Welcome to the inaugural Song Battle series, where we take two classic hip hop albums and pit them against each other, song for song.
For this edition, we have two New York kings representing for Shaolin and Brooklyn with a pair of the most important rap records of the ’90s.
In one corner, we have The Notorious B.I.G. with his 1994 debut album featuring hit singles like “Juicy” and “Big Poppa”, as well as gritty New York boom bap courtesy of DJ Premier and the always underrated Easy Mo Bee.
In the other corner, we have Raekwon the Chef, aka Lex Diamond, coming into 1995 with a mission to stake his claim for the New York crown, assisted by his partner-in-rhyme, Ghostface Killah, aka Tony Stark, and his Wu brothers.
Before we get started, Ready to Die has 17 tracks, with one intro and one interlude, the same structure as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…, so Big and Rae can literally go song-for-song without any omissions.
Ok, let’s get started, Beats, Rhymes & Lists presents the very first Song Battle in the the series: Ready to Die vs. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
“Things Done Changed” vs. “Knuckleheadz”
“Things Done Changed” is a decent intro song, it’s gives us a glimpse into the Biggie’s mindset at the time and his hunger for rap, but the production gets annoying on repeated listens. “Knuckleheadz”, on the other hand, is an audio heist-movie featuring one of the best verses U-God has spit in his life. Chef takes this one.
Ready to Die = 0, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 1
“Gimme the Loot” vs. “Knowledge God”
Both tracks are storytelling raps at its peak. Rae spins up a mobster tale with such vivid imagery and intricate detail that it feels like a Francis Ford Coppola film, but “Gimme the Loot” has Biggie rapping in two different voices so perfectly that people still think, to this day, that the song features another rapper. Biggie takes it, just barely though.
Ready to Die = 1, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 1
“Machine Gun Funk” vs. “Criminology”
As dope as “Machine Gun Funk” is (Biggie wanted it to be the lead single off Ready to Die instead of “Juicy”) “Criminology is just a smoker. The way RZA intros the track with Tony Montana’s voice, the eerie break-beat, the Black Ivory sample, Ghost’s legendary verse. “Criminology” wins hands down.
Ready to Die = 1, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 2
“Warning” vs. “Incarcerated Scarfaces”
This is almost an impossible choice – they’re both such incredible songs. “Warning” is one of my top five Biggie records, but “Incarcerated Scarfaces” is quite possibly my favourite hip hop song of all time. Rae takes it.
Ready to Die = 1, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 3
“Ready to Die” vs. “Rainy Dayz”
RZA’s the real star of this round; the Abbott’s production transforms “Rainy Dayz” into the very definition of a cinematic rap song. The title track for Ready to Die, on the other hand, is cool but ultimately forgettable. Another Chef win.
Ready to Die = 1, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 4
“One More Chance” vs. “Guillotine (Swordz)”
“Guillotine (Swordz)” is one of the best hip hop posse cuts of all time, and features one of Deck’s greatest verses, but Big is smooth as fuck on “One More Chance.” The Jackson 5-inspired hook takes it over the top, the Notorious takes this one.
Ready to Die = 2, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 4
“The What” vs. “Can It Be All So Simple (Remix)”
Chef’s Wu brother, Method Man, is the only rapper Big deemed worthy to be featured on his debut album, and he delivers one hell of a feature, going toe-to-toe with the Brooklyn rapper on an all-time classic. Big and Meth win this one.
Ready to Die = 3, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 4
“Juicy” vs. “Ice Water”
If “Ice Water” was up against any other song on the album, it would have won. I fucking love “Ice Water” – I love RZA’s production, I love that creepy vocal sample floating in and out of the song, I love Rae’s verse, I love Ghost’s verse, I love Cappa’s verse. I fucking love it. But this is “Juicy” – one of the greatest and most influential rap songs of all time. Biggie, Biggie, Biggie.
Ready to Die = 4, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 4
“Everyday Struggle” vs. “Glaciers of Ice”
Super tough choice. “Everyday Struggle” is a heartfelt banger that features Big digging deep over a beautiful sample of “Either Way” by Dave Grusin, but Mobb Deep’s Prodigy crashed his car listening to “Glaciers of Ice” so, there’s that. I think you have to give it to Chef based on that alone.
Ready to Die = 4, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 5
“Me & My Bitch” vs. “Verbal Intercourse”
“Through the lights, cameras, and action, glamor, glitters, and gold” – come on man! Is there even a question about this? Nas murked his verse (being the first non-Wu member to appear on their album) and that RZA beat is bonkers.
Ready to Die = 4, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 6
“Big Poppa” vs. “Wisdom Body”
The biggest mismatch of this Song Battle so far. “Wisdom Body” never stood a chance.
Ready to Die = 5, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 6
“Respect” vs. “Spot Rusherz”
I’m actually not a big fan of either of these songs, but if pressed I’ll give it to Big.
Ready to Die = 6, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 6
“Friend of Mine” vs. “Ice Cream”
“Ice Cream” is a timeless Wu joint, with one of the catchiest rap hooks of all time, and an unforgettable RZA production. “Friend of Mine” is decent, I guess. Chef takes this one easily.
Ready to Die = 6, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 7
“Unbelievable” vs. “Wu-Gambinos”
Super tough choice right there. “Unbelievable” and “Wu-Gambinos” are the two hardest tracks off their respective albums – Premo laces Big with a disgusting rendition of “Impeach the President” for him to spit some classic Brooklyn shit, while Rae calls on his Wu fam for an assist on this one. I like RZA’s production just a little bit more than Premo here, so Chef edges this round by the tiniest of margins.
Ready to Die = 6, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 8
“Suicidal Thoughts” vs. “Heaven & Hell”
These are both incredible closing tracks, and really fit the whole theme of their albums. “Heaven & Hell” is soulful and nostalgic, featuring some incredible rhyme-trading between Rae and Ghost, but “Suicidal Thoughts” just sticks with you for a while after the album ends. Big takes it.
Ready to Die = 7, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… = 8
Result: A very close match-up between two of the best rap records to come out of the New York ’90s. While Ready to Die had arguably bigger and more impactful moments, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… just never let up song-for-song. Over the album’s 18 tracks, there might be only one or two tracks that might be skippable (and that’s a maybe). All praises to The Purple Tape.