Introducing The Verse – a SONGLYRICS homage to the masters of the lyric, who have a boundless relationship with all time, listener and page. As a nod back, we offer our own narratives, break down every recorded track in a lyricist’s studio catalogue with RIFF reviews, and humbly bow down for those about to rhyme, both living and gone.
Growing up in the small country town of Huntsville, Alabama during the ‘80s was an experience. It shaped me in ways that I can never forget – the warm southern hospitality and charm, the deeply engrained spiritual roots that seemed to permeate from the ground and the summers, the blazing hot summers – with the sun constantly engaged in some secret love affair with the soil. It was a completely different world.
The south is beautiful, but for as endearing as it is, it has its fair share of problems. It’s a racially charged environment, whether folks want to admit it or not. Because of that it wasn’t a hotbed for popular black music – no jazz, no soul, little R&B and definitely no rap. Blaring out of ragged pickup trucks with confederate flags in the back window, you were more likely to hear Alan Jackson singing about “Summertime Blues” than you would N.W.A. and “Fuck tha Police.”
All of a sudden the same kids who were listening to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were donning Wu Wear.
It was a small insular community that held its traditions close and its local culture even closer. But with the onset of the ‘90s a subtle shift in the maxim was occurring. Bill Clinton was in office playing peek-a-boo, domestic terrorism reared its ugly head, and the leviathan that is the internet was just coming together – ready to connect us all with one global consciousness. Even a small town like Huntsville was not exempt from the changes that were coming.
Any alien from outer space can come here and through our music get a good sense of who we are. For me the early ‘90s meant Nirvana and NOFX. The Teen Idols and Operation Ivy, The Specials and Rage Against the Machine. It was a complete rebellion against the traditions I grew up around. It was as radical as anything I’ve ever heard. So when hip-hop came into my life the draw was immediate.
Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 was my first real foray. Then Wu-Tang, Tribe and the Beastie Boys. Music was changing and so were the people. All of a sudden the same kids who were listening to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were donning Wu wear. It was a crazy melding of styles. But around that time divisions began to be drawn. The east coast-west coast feud was just getting underway.
He could tell stories like Pac and T, but could flip verses like Rakim and Nas – the chunkiness of his voice like none other.
It was total nonsense from the beginning. The whole thing had a racist agenda to it – one meant to divide the black community by pitting them against one another. In Alabama however it didn’t matter nearly as much. Those who did love rap ate it up, regardless if it were Scarface or Del. Then out of the clear blue sky, Ready to Die dropped and changed everything.
Biggie was an anomaly. While arguably one of the figureheads of the coastal feud, the reality was he represented both coasts. He had the laid back Big Pop demeanor of the west and the rough and tumble Frank White grit of the east. He could tell stories like Pac and T, but could flip verses like Rakim and Nas – the chunkiness of his voice like none other. His rhyme style and cadence is the definition of golden era hip-hop, and he’s the standard in which MCs should be measured.
The intro to Ready to Die was so compelling to me – Puffy delivering Biggie in a symbolic gesture, and the passage of time captured so perfectly, from Curtis Mayfield and the Sugar Hill Gang to “Top Billin’” by Audio 2. That’s where we meet Biggie: the train screeching across the background with him and his cohort ready to rob, eventually ending up in jail.
He tells you his life story in under four minutes. It was mind-blowing and wildly entertaining. Without a seconds hesitation “Things Done Changed” comes in offering a more detailed account of all the space in between: [LISTEN]
I remember first reading about Biggie in The Source‘s “Unsigned Hype” column. The Source was my bible and introduced me to so many different types of lyricists. There was no internet so driving down the parkway to the nearest Books-A-Million to snag a copy was the only way to stay hip. The piece on Biggie wasn’t really comprehensive, and it wasn’t meant to be. It was more just a heads up. But looking at him you knew something was going to happen there. Here was this chubby-faced New Yorker with an Oakland stogy on looking mean as all hell. Face all up in the camera. Yeah, I remember, and it’s crazy to think how quickly it all came together.
