A lot of the focus on Biggie and other gangsta rappers has been on the content of their writing: what they say, rather than how they say it. But it's almost universally clear that the Notorious B.I.G. had incredible skills with the most basic pillar of rap: rhyme. From the serious tone of "Juicy" to the hefty flirtation of "Big Poppa", Biggie's rhymes were surprising, complex, multi-syllabic, and often incomparable.
Let's just take a look at the first few rapped lines of "Juicy" to get a taste, as it were:
It was all a dream / I used to read Word Up magazine / Salt'n'Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine
Biggie uses rhyme here, but he also uses a clever form of internal rhyme called assonance (see this glossary of rhymes for more types of rhyme). Assonance is when the vowel sounds in words match up, even if the consonants at the end don't create a full rhyme—here we have dream, magazine and limousine providing rhymes at the end of each line, with read and Heavy D giving each line some extra flow through assonance. Try reading the three lines out loud with accents on all the "ee" sounds, and you may see what we mean.
Hangin' pictures on my wall / Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl
Your turn: where is the assonance in this line?
Before we answer that, let's take a look at the rhyme. Biggie rhymes wall with Marley Marl (the beauty of Brooklyn rap is that those two words actually do rhyme). But he fills it out with a rapid-fire series of assonant sounds: Saturday rap attack, Mr. Magic…that's four "a"-as-in-"Dad" sounds in a total of five words. Rhythmically, it also sets up a nice compliment for the softer, rounds "a" sounds in Marley Marl at the end of the line. Finally, Biggie also uses consonance here, the practice of matching up consonant sounds within lines—pictures links up sonically with attack and Magic through the hard "k" sounds at the ends of the words.
I let my tape rock 'til my tape popped / Smokin' weed and bamboo, sippin' on private stock
In yet another brilliant set of rhymes, Biggie starts by breaking up the rhythm: let my tape rock 'til my tape popped has a rocking, popping sound to it that follows a different pattern than the last line (again, try reading the line out loud the way he does, with emphasis on tape rock and tape popped). Here he actually uses assonant sounds to create what feel like full rhymes: rock and popped really only rhyme in the "ah"-sounding vowels. Stock works the same way, rhyming with popped by virtue of the vowel sound only (although it does rhyme fully with rock). In the second line, weed brings back the assonance with earlier parts of the verse (dream, magazine), and smokin' and sippin' come close to a full internal rhyme.
We could do this all day (we're sure you could too, right?), but for now, here are just a couple more lines we'd like to highlight before we call it quits:
Now I'm in the limelight 'cause I rhyme tight
Limelight and rhyme tight make up a perfect full rhyme of the kind that Biggie Smalls can afford to just throw into the song wherever. These "internal rhymes," rhymes that occur within a single line, are a dime a dozen to him.
Peace to Ron G, Brucey B, Kid Capri/ Funkmaster Flex, Lovebug Starsky
These two lines are amazing because not only is this a list of inspirational hip-hop DJ's from the 1980s, the list is also assonant and an alliterative. Huh what, you say? Well, we've been over assonance—that's when vowel sounds match up as in "dream" and "seed," creating a partial rhyme. Here the long "ee" in Peace sets us up for Ron G, Brucey B, Kid Capri, and Lovebug Starsky. The only phrase that doesn't fit with the assonant pattern here is Funkmaster Flex, and guess what? The name itself is an alliteration, which means that the words start with the same consonant (F).
This game is pretty endless: we could literally go through every line of every Notorious B.I.G. song and find complicated assonance, consonance, alliteration and rhyme, but it would take a lot more space than we have here. The point is, this particular high school dropout had a fierce sense of the sounds of words. Coupled with a smooth, deep voice and great rhythmic timing, there's a reason why Biggie is considered one of the greatest rappers of all time.