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NOTORIOUS B.I.G. (Buy CDs by this artist)
Ready to Die (Bad Boy/Arista) 1994
Life After Death (Bad Boy) 1997
Born Again (Bad Boy) 1999

"Things Done Changed," observes the Notorious B.I.G., the burly Brooklynite who briefly swapped his doomed life as a street hustler for the fat success of a powerhouse career. (The former Christopher Wallace was shot to death in an unsolved drive-by in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997. He was not quite 25.) But the gloomy track isn't about his personal salvation. "Back in the day, our parents used to take care of us," he raps darkly. "Look at 'em now, they even fuckin' scared of us." Opening the abundantly grim Ready to Die with a dramatic collage that proceeds from physical birth to jail-release rebirth inside of three minutes, Biggy — the product of an environment that stylistically includes 2Pac, Ice Cube and EPMD — pushes his way purposefully and non-judgmentally through a high-stress land of stickups ("Gimme the Loot"), vigilant self-defense ("Warning") and the constant threat of sudden oblivion ("Ready to Die"). Following a transitional oasis of hip-hop reminiscence ("Juicy"), however, the album shifts gears, setting aside the hard, spare beats and lyrical violence for lush soul tracks and crude rhymes about sex ("Me & My Bitch," "Big Poppa," "Friend of Mine"). Finally, the Notorious B.I.G. embraces the conflicting impulses of his record (and mindstate) in "Suicidal Thoughts," a touchingly poignant personal contemplation on his life-and beyond. "When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell / Cause I'm a piece of shit it ain't hard to fuckin' tell...Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion / I know my mother wish she got a fuckin' abortion...I wonder if I died would tears come to her eyes?" All the sound-effect blasts and imprecations couldn't possibly deliver a harsher, more desolate message than that.

[Ira Robbins]