Go ahead and try to imagine an image more tragic than this one. I’ll wait.
Turning 24 isn’t exactly a momentous occasion, but when I hit that birthday a few years ago, something occurred to me: if I made it to my next birthday, that would mean I’d outlived Biggie Smalls. That same thought probably occurs to thousands and thousands of turning-24 people every year, and it’s a weird feeling. Biggie wasn’t the youngest tragic figure in pop-music history; Aaliyah died at 22, Ian Curtis at 23. But even as world-weary as both of them could be, both Aaliyah and Curtis actually seemed young. Musically, they were doing the things people usually do when they’re young: they were making confused and enthusiastic forays into uncharted territory, figuring out new ways to tinker with older forms and suspend their voices in awkward-but-beautiful rhythmic spaces that didn’t sound like anything that had come before. There was a robotic elusiveness in both of their voices, but they both sounded completely vulnerable and human. Biggie always sounded human, but he never sounded vulnerable, not even on “Suicidal Thoughts.” What he did was something completely different and just as valuable: he worked within an already-established form and absolutely perfected it. None of the music he ever made fell far outside the bounds of mid-90s commercial rap, but he did it so perfectly and left such a massive dent in the rap universe that rappers are still stealing his lines and calling them tributes. A few Biggie songs make slight experimental detours: self-flagellating over dancehall drum-triggers on “Respect,” tricky double-time lines over swirling funk on “Notorious Thugs.” But even then, he was coloring within lines that had already been drawn, trying out fads and regional trends to see if he could do them as well as the people who had started them (which he could). Biggie started out young and died young, but he never, ever sounded young. In the corner-freestyle video-clip that everyone is posting today, Biggie was 17, but his voice already has that weary, blustery authority. That’s what fucked me up when I turned 24. It wasn’t that I was wasting my life at a dead-end desk-job at an age when someone else had completely defined his craft and left an indelible hole in the rap-music universe. It’s that he’d done it while constantly projecting such a vivid self-assurance. He knew exactly how powerful he was, and how many 24-year-olds can say that?
Biggie died ten years ago today. If he was still alive today, he’d be 34, and I don’t see any reason to believe he wouldn’t still lord over rap. 34 is pretty old for a commercial rapper, but it’s still younger than Jay-Z or E-40 or Snoop Dogg or Fat Joe, and those guys have all managed to maintain careers, confused as those careers sometimes are. Busta Rhymes was born the day before Biggie, and that guy is still beating up random people and avoiding jail-time. But it’s a bit simplistic to compare Biggie to those guys in wondering if he’d still be relevant in 2007 because Biggie had a knack for wide, populist appeal that none of them, other than maybe Jay, ever quite equaled.
A couple of years after Biggie died, Rolling Stone threw Jay on the cover (along with, seriously, Wyclef and Master P). Whoever interviewed Jay (probably Toure) asked him who he thought was the greatest rapper of all time, and Jay gave a pretty thoughtful answer. If I’m remembering right, Jay said that he could name a rappers’-rapper type like Common Sense but that he had to give it to Biggie because Biggie knew how to say what people wanted to hear. And it’s true. Biggie had the soul of a rap fundamentalist; if he’d had his way, Ready to Die would’ve included a DJ Premier track with guest-spots from M.O.P. and Jeru the Damaja. That would’ve been amazing, but Biggie was working within Puffy’s all-things-to-all-people marketing/production strategy, and he had orders to follow. If Puffy hadn’t told Biggie to do for-the-ladies party songs like “Big Poppa,” he might’ve never done them, but he did them better than anyone else ever had or ever would.
Consider this: Puffy has never exec-produced an altogether-great rap album from anyone other than Biggie. His patchwork of styles tends to jerk rappers out of their comfort-zones and shoehorn them into forms that don’t fit them at all. Next week, I’ll probably have an entry about the new 8Ball & MJG album on Bad Boy, which, as you can probably imagine, is a complete mess. 8Ball & MJG are all-time greats, and they’re as old now as Biggie would be, but they don’t have comfort zones big enough to navigate all the different tracks Puffy throws at them. Biggie’s comfort zone was endless, and he flourished within all the restrictions Puffy put on him. Within Puffy’s hit-factory framework, Biggie managed to make Ready to Die, for my money the best rap album ever made. Styles and trends have changed since then, but I don’t see any reason to believe Biggie wouldn’t be able to keep up with them. If he were alive today, I’d like to imagine Biggie wouldn’t be making confused aging-rapper opuses like Hip Hop is Dead; he’d be making the best snap music you ever heard.
During his life, Biggie’s reputation among critics, or at least critics outside the rap-press axis, was nowhere near what it would become after his death. Ready to Die finished at #38 on the 1995 Pazz & Jop poll, behind Raekwon and PM Dawn and Buju Banton and TLC, just ahead of Ol Dirty Bastard. Life After Death, still a great album although nowhere near as good as its more focused predecessor, landed at #13 on the 1997 poll, good enough to beat Wyclef and Wu-Tang Forever but still not good enough to take out Missy Elliott. Wide-focus critics might’ve been blind to Biggie during his lifetime because Biggie didn’t play around with form; he never even tried to expand rap’s musical or lyrical boundaries. Instead, he represented something else: a perfect storm. He had no weak spots. His delivery was all fiery force, his writing was unforced and economical but endlessly vivid and vulnerable, his phrasing never fell off the beat, his persona was fully realized and unimpeachably credible, and his hooks were unforgettable. He did all the little things and all the big things. There’s been a ton of stuff written about Biggie since his death, but there’ll never be a definitive account of his life and his work because we still don’t understand how good he was. We’ll never see his equal.