This is one of the closest, most difficult comparisons I’ve ever considered. Let’s not turn this into a Jay vs. Big debate, either. This is strictly album for album.
For the record, I don’t think either of these are the greatest hip-hop album of all-time. For me, that distinction goes to illmatic, followed closely by Paid in Full. I put Reasonable Doubt and Ready to Die in my top 5, but that’s an entirely different article.
I read and rebutted the Complex Magazine article where they inexplicably claimed Jay-Z’s Blueprint was better than Reasonable Doubt. My comment in that last paragraph is exactly the reason I find that comparison ridiculous. While Blueprint was a great – perhaps even classic – album, nobody who I respect has ever placed it in the conversation of greatest album of all-time, while RD is consistently in that discussion. That should be all you need to know about that silly comparison.
I don’t even know where to begin with these two albums. I’ve never analyzed this before, so I’ll just be thinking/typing out loud. Here we go…
Let me get the first, most obvious argument out of the way. Yes, if it wasn’t for Ready to Die, I’m not sure that Reasonable Doubt would even exist. We all know the impact that Biggie had on his protégé, but that can be said about almost any album. Every artist was inspired by someone before him. To use that as the basis of your argument is a copout, in my opinion. Using that logic, nothing from the present can ever be better than anything released previously. For that, we could just say that every Rakim and KRS album was better than anything else ever. So let’s get past that and have an intelligent discussion.
Here’s my overall take. Reasonable Doubt is the more polished album. It doesn’t sound like a debut. Minus a few songs towards the end that were meant to showcase Roc-a-fella artists (the entire point of the album was to help launch the artists from the label, remember), it was a very cohesive, experienced album. It was more on par with Life After Death sonically.
What Ready to Die had was raw emotion. Every word was spoken from the heart. It didn’t sound rehearsed – just natural talent, whereas RD sounded like a team of experienced professionals. That makes the comparison exceptionally difficult because neither one is necessarily better than the other – but rather “apples and oranges” different. Ready to Die was both simple and complex at the same time. It also had a much wider reach than RD, thanks to Puffy’s invaluable vision. You can hear what it would’ve been without Puff’s magic touch – just another underground rapper’s tough-guy album. A collection of Gimme the Loot’s. The singles really made it sound like two completely different albums, whereas RD was more cohesive. This was less a Biggie solo album than it was a Puff and Big collaborative effort.
Since this isn’t Complex Magazine, I’m not gonna waste your time comparing album covers and pretending they mean as much as factors such as lyrics and beats. Let’s get right to the heart of these albums.
Lyrically, these are two completely different albums. Jay was wordier and more vividly descriptive (similar like Nas), forcing the listener to pay attention and rewind in order to fully comprehend the depth of his verses. That’s one of the major reasons why this album wasn’t fully appreciated initially. Jay’s voice and delivery instantly sounded like another instrument on the beat, leaving him enjoyable to listen to, whether you understood the lyrics or not. At first glance, he sounds like any other drug dealer rapper. It isn’t until multiple listens where you really start to appreciate the level of detail and uniqueness of the angle he takes in regards to this lifestyle.
Biggie is the polar opposite. He uses a much simpler, less wordy flow that sometimes isn’t appreciated until you realize how elaborate his rhymes really are. He was much more direct in his approach, relying more on being clever than being intricate. You understand his words the first time you hear them. His vividness was in his simplicity. Descriptive without needing too many or complicated words. It was art. The rhyme patterns were more straightforward. While Jay discussed the boss sitting in his throne overseeing the entire drug game, Biggie rapped from the trenches of a hustler who would do anything to keep from going back to jail. Lines like “I don’t care if you’re pregnant, gimme the rings and the ‘number 1 mom’ pendant” and “she looks so good, I’d suck on her daddy’s dick” were so shocking and honest that they just hit home like no other rapper before him had. While Reasonable Doubt was full of “damn, what did he say? Rewind that” moments, Ready to Die had that “Holy shit, did you hear what he just said?! Rewind that shit!” effect. Therefore, I feel Ready was appreciated upon first listen, as opposed to Reasonable, which – like wine – took time to fully appreciate. Some of Big’s rhymes would seem simple by today’s standards, while Jay’s lyrics on RD are still the benchmark by which lyricism is judged.
Lyrically, these are two completely different styles with different objectives. It’s almost unfair to compare them. I’d have to say RD has a slight lyrical edge, but it might be based more on taste than anything. There is a unique talent to both styles. But when you go back and listen years later, you could literally print out the lyrics from RD or read them out loud as spoken word and they’d be equally – if not more – impressive as when they were first released.
In terms of production, these are – again – two very different albums. RD followed a formula. It was some of hip-hop’s top producers using jazzy soul samples to create a very distinctive soundscape. These were sounds that weren’t meant to overpower, but rather compliment Jay’s elaborate rhymes. Never did a beat sound like it dominated the song; it almost always perfectly complimented. The songs really sound like they were created together, with everybody on the same page, working in unison to create a song and album. Not a single song sounded like Dame or Biggs telling Jay “trust me, you NEED to rap on this beat”.
R2D was a little more ‘all over the place’. Again, it felt like two different albums. Things Done Changed, Gimme the Look, Machine Gun Funk – these were beats that could’ve been found on any underground rapper’s album. But Juicy and Big Poppa were sounds taken from 80s hits. It was interesting and impressive how Puff managed to blend these together and keep the album from feeling unorganized. The beats seemed to dictate Big’s flow more than on RD. The drums were harder, forcing Big to rap with more energy than Jay’s laid back “boss” flow. He sounded angry and hungry.
