No one can deny Notorious BIG's talent or lasting appeal. A supremely skilled MC and charismatic performer, operating at the highest level in the most fruitful period of hip-hop's existence and sure to go down in any fan's top 3 of all time list. He had the best producers in the genre at his disposal and rapped in a way which seemed light-years ahead of most competitors. His debut LP, Read To Die, sold by the absolute shedload. And that was the problem.
From its inception, hip-hop was pitched as 'Jazz 2.0'. It was the second American art-form that spoke politically and relevantly of a generation that was lost, in a way that the lost generation could relate to. Only unlike jazz it was ready accessible. You didn't have to 'look between the lines', the lines were right in front of you and felt like nothing else. Ready To Die changed everything. Hip-hop soon fucked off the lessons it was supposed to be teaching and became pop music.
Released in 1994, it signalled the true end for the 'golden age' of hip-hop music. Record companies dropped scores of talented artists who didn't fit into the Diddy-isation of what rap had to be and, sure, there were exceptions (Eminem, early Jay-Z) but they served more as notable exceptions which only underlined the lack of quality hip-hop music that attained commercial and critical success.
The creator of 1994's other all-time great hip-hop album, Nas, would prove to be hit the hardest by Biggie's influence. With Illmatic, he had what many touted as a new landmark in modern music but on losing out to BIG at the Billboard Awards in 1995, many attendants noted Nas looked defeated and visibly deflated. It was his time to achieve the commercial greatness that the album deserved but in the end it had been overlooked by Bad Boy's influence on pop culture. Illmatic was tighter than Ready To Die - thematically, lyrically - but was eventually destined to fail in comparison; ultimately lacking the crossover appeal of its rival.
It's often said that Nas was a victim of his own success. Conventional wisdom is that Illmatic was just too good an album for a young kid from Queens to follow and perhaps that's true, but it's hard to argue that had Ready To Die not changed the entire landscape of rap music - as Dr. Dre's The Chronic had threatened to do two years previously - Nas would not have been pushed into creating such a disappointing second LP. It's accepted that It Was Written… was created squarely with the charts in mind and it transpired that Nas was too square a peg for that particular hole. Nas' skill laid in storytelling, understated lyricism, meticulous detail and attracting a superlative selection of beatmakers. It was most certainly not suited to big budget music videos, sweetly crooned choruses and production almost entirely handled by The Trackmasters. That formula would come to form the ABCs of successful overground hip-hop for dozens of artists and was followed precisely for It Was Written… but the fact remained that Nas simply wasn't 'that' guy. The disappointing critical reaction to that record would see Nas' career spiral for several years - a few bright spots here and there but mostly just flitting from one so-so album to the next.
It wasn't just musically that Biggie's influence would cause harm - it was also when hip-hop went first person. Granted, Wu-Tang Clan rapped about the projects, murder and drug dealing in 36 Chambers but there it was allegorical, anecdotal and merely another piece of a larger narrative framework. For Biggie, he, himself, was the framework around which everything revolved. Diddy cleverly presented Christopher Wallace the person and Christopher Wallace the rapper as one and the same and it proved to be a winning formula.
His rapping candidly about his time selling crack (and the other deeds that would branch off such a career…) was at least delivered with a few shades of guilt from Biggie, which made him seem human - it was just a means to an end; he was just trying to get some money to feed his young daughter. It wasn't the act that was glorified, only the attitude was - the 'by any means necessary' logic required by many to escape a tough situation. Trouble is people just saw the subject (here, selling a shit-load of drugs) without any of the context. They only saw what was at the surface of BIG's music.
This shallow reading of Ready To Die (and to a lesser extent Life After Death) saw the rise of superficial rappers who had little substance but would really the rap the shit out of telling you how many drugs they sold. 50 Cent was one of the better examples nearly a decade later: a self-styled gangsta who made his name from getting shot a whole bunch of times who lucked out in being picked up by Dr. Dre's Aftermath Records and treated to some of the best production in modern rap history. Using experience as the basis for music is by no means a bad thing, but when the character becomes bigger than the content - and the music just an excuse for empty narcissism - then there's a problem.
Biggie's videos offered another problem too. While 'the American Dream' was an ideal that obviously had a lasting appeal amongst inner-city youth, Biggie's music video for 'Juicy' would prove to set the benchmark for 'shooting music videos in a rented mansion full of babes' excess in rap. While that video fit the narrative of that particular track, it didn't take long for less tactful imitators to spring up. Soon went the beloved 'hood video' (shot with authenticity in the projects on a cheap camera, inexplicably sepia-toned footage of the rapper surrounded by fifty of his mates, etc) as Hype Williams' hyper-reality of big booty bitches at poolside and enough champagne to drown James Bond became the new standard.
The Roots' viciously satirical video for 'What They Do' would comprehensively define the period with every stock convention clearly presented and annotated in the video (rented mansion, rented car, professional models, lighting tricks). In the song itself they rapped "The principles of true hip-hop have been forsaken. It's all contractual and about money making" and they weren't kidding. Diddy would later reveal to the band that Biggie was 'hurt' by the video. ?uestlove - The Roots' iconicly-afroed drummer and self-styled leader - wrote a letter to the rapper claiming that it wasn't a video specifically aimed at him, just at the changing landscape that had latched onto what he had made. Before the letter could be delivered, Biggie was murdered in Los Angeles.
While stylistically the videos reflected the ever-increasing commercial popularity of the genre, they would also reflect its superficiality. From the overt politicking of Public Enemy to the 'conscious' hip-hop of Native Tongues in the early-90s, hip-hop remained remained 'cool' even as it spoke ABOUT something. It remained both culturally relevant and socially necessary. From 94/95 onward (reaching its zenith at the turn of the millennium), rap would be increasingly focused on materialism and posturing; ideas that had always inflected the genre but hadn't, until then, come to define it.
While there have been popular counters to the culture that was created (with the Soulquarians' short-lived critical and commercial success coming to mind), the genre was irrevocably sullied. It was marred by something that was so great that it spawned a million imitators; each a weak facsimile of what came before. Quality hip-hop would never again come as close to mainstream acceptance as regularly as it did in the late-eighties and early-nineties. Hip-hop became a marked victim of its own success.
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