Big L's Unfinished Business

The young rapper had a killer sound. Then the street rubbed him out.

But the years leading up to L's death also suggest he was re-evaluating his craft. He recorded "Ebonics," a spectacular rhymed decoding of street lexicon that D.I.T.C. member Buckwild says took L two years to write. From the same period, "The Heist" suggested he had added to his stash of audacious punchlines the skill of tightly written crime narratives. The fruits of that period were eventually collected as the semi-posthumous Big Picture project, which fused verses recorded before he passed with new input from close artistic associates.

That album went gold, but its piecemeal process leaves the nagging pang that L's true voice was yet to come. Largely culled from 1995 recordings, Return backs up his rhyming proficiency, but doesn't offer a clue to his next move. Had L lived a few more weeks, he may have acquiesced to the Roc-A-Fella deal. Simply being around Jay-Z, and an expansive range of producers, might have been all that was needed to push Big L to a wider audience. The idea of a rapper who once warned "step to this and get an ass-whoopin' like Rodney King got" ultimately recording with Chris Martin is no more far-fetched than the '96 model of Jay-Z, all snide murderous brags, recording with the Coldplay frontman.

Big L's career may have ended as an ellipsis, but those fortunate to work with him are resolute in their assurance of his potential. "If Big L were around today, he'd have been huge," testifies Premier. "Jay-Z and them all knew—Big L would have been high up with them on the scale of greatness."

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