Biggie adopted Jay’s demeanor more on Life After Death, once he was more comfortable with his voice and delivery. Oddly enough, Jay adopted Big’s sense of lyrical simplicity on his later albums. He became less wordy and more clever. They both really borrowed off one another, despite the common attitude that Jay took more from Big. On R2D, Biggie had a “worker” mentality. On LAD, he took Jay’s “boss” persona. It’s impossible to know who would’ve learned more from whom if Biggie had managed to avoid that bullet in Los Angeles.
Can’t Knock the Hustle would be the closest comparable to a R2D single, but even that was geared more toward the streets than it was the clubs. Ready to Die had a vision. They wanted to create beats that had a variety. Lots of hard drums and break beats, mixed with hits from the 80s. I give Big a lot of credit for trusting Puffy and spitting his heart out over the type of beat the he was originally uncomfortable with. It laid the foundation for his success. Slight edge to Biggie because of the diversity, though I personally appreciate RD’s focused production better.
Let’s talk actual songs. Lyrics and beats are important categories, but it’s the songs that they create that ultimately determine the success or failure of an album. This is another very close comparison. And again, a lot of it is based on personal preference.
RD had a heavy emphasis of jazzy, soulful samples. The songs were very reflective, rarely aggressive. They were introspective, focusing on the successes and pitfalls of a drug dealer’s life. They took an honest look into the game, which is a perspective that hadn’t been previously explored in such detail. Songs like Regrets simply didn’t exist before RD. Rarely was an urban artist that honest with himself. Jay spoke highly of his exploits and the accomplishments of his team, but exposed his fears to us. It was the first time we’ve gotten to see the inner workings of a hustler’s mind. Every song contributed to this singular theme, each exploring a different viewpoint. It was a hustler’s blueprint.
Ready to Die, on the other hand, was a completely different type of album sound wise. Driven by heavy break beats, the album took on an aggressive tone from the outset. The intro immediately set a nostalgic mood, and the mix of heavy drums with hits from the previous decade delivered something innovative that hip-hop hadn’t yet experienced. It was fierce and raw and uncensored. Biggie represented what we saw in the streets every day, where Jay represented what we aspired to be. Juicy was – by far – the greatest song created by either artist. It’s one of the most impactful, influential and greatest songs ever recorded in hip-hop history. It represented ambition. The ultimate rags-to-riches story. The songs were a mirror reflection of many of the people who were listening.
If I had to give an edge, I’d lean towards R2D, only because it helped usher in an entirely new sound. While RD was the epitome of jazz soul, it wasn’t a new concept, nor did it create any new trends. R2D’s sound was not only copied, but basically birthed an entire era of copycats.
Conceptually, both albums followed a similar theme, yet managed to push the envelope. For Jay, songs like 22 Two’s and Friend are Foe are still unmatched fifteen years later, as are Warning and Me & My Bitch. Brooklyn’s Finest and The What are still prime examples of flawless collaborations between artists at their peaks. Both albums hardly strayed from their theme, which was a good thing.
And the last thing I’ll consider is social impact, which is important factor in any classic album debate. See, a later album might sound technically better – a combination of larger budget and increased experience – but the influence of an album should not be understated. Biggie’s album was more widely accepted and caused a greater impact immediately, mainly because it had ready-for-radio singles that helped changed the face of hip-hop. Songs like Juicy and One More Chance (the remix – which wasn’t on the album) changed how artists approached radio and helped enlarge hip-hop’s fan base. R2D managed to capture a sound that has transcended its era and still remains relevant.
Reasonable Doubt had its share of singles. Can’t Knock the Hustle, featuring Mary J. Blige, still remains a tremendously inspiring and powerful record. Ain’t No Nigga was Jay’s last-ditch attempt and first successful foray at a hit record. Other than that, the songs were more respected than critically acclaimed. It was a different type of success. Dead Presidents and D’Evils are constantly referred to for their stellar lyrics, while Friend or Foe is quoted by rappers and hustlers everywhere.
The social impact of Ready to Die was felt immediately, while Reasonable Doubt took time to mature and be fully appreciated. Both albums helped propel the respective artists to the top of the hip-hop world. Ready to Die instantly thrust New York back to the forefront of the urban world, which Dre and Snoop had temporarily claimed, while Reasonable Doubt catapulted Jay to “heir to the throne” status once Biggie had prematurely passed on. Once again, a slight edge would have to be given to R2D.
Where would Jay have been if Big would’ve lived a long, healthy life? It’s impossible to tell. Many artists have had an impressive debut or two-album run. If 50 Cent or DMX had died shortly after their debuts, would they have been held in the same light at Christopher Wallace? Would Jay have been able to escape the shadow and stand alone as his own man? These are questions that can never be answered. Jay was influenced by Big, as Big was influenced by Jay. The bottom line is, they both recorded amazing albums that stand as two of hip-hop’s best. I’ve given more edges to R2D, but I personally feel that – song for song – Reasonable Doubt is a slightly better album, while Ready to Die had the bigger impact. That’s probably a cop-out, I know, but hopefully – with the analysis I’ve provided – you can come to your own conclusion. Maybe I should compare linear notes, album covers or some other arbitrary item to break the tie (shouts to Complex).
But if I definitively had to state which album ranks higher in my “Best Hip-Hop Albums of All-Time” debate (which I’ll write one day) – I’d give a very slight edge to Ready to Die, even though I personally prefer Reasonable Doubt a bit more. It had bigger records – songs that transcended the genre and defined an era. As great as Can’t Knock the Hustle was, find me another song that gets the reaction that Juicy does when it comes on in a club. It might be the single greatest song in hip-hop history (although that’s certainly up for debate).
Having said that, give me illmatic over either of those any day.