Monday marks the 18-year anniversary of the Notorious B.I.G.'s death. Christopher Wallace, the infamous Brooklyn-bred rapper, would have been 42 years old, had he survived the four gunshots that killed him in 1997. Nearly two decades after his death, Biggie is still the greatest rapper of all time.
Wallace grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the only child of a first-generation American-Jamaican single mother. By 15 he was selling crack, and by 17 he had dropped out of high school. But before long, his mixtape caught the attention of a young A&R man at Uptown Records: Sean Combs.
In September 1994, Biggie released the first and only album during his lifetime, Ready to Die, on Combs' then-emerging Bad Boy label. He freestyled on the avenue as a hobby until he recorded his first demo in 1991. Those freestyle roots would carry over into how he made rhymes in the studio. He wrote down thoughts in a notebook, but he didn't bring it into the studio. Instead, he riffed off the beat and came up with rhymes on the spot.
"Unlike most other rappers, he never carried lyric notebooks into the studio," writes hip-hop journalist Cheo Hodari Coker, in Unbelievable: The Life, Death and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G. "He would construct those intricately rhyming narratives inside his formidable brain, then step to the microphone and record them 'off the dome.'"
Here are the nine rhymes that prove Biggie was a hip-hop genius.
1. "We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us / No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us / Birthdays was the worst days / Now we sip champagne when we thirsty"
"Juicy" – Ready to Die
Biggie's mom, Voletta Wallace, clarified in Coker's biography that Christmas never really missed them, and Chrissy-Poo (Voletta's doting nickname for her son) never ate sardines for dinner. "Wallace was known to exaggerate from time to time," Coker writes in Unbelievable. Voletta was a Jehovah's Witness, so they technically didn't celebrate holidays, but exaggeration is good for street cred.
2. "Poppa been smooth since days of Underoos / Never lose, never choose to, bruise crews who / Do something to us, talk go through us / Girls walk to us, wanna do us, screw us / Who us? Yeah, Poppa and Puff"
"Hypnotize" — Life After Death
Could any other hardcore hip-hop master rap about Underoos and get away with it? Besides maybe Puff. The Bad Boy producer mumble-talks on the background of "Hypnotize," a technique that had Suge Knight at Death Row on his feet. "Anyone out there who wanna be a recording artist and wanna stay a star, but don't have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos, all on the records, dancing, come to Death Row," the hip-hop figure said at the Source Awards in 1995.
3. "Who they attracting with that line, 'What's your name, what's your sign?' / Soon as he buy that wine, I just creep up from behind / And ask what your interests are, who you be with / Things that make you smile, what numbers to dial / You gon' be here for a while?"
"Big Poppa" — Ready to Die
Biggie was a ladies' man, according to his wife, Faith Evans (evidenced by the very public affair he had with Lil' Kim during his marriage.) Biggie and Evans first met at a Bad Boy photo shoot in 1994. "During the lunch break or whatever, he asked to see some pictures I had," Evans told Coker for Unbelievable. "And obviously he was really slick 'cause he got my phone number off the envelope." They married nine days later.
4. "Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the livest one / Representing BK to the fullest / Gats I pull it / Bastards duckin' when Big be bucking"
"Unbelievable" — Ready to Die
This is one of the most memorable intros on any of Biggie's tracks. "Unbelievable" is a testament to Biggie's freestyle. It was also the B-side compromise to "Juicy." According to Coker in Unbelievable, "Wallace agreed to 'Juicy' as long as it was back by his 'gutter' joint 'Unbelievable' — the best rap B-side since Public Enemy's 'Rebel Without a Pause.'"
5. "I'm seeing body after body and our mayor Giuliani / Ain't tryna see no black man turn to John Gotti / My daughter use a potty so she's older now / Educated street knowledge, I'mma mould her now"
"Everyday Struggle" — Ready to Die
Biggie liked to reference the mafia in his rhymes; he even wanted to call his record Teflon Don instead of Ready to Die, but Combs talked him out of it, according to Coker in Unbelievable. Biggie's crew, the Junior M.A.F.I.A., was an acronym for Masters at Finding Intelligent Attitudes. By the time "Everyday Struggle" came out, Biggie's daughter with Faith Evans, T'yanna Wallace, was 3 years old.
6. "I got the dough, got the flow down pizat / Platinum plus like thizat / Dangerous on trizacks / Leave your ass flizat"
"Mo' Money Mo' Problems" — Life After Death
Today, West Coast rapper Snoop Dogg is probably the most famous for using "izzle," but the style has been around a while. Its roots go back to lyrics from "Roxanne Roxanne" by Brooklyn-based hip-hop group UTFO: "The izzi is the grizzeat Kizzangizzo." Here, Biggie rocks the 'izat' suffix as smoothly as Snoop ever used 'izzle.'
7. "Yes it's me, the B.I.G / Competition ripper ever since 13 / Used to steal clothes was considered a thief / Until I started hustlin' on Fulton Street / Makin' loot, knockin' boots on the regular / Pass the microphone I'm the perfect competitor"
This one of of Biggie's first recorded freestyles; he was 17 rapping outside a bodega. The first time Wallace ever heard his voice on tape was when DJ 50 Grand heard him rhyme and asked him to make a demo tape on the spot. According to Coker in Unbelievable, 50 Grand thought, "This didn't sound like an amateur who rapped as a hobby — his freestyles were as good, if not better, than anything on the radio."
8. "Pull the truck up front, and roll up the next blunt / So we can steam on the way to the telly, go fill my belly / A T-bone steak, cheese eggs and Welch's grape"
"Big Poppa" — Ready to Die
Biggie rapped a lot about food, taking cues from the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and influencing future hip-hop foodies like Action Bronson. This rhyme from "Big Poppa" is also a great example of the nuance and detail that Biggie put into every one of his tracks, crafting stories off the top of his head.
9. "When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell / Cause I'm a piece of shit, it ain't hard to fucking tell / It don't make sense, going to heaven with the goodie-goodies / Dressed in white, I like black Timbs and black hoodies"
"Suicidal Thoughts" — Ready to Die
Biggie rapped about the good life, but he was always the first to point out that it came with a price. On the same track, Biggie rhymes, "Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion / I know my mother wished she got a fucking abortion."
"It was now impossible to listen to others rapping about the excitement and riches to be had in the drug game without recalling the self-loathing despair of 'Suicidal Thoughts,'" Coker wrote in Unbelievable. "Suicidal Thoughts" was the rawest track Biggie ever recorded, and, fittingly, the final installment on Ready to Die.