Uh, d--n right I like the life I live / 'Cause I went from negative to positive
—Notorious B.I.G., "Juicy," 1994
Notorious B.I.G., like most big stars, is guilty of contradicting himself. Can you guess what the contradiction is? Here's a clue: it's a contradiction that almost no popular rapper gets away from, a contradiction that is just about as old as the craft of rap, and certainly as old as the mainstream popularity of rap. It has to do with money, and it has to do with realness.
Ah, but what doesn't have to do with money and realness, you might be asking?
Valid question. It's actually pretty much impossible to separate any discussion about popular music from questions of profit on the one hand, and questions of authenticity on the other. In this case, the specific contradiction we're talking about is the central theme of the Notorious B.I.G.'s 1994 single, "Juicy." In a song shaped around bragging about a new life of riches and wealth, Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G.) ends up mostly telling stories about his ties to poverty and the street. Even though his career is blowing up, his pride lies in the "same number same hood." But the more his career blows up, the further he really lives from that hood life—a transition he describes as going "from negative to positive." He's probably talking about his bank account in that line (so says RapGenius), but he's also suggesting that his new life is the positive one. So, which lifestyle is Biggie really praising here? Street-wise authenticity and his smarts as a former drug dealer? Or a rags-to-riches story and the glory of relative wealth?
Before we try to answer that, it's worth noting that we are really oversimplifying the question for dramatic effect (everybody does that on the internet, but a little self-critique never hurts). First of all, this sort of question assumes that the Notorious B.I.G. was always writing an autobiography. Like so many other rappers, he has often been put in the position of representing some sort of authentic position in the community—not just by the mainstream media, but by the hip-hop world itself, which has often been quick to criticize posers who tell stories about lives they haven't lived. There is not some sort of abstract requirement that rappers be telling a "true story," even if parts of the song reflect their real life experience. Second of all, the question assumes that Biggie is promoting a certain lifestyle as more or less positive than another—another assumption a lot of people make about rap artists. Neither of these assumptions is necessarily accurate or fair to the Notorious B.I.G.
But maybe we're getting ahead of ourselves. The question might be oversimplifying, but it is still interesting. Biggie is walking a fine line, and he knows it: how can he proudly claim his newfound wealth as a move "from negative to positive" while also insisting on being connected to his past of poverty and dealing on street corners? This is not just a question for "Juicy," but a question for the whole album, Ready to Die, and for countless rap songs that praise success and money while drawing a straight line back to poverty.
What Do We Know About Biggie?
The Notorious B.I.G. certainly has his own story to tell about walking the line from poverty into fame. Christopher Wallace was the only child of two Jamaican immigrants, raised in Fort Green, Brooklyn, by his mother, a schoolteacher. His father was absent for most of his life, and his mother struggled to put food on the table and keep Biggie out of the street game. Nonetheless, by age 12, the razor-sharp lyricist started dealing drugs. Even though he was a straight-A student at a private middle school, the options the street offered seemed better than the future of poverty he foresaw. He dropped out of high school at seventeen.
He dreamed of being a famous rapper, but when he stumbled on opportunities to actually get paid as a rapper in his late teens, he was unprepared for the shift: "N----z just trying to eat," he apparently told friends who insisted he record a demo. By nineteen, he was putting food on the table as a dealer with a record. He had already been arrested several times and done jail time for dealing drugs, all of which he chalks up to a desire to support his young daughter. Sean "Puffy" Combs, his producer and the founder of Bad Boy records, had to push Biggie to get off the street corners. As he was making his first deal with Combs for a full-length solo album, he narrowly avoided a crack-related arrest. Biggie Smalls once told an interviewer, "the hardest thing I ever had to overcome is really just making the transition from being a street hustling n----r to, like, a star."
Biggie, like so many before him and so many more since, quickly found himself between a rock and a hard place.
Biggie was an artist, and we usually give artists a certain degree of creative license. But Biggie was also a rapper, and that label tends to be approached by audiences and the media in a way that locks the artist into an expectation of "keeping it real." That expectation can be really limiting for rappers like Biggie who are also epic storytellers: each story is assumed to be super-personal and representative of the artist. And to compound that problem, Biggie was getting rich quick, but he really had grown up poor. If he talked about riches, he was denying his past, but if he talked about poverty, he was denying his present. The result was a minor identity crisis that seems to be produced again and again by tales of sudden fame.
