Five of the Best: Notorious BIG

Jimmy Coultas dissects five of the best Biggie records as we commemorate the anniversary of the death of arguably the greatest rapper of all time.

Jimmy Coultas

Last updated: 9th Mar 2016

Image: Notorious B.I.G

Nineteen years ago Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G. was shot dead in Los Angeles, a crime that remains unsolved to this day. Undoubtedly one of the finest emcees to ever touch the microphone, his influence remains huge, with everyone from Jay-Z to Pharoahe Monch paying their dues (the latter eulogising about what might have been when we spoke to him recently).

Although he only ever released two full albums completely in his name - 1994's breakout release Ready to Die and then the double disc follow up three years later, Life after Death - he remains one of hip-hop's most iconic voices. As a way of tribute we've rounded up five of the best recorded moments to come from his short but extremely fruitful career; proof of why Biggie Smalls remains the illest.

Craig Mack ft Notorious BIG, Rampage, LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes 'Flava in Ya Ear' (Bad Boy Remix) (1994)

Before Ready to Die dropped there was a slew of tracks which suggested perhaps the greatest rapper of all time was rearing his head. In terms of delivery, they were generally focusing on the more nasal aggressive delivery that was early Biggie - check the Easy Moe Bee produced 'Party and Bullshit' for an example, whilst even the laid back 'Just Playing (Dreams)' feature him in a fairly agitated voice.

This marked a slight shift as his style became more laconic, the effortlessness of his rhymes only adding to the sheer weight of what he was saying. This remains one of the greatest guest verses of all time, near enough rendering the following LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes and Rampage the Boy Scout irrelevant, as well as pushing Craig Mack and his career firmly into the background.

From the minute the first line riffs brilliantly on a homonym ("Niggas is mad I get more butt than ash trays"), this is a man completely in control of not only his own music but hip hop itself. The king was in the building.

'Warning' (1994)

Ready to Die remains the perfect representation of Biggie as an artist, a flawed masterpiece which showcased his thrilling prowess and persona around classic nineties boom bap production. The lyrical themes weren't exactly ground breaking but the delivery was - encapsulated by this epic slab of Mafioso story telling.

Vividly told and stacked with flurry of multi syllabic rhymes, this is pretty much a perfect hip hop song in every way. It's got ridiculous imagery (feeding his rottweilers "gunpowder so they can devour the criminals trying to drop my decimals") allayed with sheer poetic brilliance - note how he name-checks unfashionable Calico and Beretta guns due to their phonetic appeal.

Junior M.A.F.I.A. ft. Biggie Smalls 'Player's Anthem' (1995)

Every upmarket rapper in the nineties brought their less talented crew along with them for the ride, Rhymes' Flipmode Squad and 2Pac's Outlawz two examples. Biggie had Junior M.A.F.I.A, whose 1995 album Conspiracy featured a number of records assisted by him.

'Get Money' remains the go to for many, but 'Player's Anthem' is classic Biggie through and through; even the Lil Kim and Lil Cease verses were clearly written by him. He saves the best lines for himself though, alliterative wordplay "beatin down Billy Badasses" mixed with macabre humour as he offers the son of a man he's murdered a kleenex. Cold gold.

112 ft Notorious BIG and Ma$e 'Only You' (Bad Boy Remix) (1996)

Although initially at the behest of mentor Sean 'Puffy' Combs, B.I.G's slide into hip hop Casanova was effortless as the nineties progressed. Ready to Die single 'Big Poppa' was then followed by a radio friendly remix of 'One More Chance' alongside guest verses for Total and Mary J Blige as hip hop's most unlikely sex symbol took centre stage.

This though remains the perfect Biggie driven R&B record, a simple disco sampled bassline underpins a trademark shiny suit era jam - the video one of the first to showcase this emerging trend in music. And the rappers sixteen bars are just effortless bragging, dropping a flurry of on point for the era references to his top end garbs, acumen with the ladies and drug dealer connections. Even his accountant Bert Padell gets a name-check.

'Kick in the Door' (1997)

Generally speaking Life After Death is a frustrating album, tantalising glimpses of complete genius which undoubtedly showed he was a better emcee than three years earlier but compromising on artistic vision too much.

What's most prescient about this theory is how individual songs, even when great, exemplified this. 'A Story to Tell' is a brilliantly funny tale which is tainted by the outro of him laughing amongst his friends almost as long as the verse itself. And this, the third in his DJ Premier produced trilogy, features an unfunny skit running well into the first two minutes of the first song.

That said when it arrives it's worth it. One of the few Biggie records where he addresses other rappers, he drops a flurry of subliminal attacks on Nas, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon (who took shots at him on the latter's Only Built for Cuban Linx), and Jeru the Damaja - who dissed him in a response to 'Players Anthem' with 'Ya Played Yaself' (mentioned on our Five of the Best: Gang Starr Foundation feature).

They don't get direct call outs by name, instead references to their lyrics (throw "bleach in your eye" a spin off of  Raekwon's 'Ice Water'), mixed with one of the few moments where an emcee makes an aside at the tracks producer; "son I'm surprised you run with them" a reference to Premier's connections to Jeru. Whilst Nas' style starting to mirror Biggie and lack of publishing earnings see him being sent up. 

It's funny, sharp and evidence of NYC's most regal rhyme-sayer at the the pinnacle of his powers. Sadly the first line proves to be the most prescient, Big's reign at the top ultimately proving short like leprechauns once he was slain. Hip Hop hasn't been the same since since.

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