"My son is a poet, was a poet… Was it filth? Yes, it was filth, some of it was filth. But it was a filthy story, a story that was out there. A story that he wanted to be told." (Source) Those are the words of Voletta Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G.'s mother.
As his mother and others pointed out, the story of the Notorious B.I.G. is also the story of Christopher Wallace—but the two aren't always identical. Christopher Wallace was the overweight kid who lived most of his life as a young, tough hustler who also rocked Brooklyn street corners and basements with incredible rhymes. Notorious B.I.G., on the other hand, was the big show, the production created by Bad Boy Records and Puffy—a whole package, a whole image. "B.I.G." stood for "Business Instead of Game," a moniker that defined Biggie's transition from street hustler to huge star. Christopher Wallace was a drug-slinging kid; the Notorious B.I.G. was ready to dominate the industry through above-the-table business and serious talent-mongering.
Before he met Sean "Puffy" Combs, Christopher Wallace wasn't a climber. He was just a great rapper whose day job was dealing drugs. "Guys would come around, and they wanted to rhyme; when they saw Big come around, they didn't wanna touch that mic," said an old friend, recalling the days of street ciphers long before Biggie Smalls was on a record label. At the same time, Biggie sometimes turned down opportunities: "He would say things like, 'Oh, this guy want me to make a demo—I gotta eat.'" (Source) He didn't really foresee a life of fame and fortune.
When Sean "Puffy" Combs discovered Biggie, Puffy was an employee at Uptown Records. After Biggie appeared on a Source magazine "Unsigned Hype" demo (having finally agreed to do a demo), Puffy reached out to find out more about Biggie. The two connected, and Biggie came under Puff's wing at Uptown. When Puffy left Uptown, so did Biggie—Puffy's new record label, Bad Boy, would become the venue for the Notorious B.I.G.'s debut album.
Puffy wasn't a star producer, but he was a star businessman: His vision for the Notorious B.I.G. was a vision of super-sized success. Although Biggie wanted to do hard, gangsta-type rap over the whole album, Puffy pushed him to make radio-friendly tracks that would bring big money into the picture. Biggie's most well-known songs—"Hypnotize," "Big Poppa," or "Juicy," for example—follow a formula that mixes smooth rap with catchy hooks and danceable productions. Biggie's hardcore feel is present in his lyrics, but these lighter-fare songs came to define the pop music of the 1990s.
Initially, Christopher Wallace wasn't at all eager to make these sorts of songs. "Big thought it was a popcorn record. He wanted to make all gangsta records. But Puff knew at the time radio wasn't into that gangsta rap stuff. Big was like, 'Yo, this guy is trying to make me an opera singer,'" says Poke, one of the producers on "Juicy." (Source) But he agreed to Puffy's vision because he wanted to make a buck, and he eventually had to accept that this was the way. "That fear. That, 'I don't know if I can succeed,' was driving Puffy," says "Prince" Charles Alexander. "It was driving Biggie. Biggie says it in the lyrics of 'Juicy': If it didn't work out, he was going to go back to slinging crack on the street. It was a time when everybody was not too sure if the public was going to get it."
But the public did get it, proving Puffy's marketing smarts if not his great intentions. After Ready to Die, the Notorious B.I.G. blew up. Suddenly it was cars, girls, and cash like he'd never seen. What happened to Christopher Wallace?
It's songs like "Juicy" that take the Notorious B.I.G. back to the world of Christopher Wallace. The song might be a catchy pop song, but it's also a story of narrow escape from poverty and hopelessness. Ready to Die is an inflammatory album title, but it's also how Christopher Wallace says he was feeling at the time: He was depressed to the point of feeling suicidal, rapping lines like "f--k the world, f--k my moms and my girl" on "Ready to Die" and claiming that he said that stuff (despite his absolutely undying love for his mom) because, well, he really felt that way.
"I got into this s--t to tell a story," said Biggie. When Biggie was killed, his desperate lyrics about a future fate of deprivation and death seemed to expand into an even more epic tale. Biggie was a real victim of the violence he rapped about. The Notorious B.I.G. was larger than life to people, but perhaps the greater tragedy was that Christopher Wallace, who was really just a 24-year-old with big dreams, died, too. His words in "Juicy" tried to remind people that the Notorious B.I.G. was also just a kid from the streets.
"If I was just Christopher Wallace, they probably wouldn't look at it as, you know, 'shooting occurred.' They would probably just be like, 'somebody got shot,'" said Biggie in an interview not long before he died. "But if I'm Biggie Smalls, it gets amped up."
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. 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 DJs 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.