By Jay Mattson
There is something I have been hiding for quite a long time. It’s a shame that brings into question my very existence as a Hip Hop writer. I’ve hid this secret for years and it’s now time to finally come clean. The truth is I don’t know much about Biggie. Please don’t hold it against me, but it’s a glaring hole in my knowledge of Hip Hop, and not something I’m proud of. Of course, I’ve heard “Hypnotize”, “Mo Money Mo Problems”, and “Big Poppa” and I absolutely appreciate and understand how much Biggie influenced hip-hop. I just never experienced it myself. But with this past week marking the 20th anniversary of Biggie’s death, I realized I had to take action. I decided to sit down and listen to his two studio albums, Ready To Die and Life After Death, in their entirety, to see what spoke to me.
I expected to gain a greater appreciation for the Notorious B.I.G. What I didn’t expect was to get “woke” (for lack of a better term) and see how much I was missing. Without rehashing what fans and critics have known for two decades, Notorious B.I.G. is a legend whose music still inspires artists today; a master emcee who understood his own aesthetic so well that every one of his tracks is unmistakably his; a man who changed the game with two albums before he went away; and a lyrical genius who married style and reputation like almost no other.
In my brand new experience with the musical master, I bring to you my Top 5 Notorious B.I.G. songs:
“Things Done Changed”
A killer opening salvo on Ready To Die (after “Intro”) that showcases Biggie’s lament over the state of affairs in his community, one he’s watched devolve into violence and disorder when once there was camaraderie and neighborhood values. There’s duality in the lyrics that uncover positivity around the edges of poverty and a nostalgia for how neighbors and friends would work together to ease everyone’s struggle. But “Things Done Changed” is titled that for a reason – Brooklyn changed.
“Friend of Mine”
A catchy, infectious, unabashedly misogynistic track that makes at least one self-identifying feminist question his own values when he puts it on repeat, because the beat is a decade ahead of its time and the flow is undeniably fierce. “Friend of Mine” does nothing to promote women’s rights or equality, but it reflects the era with bubbly electronics and Biggie’s signature cadence. Knowing how much Notorious B.I.G. affected not only gangsta rap but hip-hop in general puts the track in context as a reminder that artists create stories that sometimes don’t necessarily reflect the artist’s personal perspective but rather comment on society.
“I Love the Dough (feat. Jay-Z and Angela Winbush)”
Life After Death is an evolution for Biggie, from it being a double album to the overall production and direction of theme. The obvious “Mo Money Mo Problems” showcases the bombast of the album, while “I Love the Dough” takes a subtler approach. Layering smooth beats led by piano with accentuated strings takes this track to new levels with larger than life pomp and Angela Winbush’s soulful hook.
“Notorious Thugs (feat. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony)”
Biggie found Southern rap and this track was the result? I know. Southern rap wasn’t quite “a thing” yet. Nor is it where Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are from. But that’s pretty much my initial impression from “Notorious Thugs”. Dusted with grit via Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s electric bars, Biggie is able to juxtapose his laid back style just about perfectly. There’s an underscored energy that sounds much bigger than a piano-led beat should feel. How have I gone this long without making “Notorious Thugs” a mainstay on my workout mix?
“Ten Crack Commandments”
Yet another phenomenal example of Biggie’s tendency for duality, “Ten Crack Commandments” it’s simultaneously ahead of its time and timeless. Each of these rules bears significance outside the intended context – yes, Biggie’s spitting about living in the projects of in Brooklyn, but “Never let ‘em know your next move” is solid advice for most walks of life, same as “That goddamn credit? Dead it. / You think a crackhead paying you back, shit forget it!” which speaks to the larger concepts of being fiscally responsible and maintaining a decent credit score – at least, that’s what the critical theorist in me hears. This track sets a bar both musically and philosophically for how hip-hop evolved, and hearing it 20 years removed is both nostalgic and new at the same time.