The only real solution for a performer under those sorts of pressures is to construct a persona: a sort of separate person who becomes the image of Biggie Smalls, writ large (you should have no problem thinking of at least one performer with an actual alter-ego…). This makes sense: a fan base of tens of millions can't know Christopher Wallace, but we can "know" the Notorious B.I.G. We know him by knowing the message and feel of his music, but it's not the same as knowing a friend, family, or even a neighbor. The beauty of a persona is that it presents an image that doesn't have to line up with reality in every single way.
"Juicy": A Rags-To-Riches Story
In the case of "Juicy," the Notorious B.I.G. doesn't totally line up with the reality of Christopher Wallace. While "Juicy" is a celebration of success, it's also a tale of two lives. One life is a life of desperate poverty, a life Biggie's mother claims he didn't really live.
Voletta Wallace agrees that the Notorious B.I.G. was a persona, separate from Christopher Wallace. Asked about her son's description of his hard past life in "Juicy," she says: "To me, that's a part of an alter-ego. That's the rags to riches person that he wants to sing about. In all my son's life, my son left my home when he was 20, and there was not one single second when I didn't have food on my table" (Biggie and Tupac, 2002). It's not that Biggie is lying about anything, she says. It's that he constructed a story to fit a certain mold.
His mom's comments suggest that Biggie was saying a lot of the stuff in "Juicy" because it made a good story, and some people agree. There's no doubt that a lot of MCs have told good rags-to-riches stories, and that these stories reinforce the validity of their success and their connections to hip-hop's origins in the poverty-stricken South Bronx (this has changed a bit in the 2000s with Kanye West, the middle-class "college dropout," rising to the top of the rap world). As academic Mickey Hess writes, "Biggie's lyrics frame rap music as a savior from a life of crime…yet even as Biggie frames hip hop as his savior from the streets, he is careful to maintain his connection to his geographical and cultural origins" (Is Hip Hop Dead, 55). The song's hook ("You know very well who you are/Don't let 'em hold you down, reach for the stars…") tells of a person whose identity doesn't change even as his aspirations and level of recognition do. Hess describes the theme this way: "Stories of the rap career are stories about how a music culture that developed in some of the U.S.A.'s poorest neighborhoods has become one of the world's biggest-selling forms of entertainment. As artists tell stories that situate them within this journey from ghetto to industry boardroom, making money has become not only an objective for the rap artist, but a topic of the lyrics" (Is Hip Hop Dead, 29). In other words, rappers tell this story because the story sells, and it simultaneously serves to inject an authentic feel into the work.
The problem with Hess' theory, though, is that it seems to discount the matter of choice. Sure, an artist like Biggie may have been under some pressure to tell a career-path story that gave him so-called realness points. But the work is ultimately his own, and so is the poetic license. "Juicy" reflects a desire on his part to tell that particular story even if it doesn't align precisely with his life. And of course, over the years the whole idea of "authenticity" has been questioned again and again: after all, some of the greatest rap groups of the 1980s and 1990s rapped about topic ranging from revolutionary politics to trips to the diner, and it was arguably no more or less "authentic" than the "gangsta" image associated with Biggie and Tupac. So the question of choice remains unaddressed: Christopher Wallace may have built up a myth of Biggie Smalls/the Notorious B.I.G., but why that myth? What was so compelling about the gangsta-to-recording-artist version of the rags-to-riches tale?
Ready to Die and Hopelessness in Popular Music
It's helpful to look at how the reviews of Ready to Die interpret Biggie's lyrics about his life as a drug dealer. Touré, a renowned New York Times and Village Voice writer, wrote this in a review: "Though many rappers exaggerate about the lives they led before becoming performers, some are actually former drug dealers. Few have ever been as open in detailing their criminal past as Biggie Smalls, and none have ever been as clear about the pain they felt at the time." Biggie's voice was a necessary contribution, reviewers thought, in the realness department: he'd seen it all and lived to tell about it. Ten years later, XXL looked back on the album through pretty much the same lens: "Ready To Die offers uncompromising street material—a grim depiction of urban hopelessness told in one of the most immediate voices the form has ever known." People liked the message—not because it included an uplifting offer of accomplishment through patience and hard work (it didn't), but because it was a cynical confrontation of the life familiar to so many young African-American men growing up in post-industrial urban environments. Bootstrap idealism was not the reality for so many who were stuck in cycles of poverty and isolated in inner cities—and just because Biggie was one of the few to get out of it didn't mean he was about to claim that anyone could. His version of "reach for the stars" was tempered by a largely negative outlook and an insistent connection to the street life he was working to buy his way out of.
