In the 21 years since his debut album, Ready to Die, Biggie has remained high on the list of greatest rappers to ever grace the genre. But his place in rap lore, though largely uncontested, is somewhat lost on younger fans.
Which is why we need to remind those younger fans just how great he was.
Rappers fight uphill battles to attain a sliver of the praise and adulation we heap on Biggie’s material. Drake’s current run as a tastemaker and top-flight rapper has lasted almost seven years. To put that in perspective, that’s longer than 50 Cent’s run from Get Rich or Die Tryin’ to Before I Self Destruct, longer than EPMD’s run from Strictly Business to Business Never Personal, longer than Ludacris’ run from Back for the First Time to Release Therapy, and longer than DMX’s run from It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, to Grand Champ. But the debate rages on as to whether or not we can place Drake amongst their ranks, let alone the rarefied air occupied by artists like Rakim, Biggie, Jay Z, NaS and Kanye West.
But Biggie only released two studio albums. Sure, one was a double disk (and the only mainstream double disc rap album to live up to the rest of said artist’s discography) but even so, a surface comparison could lead some to believe rap has unfairly coddled Biggie’s legacy. So why all the fuss over a guy who, to be blunt, passed away before he had the opportunity to sell out, or catch a brick with an “experimental” album a la Common’s Electric Circus?
Hot 97 on-air personality and MTV host Peter Rosenberg agrees. “He could do it all. The five-tool analogy is accurate, because it’s hard to find a flaw.”
If you’ll indulge, let’s compare rap to baseball. The five basic tools for measuring player impact (and worth come contract time) are whether or not the player can hit at a high average, hit for power, run bases well, field and throw. The Baseball Hall of Fame is filled with players who possess only two or three of these tools (think Frank Thomas or Jim Rice,) but we don’t speak of them as glowingly as we do true five-toolers like Willie Mays or Ken Griffey Jr.
Why? Because the greatness of two and three tool players serves to prop up the generational talent that is a five-tool player.
The case could be made that Biggie is rap’s five-toolest five-tool rapper.
Charisma, flow, lyrical ability and content, and an ear for production are the pieces of what makes great rappers great. NaS is a lyricist much in the vein of Rakim, but he can’t pick an album’s worth of good beats to save his life. Busta Rhymes brought energy and charisma to everything he did in his heyday, but the beats often left much to be desired, and the content got tired by the end of the first (read:best) album. Tupac is the single most charismatic rapper ever, but he was repetitive, contradictory, and horribly unimaginative with his subject matter. If you like Hennessey, there’s a chance Tupac made that happen through sheer repetition. If he was still alive, he’d be a ringer for Apple press conferences.
When graded by this same rubric, Biggie has no flaw.
None. NO FLAWS AT ALL
Some other reasons to love him, in no particular order.
*His two album’s production credits read like a golden era fan’s dream.
*He told a story about a dalliance with a Knicks’ player’s wife so well we still ask former Knicks exactly whose wife it was.
*He cut through to the heart of the mindset that defined his output with a single line (“my mama got cancer in her breast/ don’t ask me why I’m motherfucking stressed/ things done changed.”)
*He gave us a business structure so airtight professors teach classes on it, and a prayer so widely applicable there’s no real reason we don’t all say a version of it in the morning.
*He even made Pepsi seem almost palatable in this unreleased gem.
To be clear, Biggie’s greatest greatness isn’t that he did anything unheard of. NaS told one of the best stories we’ve ever heard. Kurtis Blow got the party started. Run DMC rarely lacked for great production. Public Enemy made music for the revolution and the party thereafter. Outside of the violent paranoia that became his hallmark (a hallmark perfected by the mighty Scarface) Biggie was great because he was great at everything at once. There was nothing left to be desired.
And he did it all in three years and two albums, give or take a few singles and remixes.