realization of the American dream touched listeners while the infectious Mtume “Juicy Fruit” sample helped make it an urban radio staple in late 1994. Still, as evidenced by the title, Ready to Die is a very dark album. It begins with the start of a life on the intro, and closes with Biggie, our narrator, ending that life on “Suicidal Thoughts.” Along the way, he mixes self-loathing and aggression with humor and a fun-loving vibe, revealing the complex mental state of a black male in his early 20s.
Both Illmatic and Ready to Die were praised by fans and critics alike, earning acceptance as two of hip-hop’s most extolled creations. From a distance, the distinguishing characteristic separating them is popularity. Illmatic has achieved platinum status, but Ready to Die was certified quadruple platinum by the close of the ‘90s. Nas received slightly more critical praise, while Biggie generated more commercial interest. But, at first, the gap between the two in regards to the latter isn’t as wide as some might think.
Despite its accolades, Illmatic failed to succeed on a commercial level. It sold just 59,000 copies during its first week of release, though thirst for it led to rampant bootlegging. While its singles were commended for their musical brilliance, they had little impact on the charts.
What many forget about Ready to Die is that its initial sales were equally unimpressive. The album actually sold less copies in its first week than Illmatic did: The final tally came to 57,000, even on the heels of “Juicy.” Sales gradually picked up after “Big Poppa” and the “One More Chance” remix were released as singles in 1995, but Ready to Die wasn’t a runaway sales juggernaut from the jump. Biggie’s range and compelling personality emitted from his music, thus making it simple to crown him the people’s champion, but it isn’t as easy to hand the year to him as it might seem.
Although pundits gushed over both albums, Illmatic edges Ready to Die out in terms of quality. Both are heavy with the nihilism that accompanies years of observing and experiencing urban decay, and feature excellent storytelling (Illmatic’s “N.Y. State of Mind”; Ready to Die’s “Gimme the Loot” and “Me & My Bitch”), but Illmatic shines a little brighter. Those 40 minutes of hip-hop are as close as any rapper has come to a duplicating a pitcher’s perfect game or a quarterback’s coveted, flawless 158.3 rating from a musical position. From “Things Done Changed,” to the hilarious “Fuck Me” skit, to “Big Poppa,” Ready to Die ventured into different territory than Illmatic, but Nas literally made listeners see the music.
The defeat of “Life’s a Bitch” packed the same power as every word written in the album’s open letter to an incarcerated friend, “One Love.” Meanwhile, listening to “Memory Lane” places you right on the park benches next to Nas, watching the scenery he described come to life. To put it bluntly, “the next Illmatic” is the phrase critics still use when they’re prepared to anoint an album as the next great thing. It’s become a comparative tool.
Ready to Die and Illmatic are both nuanced, landmark albums responsible for re-establishing the formidability of East Coast hip-hop during the mid-90s. The difference between the two is that one is a little better. That, and the fact that Biggie’s commercial success—his advantage over Nas—wasn’t immediate makes it difficult to declare 1994 his year without careful consideration. This isn’t meant to slight him at all, or revive the understated rivalry between the two (check God’s Son’s “Last Real Nigga Alive” for insight), it’s just that Nas put out the better project that year, and that project is arguably hip-hop’s finest product.
Now, if you want to talk about who ran 1995, that’s a different story. That year was Biggie’s, no contest. —Julian Kimble
Julian Kimble has written for Complex, Billboard, the Washington City Paper, HipHopDX and more. Follow him on Twitter here.