I remember when I saw the video for “Juicy” thinking to myself this is as candid an artist as I’ve ever seen. That opening dialogue about the teacher’s not giving a damn mirrored my own sentiments towards the school system: [LISTEN]
It was the American Dream come to fruition. No gimmicks, no runaround, just an honest forthcoming rags to riches story. From there he just took off. Biggie was everywhere. Ready to Die became a fixture, and the golden era was in full swing.
Others emerged. Cypress Hill, I discovered De La, Tribe of course. The well just kept getting deeper and deeper and the water kept getting sweeter and sweeter. The east coast, west coast feud was beginning to get out of hand and it was still Biggie and Pac at the helm. Truthfully everyone sort of new it was all bullshit. The whole thing like one big promotional stunt. Meanwhile both kept adding to their legacy.
Big’s crew grew exponentially and it was great seeing him live up to the promises that he made. He stood by his word and stayed true to his roots – Junior M.A.F.I.A. would have never existed if not for Biggie. The hope was that there would be more, and there was. When Lil Kim entered the fray it all clicked. She was amazing on “Get Money” – crude, sexy, and magnetic. She was like the female Biggie and they jived perfectly on wax together: [LISTEN]
Around this time I made the jump from Huntsville to Chicago. It was a total culture shock – all of a sudden the rapper’s I grew up admiring were performing right down the street. Hip-hop was a full on identity and everyone was welcome. Biggie was leading the charge – to this day I can’t listen to “Big Poppa” without thinking summer – all felt right with the world. Jobs were plentiful, war was somewhat of an afterthought and good times were abound. Of course that only lasted for so long.
There are plenty of mid-20s rappers out there who can’t even piss straight and here was Biggie, living enough for two lifetimes.
The feud between Biggie and his contemporaries got bigger and more complicated. Around the time Life After Death came out he had beef with a grip of artists including Nas, Jeru and of course Pac. Meanwhile rap was getting more eccentric. The underground was becoming a haven for artists who didn’t necessarily fit the mold that Biggie and Pac were forging, and the world that was once so small and innocent was beginning to grow into adulthood, breaking off into factions and separate regional entities.
It didn’t take long for things to come to a head for Big. There was just too much fast living going on for it to last. When Biggie was shot and killed on March 9, it sent a shock wave through the hip-hop community, and for some reason ended the east coast west coast feud – as if blood had to be shed in order for that to happen. Ridiculous. It was another example of a great artist passing before his time. He was only 24 years old, which still floors me to this day. There are plenty of mid-20s rappers out there who can’t even piss straight and here was Biggie, living enough for two lifetimes.
When Biggie said “Mo Money Mo Problems” he wasn’t kidding. Money, greed and jealousy caked Life after Death and was no doubt a motivating force behind his murder. The video itself was crazy, lavish and wild with Puff Daddy’s fingerprints all over it. But it once again spoke to where Biggie was at the time. It was a hit. My friends and I wore that song out, spending countless hours breakdancing to it. On the sly though it was telling us so much about where rap was going. All of sudden Big had about hundred people in his ear asking for things telling him what he should and shouldn’t be doing. And this was his way of letting it out: [LISTEN]
His death gave the album a strange sort of feel. The sound was larger and more polished. There was a multitude of guests, as opposed to Ready to Die which only featured one, and it seemed like Biggie aged considerably. Still solid, just an expedited growth that seemed a little too much too fast. One thing that stuck out to me throughout it all was the amount of times Biggie predicted his own demise. It was a dark album, his first one was too, but this one in a “The Ballad of Jimi” sort of way. As if he knew that at any moment it could all end.
When Biggie died I was a junior in high school. Truthfully, his death didn’t phase me much at all. I can’t remember where I was, when I heard the news or what I even felt at the time. It was that far away from whatever I was feeling, and it makes me wonder. But years later I still feel as if it were a recent bit of news. I can’t explain why, but if I were to try I would say it would have a lot to do with my job as a music writer.
