#8: R.E.M., ‘Murmur’ (1983) vs. The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Ready to Die’ (1994)

I didn’t realize how unbelievably amazing Ready to Die is. Biggie Smalls deserves his stature as one of the best and Ready to Die is a master class of East Coast Gansta Rap. There is a lot to unpack on this album.

I am not completely sure what it is, I can’t quite figure it out, but there is something elevated here. Biggy is still spitting out the same gangsta tropes as all the other rappers. The groove is essentially the same as the rest. Same violence and misogyny as all the others. Check. So what is it? Perhaps it’s his turn of phrase. Perhaps there is more meat in his guttural delivery. Perhaps the beats are little tighter. Perhaps it’s the fact that he died too early and the “ready to die” words that permeate the album put a new level of realness that is more captivating than the others. Whatever it is, Biggie hits it in the gut more than any other gansta rap album in this “best of” war (note: I am not considering my fave Illmatic from this as I do not consider it part of the gangsta rap genre).

There are a few things that I can’t get past. The violent skits and the sex track are very unnecessary, and the blow job sounds leading into “Respect” are a misophonian nightmare.

There is something Dylanesque about Ready to Die. It’s the “matter of fact” Dylan. The non-metaphor Dylan. The example of this for me is Biggie’s track “Time Done Changed”. Compare that to Dylan’s “Things Have Changed”. Perhaps too on the nose, but there are similarities here. The former is Biggie pontificating on how life has gotten too complicated.  The latter is about how Dylan doesn’t care any more and has sort of checked out of life. Both are so matter of fact. So completely real.

With Biggie, there is something beyond the usual gangsta rap bravado, although it’s still there in spades; but there is also a realness and a specific vulnerability that puts it square in the realm of folk artistry. The lyrics are complicated, covering a multitude of ideas and themes: violence, oppression, crime to feed his baby girl, rising from poverty to extreme wealth, street intelligence, the struggle, the hustle, sex, murder, love, the hypocrisy of glamorizing white gangsters like John Gotti and not Biggie, family, suicide, and death. On “Suicidal Thoughts”, Biggie’s life crumbles to the point where he kills himself. Perhaps all the negativity and complicated hate violence, just for mere survival, caused all this misery to the point of self annihilation. The album is genius.

R.E.M.’s Murmur is pure beauty. While the themes are clearly stated in Ready to Die, there is no such clarity in Murmur. I have no idea what Michael Stipe is singing about. I guess on “Catapult” he is singing about a catapult? Not likely. Nothing makes sense or is even clear enough to understand. It’s cryptic, symbolic and completely obscure. So in many ways Murmur is the exact opposite of Ready to Die.

As their first commercial full album offering, these masters of jangley rock pop started their mammoth career off with a complete masterpiece. There is a joyous predictability with the songs on this album. R.E.M’s writing formula is for the band to write the music first and then the lyrics are added after. The result is an album full of very predictable and patterned song progressions (A leads to B which leads to C and then we start all over again). The obviousness of this is not a detractor at all. In fact there is a comfort and excitement in knowing what is coming, especially when the music is so good. This formula is perfect for their live shows and you can tell it’s the live stuff that they are showcasing on Murmur. Straight ahead production. Nothing fancy.

R.E.M are the foundation of the indie scene in the 80s. Murmur is the document of magic they created. This album started a string of R.E.M. records that are probably the most influential of all the 80s musical cannons. Despite the genius of Ready to Die the influence of Murmur cannot be denied.

JS

WINNER: R.E.M, Murmur (5 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 19

90s: 24

EARNED POINTS
80s: 52
90s: 63

Next week’s battle – #7: Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’ (1982) vs. Nirvana, ‘In Utero’ (1993)

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