Notorious B.I.G. Remembered: the Rap Icon’s Legacy Is About More Than a Rivalry
Not everyone is a fan of the Notorious B.I.G.'s music.
This shouldn't need explaining; no artist can claim that everybody loves them. But when an artist dies young--especially in as tragic and violent a manner as Biggie Smalls; there's a tendency to project consensus. There are some who'd just rather believe in ubiquitous fandom--as if anyone who's ever bought a hip-hop album automatically adores the late, great Christopher Wallace.
But in the case of the Biggie, he has been forever connected in history to one of the most compelling and charismatic figures in the history of music. There's always the lingering sense that a lot of people are more enraptured with the Notorious B.I.G.'s similarly-deceased rival, Tupac Shakur. Pac means so much to hip-hop fans of a certain generation; he occupies a space similar to Marvin Gaye or Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison--in many ways, he's a rap distillation of all three. And, outside the five boroughs of New York City, Biggie has often been a secondary player in the reverence for the son of a Black Panther who became the angry poet rapper icon of the 1990s. This is of course exacerbated by Pac's disdain for the Notorious B.I.G.
In case you need a refresher, in 1995 and 1996, Biggie and Pac became locked in a toxic, overhyped war of words between the West Coast-based Death Row Records and the East Coast's Bad Boy Entertainment. 2Pac had accused Biggie and Bad Boy founder Sean "Puffy" Combs of setting him up after Pac was shot in the lobby of Quad Studios in Manhattan in late 1994. After he was sent to prison for sexual assault in early 1995, Pac made it known that he saw Big and Puff as enemies. Also in 1995, Death Row head Suge Knight had made it clear that he held a particular disdain for Combs. Things came to a head when Knight paid the $1.4 million bail to free Pac and signed the embattled rapper to Death Row towards the end of that year. The rest is history: the beef went into overdrive, Pac wound up being killed in September 1996; Biggie followed in March 1997.
The beef is well-worn territory for even the most peripheral rap fan, but it may be hard for some to recognize that these two artists weren't always intrinsically linked in the public consciousness. 2Pac had debuted as a solo artist in late 1991 and was a successful rapper and actor before B.I.G. released his first singles. And when Biggie dropped "Juicy" in summer 1994 and followed it with his debut album that October, no one was comparing him to 2Pac. There was no reason to. They were just two rappers who most of the general public had no idea even knew each other.
So when I purchased Ready To Die in late 1994, on the recommendation of a good friend of mine, it was because I wanted to hear this guy who'd impressed me with his verse on Craig Mack's "Flavor In Ya Ear" remix (I wasn't crazy about "Juicy," but when Biggie name-dropped The Gooch from Diffrent Strokes, I was an instant fan.) There's nothing that can be said about Biggie's abilities that hasn't been said already: he could be gut-bustingly funny one second, and as grim as a David Fincher movie the next. My initial impression of the Notorious B.I.G. was that this was a witty guy with an extremely dark soul; songs like "Ready To Die" and "Suicidal Thoughts" painted a self-loathing picture, and tracks like "Gimme the Loot" and "Everyday Struggle" made him seem self-destructive. It all resonated with me--at an age when I was beginning to think I was uniquely dysfunctional and was lashing out at everyone around me.
For the record, I'd also been a major 2Pac fan from the beginning of his career, too. Pac gave voice to an inner rage I had that was both personal and political. Pac was observing his world through the rage of a young black male who was systematically disenfranchised; the difference between what he was doing in 91-94 and Biggie was that Biggie was looking inward and was less questioning of why his world looked the way it did. Again, he was far more self-loathing.
Which made early Biggie more comparable to Scarface to me, than he was to early 2Pac. Scarface had taken the gangsta sensibilities that had become so familiar via artists like N.W.A. and Ice T and infused them with a sense of introspection and self-analysis. He was one of the first rappers to present his destructive tendencies as a moral flaw to be wrestled with, not just as machismo. In that regard, he set the stage for Ready To Die, and 2Pac's most introspective work, 1995s Me Against the World.
But it was the depths of Biggie's angst that drew me in as a fan. And how vividly he was able to depict that darkness. It's sometimes unsettling to listen to his words; so full of contempt and occasionally morbid. When he says "F--k the world, f--k my Moms and my girl," you believe him wholeheartedly. And it's sad.
But Ready To Die put New York rap back at the top of the charts after two years of G-funk dominance out of L.A., courtesy of Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and even Warren G. That's been well-established by now, but it shouldn't be devalued: Biggie's emergence helped make it easier for established acts like Nas and Wu-Tang Clan members to crossover big in 1995 and 1996 and also set the stage for early Jay Z--even if it took a while for the world to notice. And it also, somewhat inadvertently, kick-started a chain of events that ultimately led to West Coast hip-hop losing mainstream visibility for the next decade-plus. Suge Knight's antagonism directly contributed to Death Row's eventual dissolution: Dre defected to form his own label, Snoop wandered over to Master P's No Limit Records and Pac, obviously, was gone. By 1997, New York rap was selling more than ever. A lot of that was because of Biggie's mid-90s crossover success.
Of course, after Ready To Die, Biggie was a chart-topping superstar and he spent the next two years charting hits with affiliates like Junior M.A.F.I.A., 112 and Total. But he was also routinely getting death threats from unnamed enemies spurred on both by 2Pac's antagonism and rappers in his own hometown who resented his seemingly-overnight success. His paranoia was at an all-time high, for good reason. By the time he started working on his follow-up, 2Pac had been shot and killed in Las Vegas. Life After Death is often viewed as lighter than Ready To Die, but only in spots. There's a deep resentment in songs like "My Downfall" and "Long Kiss Goodnight." Even many of the album's lighter moments tend to be filtered through a jaded perspective: "Mo Money, Mo Problems" is the most clear example.
And there's that darkness. That always-present darkness informs tracks like "What's Beef?" and "N----s Bleed," and on the chillingly prophetic album closer "You're Nobody Til Somebody Kills You." Despite his ballerific radio hits, Biggie never sounded too happy for too long. That melancholy dread permeating so many of his records may be why some people just don't listen to him. It can be spiritually depressing sometimes.
Which brings us back to Biggie-bashing. Again--this isn't to suggest that anyone should automatically love an artist; but when I have conversations about Biggie with people who aren't Biggie fans, very often it's because of their preference for 2Pac. For some fans, they can't ever view B.I.G. as anything more than "Not Pac" and it's been that way for twenty years now. There's a tendency to view Biggie as "not that deep," largely because he didn't have Pac's gift for social commentary; but "depth" doesn't just mean "topical." There's a tendency to view B.I.G. as just the antagonist in the story of this grand hip-hop folk hero, which is insulting to the artist that Biggie was. If there had never been a beef, there would never be a reason to devalue the man's art in such a way. It's a crime that it's so common amongst some fans.
So as we remember the Notorious B.I.G. on another sad anniversary of his passing, I wanted to remind those who "never liked him like that" because they were too enamored with Mr. Shakur that music doesn't have to be assessed via comparison. It should be appreciated for what it definitively is and criticized for whatever it isn't--but not because two artists have to constantly be joined at the proverbial hip. It's been a long time now. No more picking sides. No more "Who's better?" Just an appreciation for what Christopher Wallace was able to leave us. And maybe a hint of regret that he didn't get to lace us with more.
A version of this article was originally published as Notorious B.I.G. Remembered: Stop Reducing His Legacy to 2Pac and Beef on March 9, 2016.