Note: A special djrobblog countdown of Biggie’s 25 Greatest Joints (including his collabos with others) is at the bottom of this article. I also paid tribute to the late Tupac Shakur on the 20th anniversary of his passing (September 1996).
The following is a special 20th-anniversary tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G., a/k/a Biggie Smalls… Frank White… or just plain…
Usually, if a man resorted to using that many names to identify and market his brand, one could argue that he was nothing more than a shallow character at best, or at worst a caricature of himself – a walking joke whose talents alone couldn’t carry the day.
In the case of the late Christopher George Latore Wallace, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Thursday, March 9, 2017, marks the 20th anniversary of Wallace’s (a/k/a The Notorious B.I.G.’s) assassination and the loss of one of the biggest talents of the 1990s – a larger-than-life rap superstar who is still considered by many to be the greatest rapper of all time!
Or, if “Biggie” – as we mostly referred to him – wasn’t the greatest rapper ever, he was certainly the best storyteller – which was what rap and hip-hop were really all about anyway, particularly during the genre’s first 20 years.
Biggie could give you the beginning, the middle and the end of a tale like no one else – with the story’s moral thrown in for good measure. In terms of his rap flow, no one to this day has been able to deliver street commentary in as compelling a way as he could with the perfect blend of gutter-mouth slang, colorful metaphor, grandiose fantasy and swag-filled bravado all wrapped up in a nice neat (or messy) bow.
He had the uncanny – and still unmatched – ability to deliver street tales in ways that we could all understand, even if the lifestyle he represented wasn’t our own. He’d somehow have us believing every word of his gangsta-like nastiness.
The best example of his storytelling and the badass persona his characters always embodied might have been the aptly titled “I Got A Story To Tell” from his posthumous Life After Death album.
In the tune, Biggie opens the extended first (and only) verse by rapping about about a situation – more accurately a booty call – with the girlfriend of a professional basketball player who comes home early from a game and nearly catches them in the act. But Biggie’s quick-on-his-feet protagonist cleverly hatches a fake “robbery” plan that saves his and the woman’s bacon, and avoids an ugly confrontation that could have wound up costing the boyfriend his life.
Plus, Biggie’s character gets out of there with a little extra loot to boot.
The story itself wasn’t so groundbreaking, but Biggie’s delivery of it was, because after he rapped the full story during the song’s first half – almost as if acting out its plot in real time – he concludes his narrow escape from doom by proclaiming that he’s got a story to tell. Then we find him hanging with his boys and recalling the whole experience from start to finish – in true storytelling fashion – during the song’s second half.
No chorus, no hook, no sixteen bars…just raw storytelling. It certainly had many believing the events really occurred. It was as clever a rap song as there ever was.
Storytelling ability aside, and perhaps most incredibly: Biggie – considered unsightly by some – made being big, black and “ugly as ever” no longer seem so appalling. He and those traits had now become appealing – at least to the many women with whom he purportedly had real-life liaisons in his songs. Indeed, Biggie had become an unlikely hip-hop sex symbol.
With the Notorious B.I.G.’s untimely death at age 24, hip-hop lost one of its truest beacons at the height of his career and during a time when the rap genre was experiencing its greatest commercial and crossover success yet. Sure, the groundwork had been laid for Biggie and other ’90s rappers by their many forefathers. And Biggie certainly wasn’t treading any new ground topically, with the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Grandmaster Melle Mel, KRS-One and others like them having delivered harsh street realities in the 1980s to a much smaller audience. But that audience was limited to people who – at the time – mostly looked like them and who’d endured similar hard-knock circumstances growing up.
Rap’s explosion in the 1990s gave Biggie and some others of his generation a much larger platform from which to bring the harsh reality of the streets to middle America – more specifically to mainstream white America and the pop charts.
This was especially true after the widespread acceptance of the much safer rap fare that had been delivered by MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Biz Markie and Fresh Prince. Those rappers were saccharin-rich and certainly deemed acceptable to radio, and with rap’s mainstream door now wide open, there was room for others to come in.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum you had future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers N.W.A., Public Enemy and Tupac Shakur bringing hard-hitting, countercultural rhymes that railed against authority and the white establishment. That latter brand of hip-hop – by this time deemed “gangsta rap” – would in a matter of two years supplant the softer, safer stuff that now seemed like children’s nursery rhymes by comparison.
Biggie fell somewhere in the middle of this wide spectrum: not safe for work by any stretch of the imagination, but also not so offensive as to completely turn off radio station program directors. Yeah, his rhymes may have been slapped with a few parental-advisory labels as he rapped about loose women (using a few choice derogatory terms I won’t mention here) along with murder and drug-dealing – not to mention his private parts and his prowess.
But those things weren’t anything some clever, safe-for-radio editing couldn’t fix. And radio was certainly willing to give him a chance, unlike many of his hard-hitting predecessors.
During Biggie’s last days, he was experiencing the culmination of a whirlwind two-and-a-half years that saw the larger-than-life rapper go from hustling streets in his youth to literally being on top of the hip-hop and pop worlds after the success of his first album, Ready To Die (featuring “Juicy,” “One More Chance” and “Big Poppa”), plus guest appearances on several other projects including Craig Mack’s (“Flava In Your Ear” remix), R. Kelly’s “(You To Be) Be Happy,” Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn’s Finest,” Lil’ Kim’s début album (“No Time,” “Queen B*tch” and “Crush On You”), 112’s “Only You,” and several hits by his rap protégés Junior M.A.F.I.A. (“Get Money,” “Playa’s Anthem”).
