It’s difficult to imagine what hip-hop might look like, had The Notorious B.I.G. lived. We know what it looks like now, in the wake of his tragic and untimely death at the hands of a still-unknown gunman, but his was such a presence that it completely altered the time he lived in, and undoubtedly would have had a huge impact for many more years.
Rappers have imitated his style, adopted his flow, borrowed his lyrics, and rocked puffy Gucci links, attempting to fill the void the overweight wordsmith left. But, ain’t no other kings in this rap thing; Biggie Smalls reigns supreme.
On the 15th anniversary of his passing, it’s futile to ask “what if?” We’re long past the time of wondering, and must accept the fact that he’s truly gone. It is, however, an opportunity to take a look at his legacy and remember just what he meant to hip-hop culture, and the legions of fans that adored him.
Biggie’s legacy is inextricably linked to Tupac Shakur. The infamous “East coast/West coast” beef started and, sadly, ended with these two. Tupac was a larger than life figure, a firebrand that drew controversy with every utterance. Given more time, he may have been able to channel that energy where he often felt inclined to go, into community organizing, maybe, or politics. But his time was his time, and, unfortunately, he spent many of his last days declaring war on fellow rappers that eventually bled out into the streets. Fairly or not, he still catches a lot of heat for escalating the feud that played a part in his death.
Not so for Biggie. He threw a few slick jabs here and there, but he was mostly on defense, trying to defuse the situation. As ‘Pac repeatedly accused him and Puff Daddy of having knowledge of, or being involved in, the 1994 robbery and shooting that only added to Tupac’s legend, Biggie kept cool. He was naturally laid back, but it was particularly necessary at a time when emotions were running high and no one knew when the powder keg might erupt. Then September 13, 1996 happened.
Tupac had laid in the hospital a full week before succumbing to gunshot wounds inflicted in Las Vegas. The blood had been spilled, and no one wanted to see any more. Biggie didn’t want to see any more. He knew the whole idea of an “East/West” beef was silly. He recorded an ode to California, and worked with Oakland native Too Short on his next album. He knew if he didn’t work to stop it, Tupac wouldn’t be the last.
He wouldn’t get to see the fruits of his labor. On March 9th, 1997, he himself would be shot and killed in Los Angeles, at the age of 24.
Amid all the violence that surrounded him, one never got the impression that Biggie was himself a violent person. True, many of his lyrics were grim and nihilistic, but he could flash that infectious smile and make anyone and everyone in the room with him feel safe and at home. He was enjoying himself as a young black superstar that turned stories of his neighborhood and the people he knew into songs that moved millions. From what you saw, you couldn’t help but like him.
Of course, there are the messier parts of his life that must be dealt with, namely the physical abuse of his wife, singer Faith Evans. It’s still unclear just how often, and how violent, he was toward her, but it puts him into a long line of supremely talented, yet troubled black male artists that are known to have put their hands on women in ways we all regret (David Ruffin, Miles Davis, James Brown, etc.).
But what the world knew most of him was a gentle giant that let his Brooklyn flow and hardcore poetics talk for him. There are still very few rappers that have been able to master multiple styles as effortlessly as Biggie, pleasing the hip-hop purists, the hustlers upstate, the suits in the high rises, and the Billboard pop charts. He had something for everyone, and on the anniversary of his death we will all remember what that thing was and cherish it. We may dust off the Super Nintendo, or Sega Genesis, and for a moment just let everything be all good.
Follow Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter at @mychalsmith