By Rahul Lal
Despite having a tragically short career, the Notorious B.I.G. is one of the most influential artists in hip-hop’s history. The Brooklyn-born rapper was murdered twenty years ago this month but his popularity has only grown over time, and his legacy as one of the greatest MCs ever is unquestioned. His second album, Life After Death was released twenty years ago today — March 25, 1997. And that was just two weeks after his untimely death on March 9, 1997; the album quickly topped the charts. Two decades later, it’s regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.
Biggie famously called himself “ugly as ever” on 1994’s “One More Chance.” In a genre that valued “keeping it real,” that self-assessment was as real as it gets. But he wasn’t whining about it: he was bragging. He was ugly and he knew it, but he was still getting more girls than you. Within the first few seconds of “Hypnotize,” we hear some of that ugliness: when Big grunts “Uh!” to kick off the song. This unfiltered, unpolished expression, over a slick track, encompasses the dichotomy of hip-hop: you can be ugly and still make it shine. It’s one of Biggie’s most iconic moments. Play the first two seconds of the song in a room of people with any familiarity with hip-hop and watch what happens.
In fact, watch what happens in the video below: “Hypnotize” was played around Brooklyn on the day his body passed through the city one last time, in a hearse. The second that the song came on, the King of New York’s presence was instantly felt as a solemn event turned into a borough-wide party. That’s the effect Biggie had; that’s the effect hip-hop, at its best, can have.
Biggie grew up rapping in the street and would freestyle against just about anybody. As noted before, despite his appearance, he always knew he could get the ladies because of his rhymes and demeanor. That’s on display in the hit song “F– You Tonight” featuring R. Kelly.
He wasn’t being sensitive, or subtle: lyrics like “I know you used to the slow CDs and Don P’s/But tonight it’s eight tracks and six-packs while I hit that” somehow found a way straight to the hearts of ladies. Don’t try this at home guys, none of you could get away with that line. That was part of Biggie’s charm.
How cool was he? Just by simply spelling his own name, Biggie could drop lines that are still quoted twenty years later. “B.I.G., P-O, P-P-A/No info, for the, DEA,” is simple, yet it dazzles with its confident swagger.
These lyrics were used in the other hit “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” featuring both Mase and Sean “Puffy” Combs. It is one of the most recognizable songs in each of the three artist’s careers and yet it only seems to be scratch the surface of Life After Death, because of the quality of the songs around it. The video for “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” blew up and still is iconic because of the yellow suits, Puff’s Tiger Woods impression, and the air chamber. But what is most striking is Big’s absence. Sure, he appears via video footage, but imagine if he’d been in the video with Puff and Mase. Would that air chamber thing, where Puff and Mase are floating on air, have worked with Big?
While he was always tough, Biggie teamed up with 112 to create sensitive classics like “Sky’s The Limit” and “Miss U.” On the latter, he addressed his fallen nemesis, Tupac Shakur, who’d died months earlier, on March 13, 1996. Amidst all the turmoil in their relationship, Biggie never fully lost love for his West Coast counterpart with lines like “F—, why my n—- couldn’t stay in NY?/I’m a thug, but I swear for three days I cried/I’d, look in the sky and ask God why?”
Elsewhere, he teamed up with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony on “Notorious Thugs.” In the first verse, you can hear Biggie’s signature flow as he plays around the beat like it’s a game. The lines “armed and dangerous, ain’t too many can bang with us/straight up weed no angel dust, label us, Notorious” are forever etched into the minds of hip-hop heads. Astute listeners may have noticed identical lyrics in Nicki Minaj’s verse in “All Eyes on You” – this was no accident. Minaj has even recorded covers of some of Big’s most famous songs like “Warning” in years past.
One of Big’s greatest narratives was “Ten Crack Commandments.” Here, he gives his rules for surviving as a crack dealer. “I’ve been in this game for years, it made me a animal/There’s rules to this s—, I wrote me a manual/A step by step booklet for you to get/Your name on track, not your wig pushed back.” His “commandments” compares dealing with hip-hop in that the drug game is tough, gritty and ugly. And as we’d soon learn, just as the drug game often leads to grizzly demises, the same is true of hip-hop, particularly in Big’s case. Which makes the album’s final song, “You’re Nobody (‘Til Somebody Kills You),” all the more chilling.
But he was wrong about that: within hip-hop, he was far from being a “nobody”; he made a huge impact from the second he debuted on the scene in the early ’90s with guest verses on songs by Heavy D, Mary J Blige and Supercat. It didn’t take long for him to become an iconic figure, and surely he would have released a lot of classic records throughout the rest of the decade and beyond had he not been murdered. As it stands, his final statement is one of hip-hop — and popular music’s — greatest moments. As it stands, the title of the album was sad, prescient: in the decades since his murder, he’s only become more of an icon.