Having watched hip-hop grow from a chirp in the night to a voice of a generation is humbling. It’s the music of my life. And it’s been a crazy ride thus far with ups, downs and infinite plot twists – yet still no one to compare to Biggie. There is no other like him. And at the time I was too naïve to realize it. How he combined all the elements I look for in a lyricist. And while I’m always reluctant to toss around the G.O.A.T. title, Biggie is one case where the argument is compelling if not totally 100 percent valid.
Ready to Die (1994)
Taking listeners through his formative years like a master oracle, Big Pop delineates his musical influences with vivid precision. First it was Curtis, then Sugar Hill, Audio Two and finally Snoop. After some time in prison – a little hard knocks seasoning – he’s ready to proceed with his story: [LISTEN]
Only as he knows how, Biggie illustrates just how much things have changed since he was a kid. Conflicts are no longer handled with fists, instead it’s hard steel – life or death. And Big does little to separate himself from that life. He’s in the thick of it like a prince among thieves: [LISTEN]
Splitting the narrative right down the middle, Biggie bandies lyrical threats with his equally venomous alter ego. Together they hatch a full proof plan, but then unexpectedly cross paths with the police. No matter, both Big and his partner in crime are ready to go down shooting: [LISTEN]
Like a waning moon, Big goes through phases. Sometime’s he’s wielding his pimp hand looking for the nearest hoe, other times he’s sitting plush reminiscing about how things used to be. What’s clear is that he’s in transition, and the space in between allows his stellar narratives to breathe: [LISTEN]
Biggie the storyteller on full display, once again splitting the narrative right down the middle. With his newfound fame the streets are trying desperately to bring him back down to earth, but Big being the chess master he is, asses the situation and handles it accordingly: [LISTEN]
What else is there to say about a song and album entitled “Ready to Die?” For a little under four-and-a-half minutes Biggie proceeds to tear the mic to shreds as if his words were sponsored by Ginsu. He describes in vivid detail what he would do to the first sucker to test his might: [LISTEN]
A different type of conquest here for Big – this one involving the ladies. Up until this point it’s been all about establishing credibility and now that that’s done the Pappi personality can run free. He’s not at all shy about letting the superlatives fly. And even in this context he excels: [LISTEN]
Big takes a few precious minutes out of his debut to remind the world that no matter the situation his crass sense of humor will always remain intact. It’s a great, slightly gross opportunity to learn about a few of the things that keep his motor running: [LISTEN]
Leave it to Method Man to give Biggie the companionship he needs to finally relax, a smoke buddy who helps break the tension. It’s an effortless exchange between the two, but hidden within the good natured riffing is a revelation, the answer to why Biggie is so hellbent on self-destruction: [LISTEN]
Biggie’s triumph anthem finds play in nearly every corner of the hip-hop stratosphere, a universally lauded party jam across multiple generations. It’s Big basking in all his glory, and in that relaxed state he delivers one of the most quotable verses of all time: [LISTEN]
There’s more drama going on in one day for Biggie Smalls than most experience in an entire lifetime – from drug deals and court appearances to raising a baby on nothing. It’s enough to destroy a man, but for Big it’s the lifeblood of his narratives: [LISTEN]
As close to a love song as you’re going to get from Biggie, and all things considered it’s not half bad. He’s no Barry White that’s for sure, but what he lacks in refinement he makes up for in dexterity. Big for better or worse keeps it 100% real: [LISTEN]
The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls, or just plain Biggie, no matter what you call him all monikers pale in comparison to Big Poppa. It’s the true essence of who he is. He’s the teddy bear of rap, the oversized Don Juan, and when he settles into pimp mode the ladies are helpless: [LISTEN]
All the sympathy in the world goes out to the mother of Christopher Wallace. He’s a big man, and he probably was a gigantic baby. So when Biggie says his mom was pregnant with him for ten months you can only imagine the strain on her back – like having a Volkswagen strapped to your gut. Respect indeed: [LISTEN]
Not to be confused for a giant pushover, Big reaffirms his place as a stone-cold ruler because for every drink poured and every blunt passed there’s a cruel woman looking to take advantage. He’s a man of the streets and is therefore fully aware of the harlots and their treacherous ways; [LISTEN].