Critics generally saw him as the righteous bearer of a tough message (over catchy hooks, of course): "Whether underground in the crack game, or legit in the rap game—it's all the same s--t," wrote The Source in 1994, summarizing Biggie's outlook on Ready to Die. Even the cover of Ready to Die reinforces that sort of cynicism: it is a picture of a tiny African-American baby, looking cute and innocent in front of a white background. The title across the bottom says it all, grimly suggesting that even a little baby has no choice about the violence he will face in his lifetime. The implication—made even more profound by Biggie Smalls' own untimely death—is that there is little hope for this kid and millions of others like him.
Cashing in on collective hopelessness in popular music may not seem like some sort of moral high ground, but it's a tried and true approach in the music business. After all, the first pop music owned and run by African Americans, the blues, was a repository of often hopelessly sad sentiments that came out of slavery and hard labor under Jim Crow. In the 1950s, Hank Williams made a huge name for himself partially by being a hopeless alcoholic who sang miserably sad songs and died before his time. In the 1960s, tragic rock figures like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix channeled the collective anger and died young—only to become heroes to a whole generation. In Biggie's own era, white artists were also busy promoting their own take on life's basic hopelessness, with Kurt Cobain heading up a whole movement of drug-loving despair in the rock world.
The desire for sad, cynical music is persistent, and it's also understandable: a lot of people feel hopeless, and a lot of time when they do, they just don't want to hear about sunshine and flowers—they want to hear stuff they can identify with, music that reflects how they feel (even if it's not really about their lives). In the case of Biggie's work, he provided this outlet, and did so with a sense of self-conscious humor and a storyteller's flair. So we would argue that when it comes to the impact of Biggie's work, it's not the details, but the feeling and the flair that matters. And the feeling is one of being stuck between a rock and hard place, of living a contradiction, celebrating over glasses of champagne while still just inches away from an early death. Through his very human state of self-contradiction, Notorious B.I.G. becomes a sympathetic character, a more lyrical David Copperfield, or maybe the fulfillment of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
Whatever else happened to Christopher Wallace in his lifetime, it seems like the one part of "Juicy" that was genuine was its underlying sadness about the stories he felt compelled by: ''When I made 'Ready to Die,' I was broke and depressed," Biggie told Billboard. It was his breakthrough album, but his life was not all uplift. Even in 1994, the twenty year old admitted that he feared for his life. The rap game, he often attested, was even more cutthroat than the crack game. As his fame grew, he got caught up in a dangerous East Coast-West Coast rappers' feud fueled by irresponsible record execs and media outlets (who profited from the hype surrounding both Tupac's and Biggie's untimely and unsolved murders). Ultimately, the pervasive violence that led both rappers to devote ample airtime to how ready to die they were actually did take their lives. Probably Biggie kept singing about violence and hopelessness in part because in his quest to get away from that life, he never got far.
The Questions Biggie Left Behind
Very shortly after he spoke to Billboard in March 1997, Biggie was gunned down by an unidentified assailant. He passed away at the age of only 24, leaving the world in shock and setting the alarms sounding about violence in the hip-hop world. His second album, Life After Death, came out a couple weeks later and became one of the best-selling rap albums in history.
"Is gangsta mythologizing for people already living under the gun a form of release or cultural imprisonment?" TIME Magazine wondered the week that Biggie Smalls was shot. But looking back at Biggie's life and untimely death, it seems like it's time to start asking more complicated questions—after all, it was a gunshot that ultimately killed Biggie Smalls, not a record deal or a set of mythologized stories. And the reality is, Biggie's music could have been both a form of release and a cultural trap, depending on the listener. TIME itself noted that Biggie didn't practice every word he rapped. Instead, he dreamed of getting away from the world he described so vividly: "Friends say Wallace only rapped about violence to make enough money to leave it all behind." According to Biggie, "N----z is tired of being on the streets, tired of robbin' and stealing" (The Notorious B.I.G.: Bigger Than Life). This wasn't the world he wanted to live in, or wanted for his friends.
Since this is Shmoop, and we like complicated questions, we came up with a few more for the road. After all, "it's better to know some of the questions than all of the answers", right? Give it a shot:
- How do you interpret "Juicy"?
- Are artists responsible for how people interpret their music?
- What emotions does the song bring up for you?
- Do you think other people might have different emotional reactions?
- Why was Biggie's discussion of wealth and poverty important to audiences in the 1990s? Is Biggie's message still relevant today?
- If you were in his position, what would you sing about?
- Who shot Biggie Smalls?