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Rap royalty in 2020 is far more a seesawing subjectivity than it is a finite objectivity.
The fundamental considerations once applied to such status — chart-topping hits, airwave domination, and irrefutable rap talent, to name a few — seem somewhat obsolete when shaped up beside wavering internet popularity, arbitrary industry co-signs and trending topic spectacles of the contemporary hip hop ecosystem. The King of New York crown, however, is still held to qualifiable standards.
Is it momentous-to-monumental stardom like that of the Bronx’s Cardi B? Does it call for total domination of a particular sound movement like the late Pop Smoke? Or, is it symbolic of tenure, critical acclaim, homage and exceptionality like JAY-Z? These requisites are still up for debate. But, the caliber can at least be measured by one household name who has preceded the King of New York reputation for over two decades: Christopher George Latore Wallace a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G., who creditably conquered these benchmarks, and then some.
Forever canonized in New York’s cultural bedrock, Biggie’s organic climb to worldwide recognition, and now remembrance, is still one of the most compelling case studies of hip hop to date. His squalid Bed-Stuy hood of Brooklyn, New York reified his glaringly bleak, yet brilliantly masterful rap storytelling from as young as 17 years old. Biggie lived and lyricized stray bullet baby deaths, dope fiend gutters, crooked cop stickups, and slummed out playgrounds where most of his peers could only hope to survive.
Matched with this unassailable storytelling gift, sweatless flow on the mic and distinctively gruff baritone, Big was the fast-growing terror that none of his rap peers nor predecessors saw coming. The March 1992 publication of The Source magazine did, though, and properly magnify his artistry in its Unsigned Hype column for the rest of New York’s rap assemblage to see. “All four of his jams were basically a freestyle exhibition,” The Source commended of his first untitled demo tape, which prompted his Unsigned Hype spotlight. “Obviously, to come out as an MC takes a lot more than hype rhymes, but rhyme skills are the main ingredient to true success in hip hop, and when it comes to those, B-I-G’s got plenty.”
From this visibility, Big’s reign proliferated into several music industry purviews. His Big Apple kingship was snowballing beneath him and becoming even more macroscopic among top music executive circles. His short-lived stint at Uptown Records quickly transformed into an inaugural and imprinted presence at Sean “Diddy” Combs’ then-newly-developed Bad Boy Records in 1993. It was only right, seeing as the former Uptown A&R had already invested sheer faith in this promisingly talented 21-year-old as rap’s next “B.I.G.” thing.
Big’s Bad Boy entryway amplified his demand in the urban music space’s feature artist pool too, another sign of his imminent rap domination. From Mary J. Blige to Michael Jackson, a Biggie verse was practically synonymous with a certified hit even if the track was already blasting up the charts. Craig Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear (Remix)” and Total’s “Can’t You See” are still among two of Biggie’s best guest spots of all time, and during this era, solidified his position as a powerhouse lyricist. Hence, when the time came to unleash his now six-time platinum debut album, Ready To Die, the acclaim was already pending in the drafts of music critic reviews before the project even dropped.
The three main singles of the album— “Juicy,” “Big Poppa” and “One More Chance”— notched multiple placements on Billboard charts, most dominantly the Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks. In its entirety, Ready To Die was likened to Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, a solo project exalted as one of the defining hip hop albums in the ‘90s artistic zeitgeist. What took some of his rap ancestors up to a decade to accomplish, Big roared through in roughly 24 months. This journey also included his spearheading and mentoring of hip hop’s hardcore spitters Junior M.A.F.I.A. Consequently, the success of the group levitated the solo career of trailblazing rap icon Lil Kim. Big’s allegiance from his peers and community became so widespread that he even gained unanimous support as commander-in-chief in the East Coast vs. West Coast rap warfare, which devastatingly ended in the deaths of himself and the West Coast’s indubitable leader Tupac.
Between Big’s abundance of critically acclaimed awards and nominations — including four Grammy nods — and fructifying worldwide expansion, he became the imperial ruler of not only rap’s capital, but the entire East Coast’s hip hop renaissance. That lionization engraved an array of gems into his crown and took on several honorable forms: The savior of East Coast hip hop, as designated by AllMusic; the greatest rapper who ever lived, as decided by Rolling Stone; and the No. 1 greatest rapper of all time, as established by Billboard. His second studio album, Life After Death (released posthumously), hit diamond status. Twenty three years after his murder, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A drive through Brooklyn easily turns into an outdoor Notorious B.I.G. museum tour, blanketed with murals and artwork featuring iterations of his face, lyrics and other likenesses. All of these distinctions are encompassed as a definitive blueprint of a card-carrying king’s reign to be followed by the generations of rap after him.
To boot, Big’s competition among his territory was virtually nonexistent, barring Pac, the one coequal on the opposite end of his New York kingdom worthy enough to challenge him. As King of New York, Big moved with the respect, skill, following, material success, consistency, appeal and, ultimately, the authority to put up on the chess board. The new class of crown contenders and their reach for the throne collectively pale in comparison — be it a facetious declaration like that of Kendrick Lamar on “Control;” a democratic decision like that which hails Pop Smoke; or an impudent self-proclamation like Tekashi 6ix9ine’s. As of late, the debate of who the crown belongs to and the criterion for such recognition is cracking headlines — fandom wars and recent rap beefs. On the other hand, an overwhelming majority of votes still appear to lie with JAY-Z and Diddy, hip hop’s chief hyphenates among Big’s rap peers. But, their pivots to other objectives in the business and philanthropic spaces sometimes costs their removal from contemporary conversations and considerations.
Needless to say, the exclusion of two leading hip hop names shouldn’t encourage loose usage of the title or a lowering of the bar for someone like 6ix9ine to jump above either. The next king may not have to churn out a diamond-certified album after six months of writer’s block or wipe out a clan of his rap nemeses in two verses. To the possible disgruntlement of hip hop heads in Biggie’s era, the crown just might adjust itself to modern times and factor in internet infamy and sweeping streaming numbers along with other nuances of millennial culture. There was, after all, never a handbook to complete nor a stage to walk across to earn the crown. There isn’t even an amount of votes on a poll over who would determinately achieve the title.
But, the one certain touchstone for whoever is worthy enough to claw for it is that she or he will have B.I.G. shoes to fill.