It began with a heartbeat. In 1994, Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Christopher Wallace) released his debut album, Ready To Die, and started a New York renaissance by telling an album-length story.
It was mostly the story of Wallace’s life, but this main character could have been straight out of a novel. Hazy details, universal themes, and skits that reinforced the visual plot, rather than just being funny. The first of these skits was the birth of the Biggie character. There was a heartbeat, a delivery, and a baby born into a world of screaming parents, crime, and Hip Hop.
In 2000, Radiohead destroyed rock and roll. All eyes were on the British group to follow up their previous release, OK Computer, which won nearly every award given that year and was immediately considered one of the greatest albums of all time.
Fans, critics, even other bands waited on them to show us where rock went next, but no one was prepared for what they unleashed. They responded with a collection of songs that contained nearly no live instruments, and told an album-length morality fable about the first human clone. It began with rhythmic electronic thumps, and a mechanical voice that would, over the course of the album, be engulfed in a sea of paranoia, desperation, and eventually suicide.
After B.I.G.’s Biggie character is taken through adolescence, signified by a robbery and then jail in songs like “Gimme The Loot” and “Things Done Changed”, Biggie grows into himself. Starting with “Ready To Die”, Biggie accepts his lot in life and excels at the kind of faux-Mob lifestyle that brings him up through the streets. He’s even getting laid and hanging out with other New York rappers (“The What”).
By track 10, Biggie would become Notorious B.I.G. On the first song, Kid A, the character, is immersed in modern noise and confusion. The voice he introduces himself with at the beginning of “Everything In Its Right Place” is distance and empty by the end of that song. “Kid A”, the song, starts with a soothing electronic lullaby.
The clone seems almost happy for a few minutes, as he adjusts to the new world. The next song, “National Anthem,” showcases a more grown-up voice for the Kid, but with maturity come new problems. Kid A is thrown into an adolescence of off-key trumpets, and Thom Yorke, the lead singer, wails incoherently in response. It’s all getting to be a bit much for our clone.
In the middle of Ready To Die, Christopher Wallace finally introduced the Notorious B.I.G. In “Juicy”, the hero of the tale is backed by state-of-the-art production, a female chorus proclaiming his greatness, and rhymes about money, women, and Robin Leach. All of Biggie’s dreams had come true (“It was all a dream”), and he could leave the public housing life behind. The high doesn’t last long.
By the next track, “Everyday Struggle,” B.I.G. gets a splash of cold water, as baby mama woes and hangers-on ruin his good time. In the chorus, he is already showing cracks: “I don’t wanna live no more.”
By the middle of Kid A, our clone hero has become self-aware. He knows he doesn’t belong in this world and, now an adult, he laments his existence: “I’m not here. This isn’t happening.” He has modern responsibilities and burdens: a kid, a car, a house, and a wife. He tries valiantly to survive for them, as in “Optimistic”, but ultimately something is missing. He doesn’t have a soul, and it shows in his lethargy. By the penultimate track, “Morning Bell,” he tells his wife, “You can keep the furniture. Where’d you park the car? Cut the kids in half.”
The B.I.G. of Ready To Die couldn’t sustain himself. He had no soul left. His girlfriend thinks he slept with her sister, his schedule has run him ragged, and he thinks he doesn’t deserve his riches. There are flashes of the rap superstar, mainly “Big Poppa”, but by the time he’s singing his own praises in “Unbelievable”, it’s clear he doesn’t believe it himself. He calls his last friend, Puff Daddy, in “Suicidal Thoughts” and throws out a few more bars of rhymes: “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell. Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin tell.” Puffy tells him he’s crazy and does his best to talk him down, but there is no saving B.I.G. He puts a magnum to his head and pulls the trigger. The final track closes on a slowing heartbeat, and forces the listener to wait until it stops.
The last track on Kid A, “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” begins with funereal organs. Thom Yorke, speaking for Kid A, barely moves his lips as he delivers a few words: “Red wine and sleeping pills, cheap sex and sad films.” Regarding his mourners, he is baffled as to why they could possibly not want him gone. “I think you’re crazy, baby. I will see you in the next life.” And like that, the first human clone, who everyone was watching like a guinea pig, is dead.
It’s purely coincidence that these seminal works mirror each other so much. Concept albums were huge in the sixties, between The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, but had long died out by the nineties. Yet these two artists, who seem so much the opposite of each other, have each left gigantic legacies in their wake. Biggie reinvented Hip Hop with Ready To Die. Radiohead purposely placed rock in a funk that it may not have recovered from yet, but may have furthered B.I.G.’s cause.
Since Kid A’s release, not a single rock album has taken the Album Of The Year Grammy, but The Eminem Show was runner-up to a bluegrass album in 2002. College Dropout may win this year. And of course, last year’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below became the first Hip Hop album to ever win the big prize. Did B.I.G. influence Radiohead? Maybe. Just maybe.