There are contradictions all throughout Ready to Die, and not because Biggie is confused but because he’s in transition. He’s going from the streets to the main stage and he’s bringing all the hype and drama and talent with him. In the end he’s not ashamed to claim it because he’s a self made man: [LISTEN]
There’s two sides to Big, there’s the side that’s totally unabashed about his indiscretions and there’s a side who feels a slight tinge of remorse. But who has time for regrets? He’s completely bought in to the all or nothing mentality, and no amount of guilt in life or death will hold him back: [LISTEN]
Life After Death (1997)
A Puffy cameo is probably the most annoying way to start an album, but for the sake of the ongoing macabre narrative Big so enjoyed it makes sense. The irony is a little thick, but sets an appropriate tone for Big’s last stand: [LISTEN]
Playing out like a sequel to “Warning,” Big and company hatch a plan for revenge, looking to rectify a situation that left one of his comrades dead. It’s all mapped out in precise detail, and like a true renegade he goes in guns-blazing. But in classic Big fashion, he adds a tragic twist: [LISTEN]
Just when you thought you forgot how hard Big Pop can party, he illustrates in graphic detail just how much a Casanova he is. It’s maybe a little more detail than most people would care for, but kudos to him for sneaking dirty butt sex, and anal leakage past the censors: [LISTEN]
You can’t get more New York than Biggie and Premier – two giants of their crafts – the only shame being that it didn’t happen more. And with both holding court it’s a given that Big will be hurling cannonballs, cracking shins and busting skulls along the way. It’s a clinic, no frills and all bravado: [LISTEN]
Inviting R. Kelly to the party isn’t a way to class things up, but then again who said anything about class. Instead of a trip to the Caribbean it’s a night at the movies, in place of wine and cheese are Icee’s and popcorn. Point is there just comes a time when formalities aren’t necessary: [LISTEN]
Batting clean up in this all-star lineup featuring The Lox, Biggie swings for the fences with his own lyrical boom stick. He’s locked in from the beginning and places well timed hits in every corner of the outfield skewering all the pretenders looking to cut into his shine: [LISTEN]
So much has changed for Biggie, and now that fame is the norm he can’t help but chuckle at the irony of it all. Still, despite the lavish expenses there seems to be a part of him with a foot half out of the door, waiting to go back to the old ways where all that existed was the struggle: [LISTEN]
With his newfound success Biggie realizes he doesn’t have to handle beef like he used to. Before he had to make sure the plan was set, the crew was right, and the execution was flawless. Now all he has to do is get on the horn and say one word and it’ll be taken care of by day’s end: [LISTEN]
Echoing across multiple generations, Big breaks down the meaning behind the acronym – at least one of them. He somersaults over a Schoolly D standard in such a way that proves yet again that his voice is a timeless masterpiece: [LISTEN]
More of a celebratory track than a cautionary tale, Big and his compatriots Puff and Mase, rejoice in their plentiful bounty like big kids in an even bigger candy store. Not a whole lot of problems going on, at least from Big’s standpoint, who’s far too busy doing things like dancing a jig: [LISTEN]
There’s no questioning Big’s credibility. In just two albums he’s established himself as the big papa bear of rap, so you don’t want to get him riled. But even so, after all that, it takes an especially dim person not to look at a woman the size of Biggie and not think something was up: [LISTEN]
Truth is stranger than fiction, and if this tale of infidelity gone wrong is true then consider Biggie one of the most creative writers in music. And one of the gutsiest. The question is which New York Knick did Biggie dog out and immortalize in rap. Based on the clues, it might be Hubert Davis: [LISTEN]