Today is a challenging blog for me, as we have the debut album from The Notorious B.I.G. My son is quick to tell me that Biggie is his all-time favorite rapper. This record is extremely highly regarded, as it is album #22 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time, and is also the #1 hip-hop album of all time as rated by definitivedose.com. Hell, my favorite book store even has a cat named Biggie Smalls. Everybody loves Biggie… and yet, I like but don’t love this album. I will apologize in advance…
I have listened to enough hip-hop during this experience to realize that my favorite hip-hop acts are on the smoother, funkier side. Whether it is super-smooth Rakim, comically slick Snoop, or something low-fi like A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul, I typically prefer that to the more confrontational, angry and explosive sound of a rapper like Biggie. There are exceptions, as a big fan of Chuck D, but in general I’m more likely to be down with some G-Funk or jazz-based hip-hop.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike this album. I love the autobiographical element of the record, the way he sets up his life story on “Intro”. It also isn’t to say that Biggie can’t find that elusive vibe as well. “Big Poppa” is probably my favorite track on the album, and both the main verse and chorus are what I love most about Mr. Smalls. That flows right into “Respect”, with a perfect blend of hip-hop and Rastafari.
“Juicy” is commonly singled out for its success as a hit, and is considered one of his best songs ever, but it is a perfect example of a song where Biggie’s vocals (in my opinion) might fit in better with a small dose of smooth and subtle.
There is plenty to think about here, both in terms of tragedy and foreshadowing. “Suicidal Thoughts” chronicles a friend’s recognition that his friend is in danger, and is one of the most honest and powerful tracks on the album. Like many rappers of the day, Biggie’s life and those around him were intertwined with violence and confrontation. More prophetic than anyone could have known, “Who Shot Ya” gave us a little too much of a look into the eventual violent ending to his life.
Before I wrap up, I also want to single out “The What”, with a great guest appearance from Method Man in Wu-Tang Clan. Their voices blend and contrast just right, and it further signifies the common bond of east coast New York rappers in the 1990s.
As a cultural figure and centerpiece of 1990’s hip-hop, I love what Biggie delivered and represented. Big in impact and stature, his influence across hip-hop is immeasurable. Why the hooks from these tracks don’t quite grab me the way they do most others is not easily understood, but I’m glad I gave it a good go and will celebrate the songs I liked best as I am reminded one more time that the love of music or any art form is still a subjective process.