Even the King of Pop, Michael Jackson – as opportunistic as he had become during that era after having recruited the likes of many fellow A-list celebrities for musical collaborations (Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Shaquille O’Neal) – enlisted Biggie’s services for a duet on his HIStory album: the hard-hitting, retaliatory track, “This Time Around.” It would be the first time we’d ever hear MJ utter the word “sh*t” – and he did it twice – indicating either that Michael was truly mad at a lot of folks (you may recall during that particular time that he had a reason to be) or simply that he knew he had to step up his rough game to be sharing a track with Biggie Smalls.
In other words, this wasn’t some Bill Bottrell rapping on “Black or White” shit and Michael was clearly not in Neverland Ranch anymore.
But, more important than the fact that Michael was teaming with Biggie was the notion that Biggie was considered good enough for Michael. After all, this was Michael f*-king Jackson, the King of Pop!
Indeed, by 1997, Biggie was on top of the pop and hip-hop world and was primed for his biggest success yet!
Then, just like that, his life was snuffed out – killed by multiple bullets in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles during the early morning hours of March 9, 1997, after the Soul Train Music Awards. It’s a murder that remains unsolved to this day.
Biggie’s quick rise and fall – one which sadly coincided with that of his former cohort and later rap nemesis Tupac Shakur – punctuated hip-hop’s meteoric rise during a decade in which record sales became bragging rights. Simply going platinum was no longer good enough. Platinum-selling albums, including those by rap artists, had become a dime a dozen, and the true superstars were those who were capable of exceeding that and selling multiple millions of copies.
But rap and hip-hop also began to transcend record sales and radio airplay. Hip-hop was fast becoming a cultural phenomenon – not just a musical one – with its art now setting fashion trends; its music powering movie soundtracks; its name-brand dropping lyrics serving as free advertisement for many commercial products; and its two biggest ambassadors – Biggie and Tupac – representing whole coasts in what became the most hyped-up rap battle story of all time.
And the most senseless.
Today, it would be easy to sit back and blame the deaths of Biggie and Tupac on the whole East Coast vs. West Coast thing that consumed nearly all the hip-hop world in 1996, but that would lend rap’s civil war too much credibility…or, in some twisted sense, a legitimacy that battles like that don’t achieve unless someone dies.
In reality, the rappers’ deaths were a microcosm of what still happens in society – particularly African-American society – on a daily basis, as black men are pitted against one another and ultimately succumb to gun violence at a higher rate than any other ethnic group in America. As a result, many brothers don’t live to realize their fullest potential in life.
Christopher Wallace sure didn’t.
Just weeks after his passing, Bad Boy Entertainment released Biggie’s second album, Life After Death. Within weeks of that, “Hypnotize” became his first No. 1 pop single. A few months later, the follow-up, “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” became his second, making The Notorious B.I.G. the first rapper to ever achieve two No. 1 singles on the Hot 100.
Sadly, Biggie would also become the first artist – rap or otherwise – to achieve two posthumous No. 1 singles… and in the same year in intervening weeks, become the subject of a posthumous No. 1 tribute by his Bad Boy family, in Puff Daddy & the Family’s “I’ll Be Missing You,” featuring Bigg’s ex-wife Faith Evans and the R&B group 112.
The coincidentally titled Life After Death album would eventually be certified Diamond by the RIAA (for ten million in sales), making it one of the largest selling rap albums of all time.
Wallace’s murder has remained unsolved – and likely will never be, just as Tupac’s wasn’t. In the years since both rappers’ murders, Tupac’s legacy has grown, with the rapper having achieved more Number One albums in death than he did in life, and a pending induction next month into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Biggie’s legacy is stunted by comparison, with our fondest memories limited to the success he enjoyed while he lived and the gift he gave us shortly afterwards, Life After Death. His label Bad Boy would go on to release another posthumous album, Born Again, which would also reach No. 1, as well as a “duets” album and a Greatest-hits compilation that saw less success on the charts and in sales.
Biggie’s loss was a huge blow to the hip-hop world, indeed. Even Bad Boy tried to replace him and failed (remember the ill-fated quasi-sound-alike Shyne?).
Yet, as much as Biggie’s fans (myself included) would love to believe it, hip-hop didn’t die with Biggie. It has continued to thrive with many artists now having surpassed the Brooklyn rapper in terms of No. 1 hit albums. In fact, Life After Death was only the 24th rap album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
There’ve been another 139 such albums to top the chart in the 20 years since.
Still, no one has had the impact that The Notorious B.I.G. did in just the three short years he graced the hip-hop world with his presence. His gut-wrenching stories of street violence and his lurid bedroom tales – while equally glorifying and cautionary – were somehow still able to entertain the masses – and keep us coming back for more.
And we’re still missing him.
Continue resting in peace, Biggie!
Oh, wait, Biggie’s still “gotta story to tell.” It’s in the form of this special tribute countdown of his 25 greatest joints, courtesy of djrobblog. These are the tunes either led by or featuring The Notorious B.IG, which people love the most, in order from #25 to #1.
Also, please check out my recent article commemorating the 20th anniversary of Tupac Shakur’s death (September 1996).