The Notorious B.I.G.’s rhymes and rhythms illuminated the world of hip-hop, asserting personality and colour into the purely irresistible genre that was bubbling under the surface. Biggie’s music had a charm to it that made your favourite rapper fall in love with the world of hip-hop.
His death is often talked about more than his life. However, this feature celebrates his stellar work and a career that was cut painfully short — just a fortnight before his 25th birthday in 1997. While most rappers are yet to hit their stride at that age, and Biggie may have only had two albums under his belt, but both are held in the same breath as Nas’ Illmatic or Kanye West’s College Dropout when it comes to hip-hop classic foundations.
Last year, Smalls was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a moment that further established his legacy. At the time, Diddy, who famously signed Biggy to his label Bad Boy Records in 1993, perfectly summarised his talents: “Big just wanted to be biggest, he wanted to be the best, he wanted to have influence and impact people in a positive way, and that clearly has been done all over the world.”
Adding: “Nobody has come close to the way Biggie sounds, to the way he raps, to the frequency that he hits. Tonight we are inducting the greatest rapper of all time into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Notorious B.I.G. representing Brooklyn, New York, we up in here.”
Nas, who helped induct Biggie alongside Diddy, powerfully added: “Rap music is all about who’s gonna be the king. The West Coast, they was selling millions of records, and before Big, I felt like there was only so far New York rap could go as far as sales. Biggie changed all of that.”
This feature looks at the ten songs that led to Biggie Smalls changing hip-hop forever and leaving a mark on the genre that can still be felt by artists like Kendrick Lamar today.
Biggie Smalls’ 10 best songs:
10. ‘Ten Crack Commandments’
This track is an example of Biggie’s prowess at telling stories from a human perspective, even if the protagonist is questionable. New York was in the midst of a crack epidemic. After reading a survival guide to survive as a crack dealer in The Source magazine, Smalls decided to re-interpret that article and ‘Ten Crack Commandments’ was the splendid result.
What’s most interesting about the track isn’t the beats or the lyrics, but how far Biggie Smalls experiments with precisely what a rap song can be. There’s no chorus on the track, neither does Biggie abide by the 16-bar verse rule. He helped hip-hop break away from its formulaic recipe and bring the genre to fresh, uncharted territory.
9. ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’
Jay-Z’s 1996 effort, ‘Brooklyn’s Finest’, was released following Biggie’s death and marked a moment that saw one hip-hop legend of the East Coast giving his seal of approval to the new King of Brooklyn.
In 2013, Jay-Z told a Los Angeles radio station: “I take him everywhere I go. I’ve taken him on every step, every accomplishment.” The two go head-to-head on this and match each other’s magnificence bar for bar, it’s a key moment in the legacy of Biggie and a reminder that without him, Jay-Z might have never made it out.
‘Unbelievable’ is an old-school hip-hop anthem that almost didn’t happen. Legend has it that Biggie had to beg D.J. Premier to make this beat, right at the tail-end of their sessions for Ready To Die and, thankfully, he managed to create an absolute gem that Smalls spat fire over.
It’s hard to imagine the record without the sample-heavy track as the penultimate number. In the first verse, Biggie lays out exactly who he is as he fiercely raps: “Live from Bedford-stuyverson, the livest one, Representin back to the fullest, Gats I pull it, bastards duckin when big be buckin, Chickenheads be cluckin in my bathroom fuckin, It ain’t nuttin, they know big be handlin.”
7. ‘Big Poppa’
This effort is Biggie Smalls shamelessly aiming for commercial heights and succeed with flying colours. The Isley Brothers sampled track was the second single from his debut and the perfect soft introduction from Biggie to reach the masses, who soon fell in love with his mastery behind the mic.
The track also is another example of the importance of Diddy as a mentor to Biggie. He managed to make sure that his apprentice managed to uncompromisingly express his personality whilst still producing a hit that could raid the charts.
6. ‘Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)‘
Craig Mack’s ‘Flava in Ya Ear’ was one hell of a way to make an emphatic arrival with a debut single. He then enlisted Biggie and L.L. Cool J for a remix of the track that turned things up even further — creating a hip-hop anthem for the ages.
Hearing these three on a track together is a timeless combination that still sounds just as exciting now as it did back when they released it in 1994. Biggie also delivers one of his finest bars on the track, “Take them rhymes back to the factory, I see, The gimmicks, the wack lyrics, The shit is depressing, pathetic, please forget it, You’re mad cause my style you’re admiring, Don’t be mad, U.P.S. is hiring.”
5. ‘Notorious Thugs’
‘Notorious Thugs’ is one of the finest examples of Biggie’s unparalleled flow. Here he expresses just how talented he is as a wordsmith and why he was born to get behind a mic.
The song is also of note because Biggie downplays his feud with Tupac in the line “so called beef with you-know-who”. The rapper also labels the rivalry between him and Shakur as ‘bullshit’. The juxtaposition between Biggie’s bars and the vocals provided by Bone Thugz-N-Harmony make it one of the rapper’s best.
4. ‘Who Shot Ya’
‘Who Shot Ya’ is the most controversial track that Biggie ever released as it was released a few months after Tupac was attacked in November 1994. Even though he maintained innocence and said the song had nothing to do with the attack because it was recorded way before the incident even happened, it started a rivalry between the two men intrinsically linked to their unresolved deaths.
Jay-Z later recalled the effect that the song had on him after a friend lent him a copy before it was released. The rapper reflected: “He knew that if I heard ‘Who Shot Ya?,’ it’s going to inspire me to make songs even hotter. But that song, it was so crazy. It just had an effect on everybody. The world stopped when he dropped ‘Who Shot Ya?'”
‘Hypnotize’ was released just a week before Biggie’s death and became just the fifth track to reach number one in the charts posthumously. The track is a magical effort that is unarguably one of the definitive Biggie Smalls efforts and encapsulates everything about his larger than life character in one song.
Diddy sampled the music from Herb Alpert’s 1979 hit ‘Rise’, which was written by Andy Armer and Herb’s nephew, Randy Badazz Alpert, later recalled: “I asked Puffy, in 1996 when he first called me concerning using ‘Rise’ for ‘Hypnotize,’ why he chose the ‘Rise’ groove. He told me that in the summer of 1979, when he was I think ten years old the song was a huge hit everywhere in New York and ‘Rise’ along with Chic’s ‘Good Times’ were ‘The Songs’ that all the kids were dancing and roller skating to that summer. He had always remembered that summer and that song. When he first played the loop for Biggie, Biggie smiled and hugged him.”
2. ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’
That infectious Diana Ross sample from the Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards’ groovy 1980 hit ‘I’m Coming Out’ combined with Biggie, Mase and Diddy make for perfect bedfellows on ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’, which is one of the rapper’s sincerest efforts.
Despite receiving more money than he’d ever wished for and more fame than he’d ever deemed plausible, on this track, Biggie weighs up how all these pretty things don’t solve life’s problems. Whilst gangster rap gets accused of glamorizing poor life choices. Here Biggie shows the heartfelt side of the genre.
‘Juicy’ is Biggie’s most honest song and also his best. It’s his life story and a mini-memoir that tells his rags to riches tale from the hood to one of the biggest stars on the planet as he sticks two fingers defiantly up to those who dared to doubt Biggie’s greatness. There are no real other choices for number one. This song isn’t just Biggie’s finest moment but arguably the most pivotal moment in hip-hop history.
In the first verse, Biggie leaves his own eulogy as he calmly raps: “Yeah, this album is dedicated, To all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’, To all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of, Called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter (it’s all good).”