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The Notorious B.I.G: Hip Hop’s immortal phoenix

Today, we celebrate a king entering a new castle, entering the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to join others like him who transcend time, age, and genre.

Biggie Smalls Barron Claiborne

The first commercial release from an artist(s) must be at least 25 years old before they are considered eligible for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination. This substantial amount of time, nearly three decades, puts in perspective how the nominating committee cannot separate lasting longevity from cultural influence and artistic excellence when selecting the next class of immortal legends to be inducted within the prestigious hall.

Twenty-five years ago, in August of 1994, hip hop reached the legal drinking age of 21, a year younger than Christopher Wallace, who, on Sept. 13, under the mafioso moniker The Notorious B.I.G., released his debut album, Ready To Die, at 22. Ready To Die would be the first full-length album to come out on Bad Boy Records, the label founded by former Uptown Records A&R, 24-year-old Sean “Puffy” Combs.

The age hip hop was as a genre and culture felt true to the generation of the artists within it. At 21, you’re impressionable, looking for yourself through your surroundings. This is why neighborhood superstars had such an impact in the ‘90s and the Bad Boy era. At that age, you want the nice car, the nice girls, the money… The arrival of Puffy and Biggie came when hip hop was looking for a role model who wasn’t the buttoned-up nice guy. It wanted someone flossy, who wasn’t at the party but was the party.

Bad Boy exemplified being the center of attention, ruling the world that surrounded you. That’s why “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” worked so well as a marketing campaign, because being that young, you don’t want to stop. You want to continue living in the spotlight, underneath the strobes, on the dance floor. They were selling to an audience who was ready to live and be one with the music.

It’s easy to forget how young the culture, rapper, and executive were when the trifecta came together and created a chain reaction felt from Brooklyn, New York to Bankhead, Georgia, and throughout the world. I like to think Bad Boy Records is to 90s hip hop what Apple was to personal computers in the 1970s. Puffy had a gift for distorting reality as Steve Jobs, and then there was B.I.G., who did with storytelling what Steve Wozniak could do with electronic engineering. Both twosomes exemplify a dreamer and prodigy paired together at the center of an exploding cultural phenomenon.

Looking back on Ready To Die and the age of exuberance born from the Bad Boy lifestyle, The Notorious B.I.G. made an album that embodied what poet Lenore Kandel expressed when she wrote, “I will not wither in the blaze of time, but prove myself a phoenix.” You see, time is the enemy of all hip hop artists. Every ticking second decays what was once fresh, causing production and punchlines to become dull and dated at the speed at which milk spoils. It’s arduous enough to be of the moment, but the real challenge, the one that causes an artist of elite esteem the most pressure and stress, is being everlasting.

In Greek Mythology, a phoenix undergoes a cycle of self-immolation every 500 years to be reborn greater than before. I view the phoenix as a transformative symbol representing the elevation achieved by embracing the ugly, uncomfortable fire that burns from within. You must consume yourself in your own flame, to paraphrase German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, if you wish to become anew. Through Ready To Die, the Brooklyn-born emcee was able to surround hip hop in gasoline and strike the match that would consume us all in his furnace. A heat that was both new and familiar, ugly and uncomfortable, true-to-life yet as cinematic as any work of fiction viewed on big screens.

Although his tenure as a living artist in hip hop was cut short at the age of 24, with only two albums, Biggie Smalls was able to transcend the living, never withering away, because he was all things to all people, existing within all of us by way of his universal stories of conquest and consequence, beautiful lies and ugly truths, and the honest outlook on what made those late Ronald Regan 80s and early Bill Clinton 90s a time worth documenting for a Black man in-between dreams and nightmares. Doing so with a comedian wit, a king’s composure, a warrior’s disposition, and a casanova’s charm.

Biggie, perhaps more than any other rapper, through his suave honesty, allows you to live in this never-ending party and celebration of self. You walk in Biggie’s Goliath shoes, kicking down the doors, stepping on adversaries, running from the danger that’s near and far. In contrast, the weight of his reality creates a soundtrack to battling sorrow. He captures sorrow in an everlasting way because sorrow is another universal truth. You can define your life against your sorrow, which Biggie captures in his music, but it is a vehicle to understanding your life up against happiness. Make no mistake, the listener does not find themselves devoured by their sorrow. Nor do they think Biggie’s life is a glorified path in America — he is only a reflection of how one man’s life is enough to make larger-than-life, monumental art.

Biggie was ready to be done with a lifestyle imposed upon him by an unforgiving America. Choosing the album titles Ready To Die and Life After Death showed he foresaw the ability to change, but change does not come without letting somethings go. Though Biggie lost his corporeal life, he never lost his spirit. The reason we are still writing and thinking about Biggie in 2020 is because he wasn’t larger-than-life, he happened to figure out how to contain and dispense the entire world. We never thought he would slip and fall. We never anticipated his demise. He was too cool. He was unbreakable. Biggie stands tall in death, even at his darkest on wax. His composition keeps him alive, as the phoenix is a majestic being, even as it’s caught ablaze.

Hip hop inspires confidence, but Biggie inspires endlessness. He boosts unstoppable energy. He carried the weight, but really, he threw it around as his plaything. The crown was not heavy upon his head; it was a tickle. Today, we celebrate a king entering a new castle, entering the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to join others like him who transcend time, age, and genre. May this milestone reminds hip hop that we witnessed a great artist who, in a short life, contributed two masterpieces, and 25 years later, the art he gave has granted him entrance into a museum where he’ll continue to be an everlasting example of excellence.

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