Biggie Smalls is the illest: On The Notorious B.I.G. — The What
Welcome to Songs and Albums CBG Loves, a column where we’ll discuss, life and time permitting, random songs and albums from the present or past, in long or short form. Look, there’s no real plan here because sometimes you just gotta say fuck it and wing it. (The column’s name, which we’re still workshopping, is proof of this.) We can’t promise that we’ll drop a new instalment on a specific day or on a specific week, or even that there won’t be overlap with some weeks or months looking at many posts, but we’re confident we can get this done somehow and write about music regularly. We’re starting this series at the only place we could: with the greatest rapper of all time, The Notorious B.I.G.
— — —
CBG is the furthest thing from a motherfucking rap phenomenon.
The line goes like this. “I used to do stick-ups, ’cause hoes is irritating like the hiccups. Excuse me, flows just grow through me,” Biggie rhymes. It’s a good line on what’s an excellent song, but we’re not here to explain to you, dear reader, what makes The Notorious B.I.G. the great rapper that he was — though that will undoubtedly come. We’re here to point out that right as Biggie says the word hiccups, suddenly we hear him have the goddamn hiccups and this is why he then says he’s sorry. Every time we hear it, it gets us.
The What is one of the many standout songs from an album full of them. Ready To Die stands as one of the handful of albums with a legitimate claim as the greatest in hip-hop history. (If we have to pick today, we’re picking it for what it’s worth.) It’s a Biggie album, but we’ll start with the song’s featured rapper. Coming off the back of the 1993 success of Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers), which is itself a Mount Rushmore hip-hop album, Method Man was riding high. A feature on Biggie’s debut made sense. Let the record show that he would get shown up on The What, but don’t hold it against him: Biggie would go on to show up many other rappers in his short career.
You see, growing up is realizing that Biggie Smalls was, is, and likely forever will be the greatest rapper of all time. You might prefer someone more accomplished like Jay-Z, or one whose peak was higher than Big’s like Lil’ Wayne, but it’s all semantics at this point. By and large, The Notorious B.I.G. did everything you could ever want from a rapper — and he did it all better than every other rapper who ever lived.
In his short time on this earth before passing at the ridiculous age of 24 (!!!) years old, Christopher Wallace showcased a verbal dexterity that we’ve been looking for since. He raps as if he were dancing, hotstepping into a rhyme here, then circling back to an earlier rhyme from 2 lines ago right afterward. His rhyming is rhythmic, twisting and turning, elongating the words where necessary, aborting if it fits the cadence better. He is at times funny, witty, gutting, depressing, a canny storyteller, menacing, scary, flawed, problematic. Through it all, he’s always, always, always charismatic and flowing better than your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper.
His raps are full of funny and canny signifiers that add to the song meaning-message-what-have-you; they fit his rhymes and songs in a dope way and also double as ear worms. There’s Arizona Ron from Tucson, who pushes the black Yukon. Biggie’s man is named Two-TECS cause he totes two TECS. Who can forget all the cuties with a booty who can buy a Coogi? When Biggie rhymes, it’s not that the opposing rapper’s reign on the top was short like a leprechaun, it’s that it was short like a leprechaun as he, Biggie, crushes willies, thugs, and rapper-dons. Someone is paging him at 5:46 in the morning, at the crack of dawn and now he’s yawning. Want more? It’s not just that Biggie grew up poor, it’s that — and here you’ll say this in Biggie’s voice, we just know it — he used to eat sardines for dinner. (Though that detail might be apocryphal, per Ms. Violetta Wallace, the myth persists. That’s the point.) Biggie is the next batter, here to shatter your bladder, it doesn’t matter. Hearing Biggie rhyme is like watching the bubble on the screen at karaoke, it’s like watching it light up every word and line of the song just on cue, expertly so, with great precision and detail. You may not know the song, the song lyrics or the rhythm, but baby we’ll be alright, it’s Biggie rapping.
In his short career with Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, Biggie made songs about women and songs for women. He made club anthems and dance anthems. He made songs about dealing and songs about smoking drugs. He made songs about robbing fools and others where he got robbed. He made songs about his mental health, then others about what was behind his mental anxiety. (Kid Cudi saved your life? Pfff Kid Cudi never made a song like Suicidal Thoughts.) He made excellent storytelling songs, then made more excellent storytelling songs. Most of all, he made street banger after street banger after street banger and, look, you get the point.
But back to the song at hand. Produced by Easy Moe Bee, The What falls in the latter group. It’s a song where Biggie shows you just how great he is at rapping because why tf not. The beat rocks you back and forth, at times almost lulling you to a sense of calm before picking back up. It’s never fully empty, but it nonetheless has plenty of space throughout. If RZA would have had his wish, Method Man probably never would have rapped on the song, but it’s like the old Game of Thrones meme says: one does not simply pass up on the chance to be shown up — erm, one does not simply not rap on a track with Biggie. (And make of this what you will, the song is named as an homage to Miles Davis, who simply could not give less of a shit about song title.)
The What has a beat that’s as New York as it gets, by which we mean that you hear pops and it has heavy drums. It’s full of quotables about two great rappers sending their competitors to the ICU and the women each of them has bedded. The chorus of “Fuck the world, don’t ask me for shit, everything you get you gotta work hard for it” rings true whether you’re 21 or 81, but the real highlight is the quoted line at the top of this post. Not only does Biggie hiccup right on cue, but he then makes an analogy where he equates his rhyming ability with natural events. “Excuse me, flows just grow through me, like trees to branches, cliffs to avalanches.” It would be preposterous coming from anyone, but we’ll put on our overthinking hat here for a brief aside. The What samples the song Overnight Sensation by the band… Avalanche. A happy coincidence? With Biggie, never.
We’ll end this post by wishing that you’ll be with us over the long haul, dear reader, and a wonderful (or as wonderful as things get these days) New Year. What year is this exactly? *Looks at calendar* We can’t believe we’re saying this because every year is the same in the age of COVID-19, but we’re already in…the year 2022? The what?
Yeah sorry, Biggie himself would have said that was mad corny.