Despite being mythologized and simplified as fat, cockeyed, dark skinned and draped in Coogi, Notorious BIG’s best-known alter ego was a play on a Christopher Walken character. Christening himself Black Frank White, Big gave a nearly oxymoronic nod to Walken’s King of New York drug lord. Later, though, he bestowed himself with perhaps a more appropriate nickname: “Rap Alfred Hitchcock.” The boast may have been a simple comment on how Big’s rotund figure projected a silhouette similar to the filmmaker, but there’s a deeper spiritual bond between the two—the detail obsession of full-blown perfectionists. And that, too, is just one version of a composite of characters that in his passing have been made use of, dumbed down and commodified. Big is much more complex and unknowable than the ubiquitous T-shirt portrait of him as a sullen king, wearing a crown.
In late interviews, before his death at age 24, Big was one of the first rappers to vocally run the “I don’t really care about rap, I’m in it for the money” line. But make no mistake, there was a meticulousness to his craft. What else could account for such precision? For Biggie, every blunt ash was immaculately documented in rhyme. Where many of even the greatest storytelling rap songs were usually driven by a single protagonist and the string of events he or she encountered, Big presented multiple scenes and intertwined characters with a journalistic eye for the specifics. On “Gimmie the Loot,” Ready To Die’s standout heist track, he runs down the five Ws in the opening bars: Who? My man Inf. What? A tec and a nine he left. Where? At my crib. Why? He had to do a bid. When? He’ll be home the end of ’93. His tales had hardwired narratives, too. This foundation building is made even more impressive when considering that for most of his career, he composed lyrics in his head with no pen or pad.
Equally mind blowing is how these skills came to be, borne practically from nothing. Big entered the game as a fully-formed great rapper, with seemingly no blemishes on his track record. For most of his peers—the greats—there exists a paper trail, however thin, of their evolution—an awkward guest appearance, a sloppy demo, an under-polished underground album—but there are very few Biggie verses on tape anywhere that are anything less than perfectly structured and delivered. Check the now-legendary footage of him, at just 17, freestyling in front of a Brooklyn corner store where his presence is as commanding as any professional. Listen to “Microphone Murder,” a cut from his first demo tape set to a gruff sample of The Emotions’ “Blind Alley”: My words are harder than a brick, Chinese arithmetic, a thick stick and my dick. Every syllable is in its right place. “Microphone Murder” earned him inclusion in the prestigious Unsigned Hype column in The Source, which then drew the attention of Puffy and Bad Boy, the more hardcore oriented label the young producer was building in the wake of his R&B successes with Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. Later, in a Yo! MTV Raps interview, Big would dismiss the tape that changed his life as “the little garbage demo.” The self-cynicism of an obsessive artist.
Biggie wasn’t just hard on himself, he was simply hard on record. Whenever he jumped on a track he did so with an authority and explosiveness that was apparent from the opening bar. He’d draw out certain syllables to unforgettable effect. Soo you wanna be harrrrdddcoooreee? Though easily overlooked, this shows an innate structural awareness that even the best rappers take years to develop. In some sense, he was one of the last of his kind. A purebred, high-energy gangsta rapper, descended from the likes of Ice Cube and Scarface, perpetually incensed rappers for whom being cool was not contingent on keeping their cool. Big’s voice and the sheer density of his rhymes filled a track’s space with palpable rage. He was exacting when it came to threats and dealt with his own struggles with cold bluntness: My mother got cancer in her breast.
This rage came with a certain bleakness. Where contemporaries like Tupac and Ghostface used pain as a motivation or impasse, Big had long since resigned himself to an epic, insurmountable sadness on and off record. Biggie’s songs are overwhelmed with misery, paranoia and regret. He bragged about money and fashion callously, but never seemed passionate about it or moved by material possessions. A former drug dealer who never outgrew the mentality of constant hustle, Big was burdened first by the streets, and then visibly suffocated by fame and industry. “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems,” arguably his most blissful song, was about how horrible it is being rich. Filmed posthumously, the video is shot in blinding colors while Puff and Mase prance around in shiny suits, but it’s also cut with clips from one of the most harrowing interviews of Big’s career: “The more money you make, the more problems you get and jealousy and envy just comes with the territory. It’s just negative energy,” he wheezes, making zero eye contact with the camera, his head cocked back so far that it seems like his neck can’t support it. And sure, “Juicy” sustains its presence as a canonical uplifting classic (and an I-made-it-through-first-semester-and-it’s-all-good frat party anthem), but listeners seem to forget that it falls squarely in the middle of an album about a suicidal downfall. Truly, the only pure joy he showed on records seemed to come when he rhymed about fucking.
But this apparent seriousness in the booth stands in stark contrast to his real life personality. By all accounts, Big was a jovial and hilarious presence. This duality isn’t a disconnect as much as it is an easy misinterpretation. On record, Big’s darkness was his humor, his hardest lines effectively being over the top and the blackest of jokes. It’s easy to imagine Big cracking a half-cocked smile while boasting of kidnapping kids, fucking them in the ass and throwing them over the bridge on “What’s Beef” or snatching “#1 Mom” pendants from the (later-censored) pregnant women on “Gimmie The Loot.” (The real Hitchcock considered Psycho a comedy.) “Big was just a real funny-ass dude at all times,” Ready To Die producer Digga told XXL magazine when they ran their “Making Of” feature on the album in April 2004. “The only time he had a little grimace on his face was when Puff tried to be an asshole.”
Despite sometimes seeming strained, Big and Puff’s relationship was essential. Big was a natural talent whose legacy as a rapper was cemented as soon as he picked up a mic. But Puff was the catalyst in his transition from the streets to fame. If Jay-Z was the successor to Big Daddy Kane and Nas to Rakim, then Biggie was the natural Kool G Rap. But G Rap, for all his lisping fast rap bluster, is the most overlooked in that triptych for a reason. He wasn’t a star and had no real inclination to be one. Left to his own devices, Big could’ve very well been a rap legend and a commercial flop. In that same XXL “Making Of,” producers tell of Big not wanting to do “Juicy” originally, hoping instead that “Machine Gun Funk” would be his first single. Eventually he conceded to Puff’s populist sensibility. Biggie, the human, had undeniable star qualities and a pimp’s sense of swagger to offset his perpetual exhaustion, but musically he wasn’t a pop star. He was a hardcore rapper. That he slid so comfortably into party tracks like “Hypnotize” was a testament to his natural talent. But really his likeability was contingent on his personality. Puff was there as a liaison for this playful side.
And while Puff was a successful translator, Big’s peers were unable to synthesize those qualities. Jay-Z has swiped entire verses from the Biggie oeuvre to great success but never struck the same chords. Shyne and Guerilla Black had their brief moments in the limelight while directly mimicking his voice, but they never came close to synthesizing its emotional power. Biggie’s individuality had value in its own time, but the slippery, irreproducible nature of his music and his persona have diminished his tangible influence on rap a decade and a half after his death. In many ways, today’s rap landscape looks like the exact inverse of the world that Big strived to create. Underground and mainstream hip-hop across the board are instead dominated not by an energy but by a disaffected cool, more Jay than Big. Narrative storytelling is out, formless stream of consciousness is in. Beats, rhymes and content are less aggressive than ever. It’s as if Biggie never even existed. This generation digests Big as an icon, not a human. And to do so is to misunderstand him completely.