Saying The Notorious B.I.G. had a story to tell feels like a drastic understatement because he seemingly had hundreds.
With an impeccable command of the English language, conversational flow and a director’s eye for detail, Biggie could turn even the most casual of conversations into a revelatory look at the nature of human existence. Big was The Godfather meets Boyz N the Hood.
On a song like “Warning,” he could be plotting preventative measures against would-be robbers, while on “Niggas Bleed,” he could color a lowkey street legend in everyday detail. These gifts, combined with a malleable flow and an ear for hits, helped make The Notorious B.I.G. one of the greatest rappers ever in his brief, but indelible career.
Today, to celebrate what would have been Christopher Wallace’s 49th birthday, REVOLT takes a look at 11 verses that prove Big was hip hop’s greatest storyteller. Check out the list below.
1. “Niggas Bleed” (Verse 2)
As a storyteller, Biggie’s best attribute was his ability to blend hyper-specific bits of information with conversational ease. He uses that gift to its fullest effect on “Niggas Bleed” verse two, where he renders the life story of a career criminal named Arizona Ron in colorful detail. It’s all casual enough to be a barbershop conversation, but over the course of just 20 bars, Big lays out everything from Ron’s earlier crimes to his favorite music as he outlines the ethos of someone with “Nothing to lose” — a phrase tattooed around Ron’s gun wounds — and “Everything to gain.” Ron loving the Isley Brothers isn’t as important to the story as him murdering the brother of his baby’s mother, but Big spares no details. The granular elements help Biggie create a unique character who is as much a mythic street figure as he is just a guy from round the way.
2. “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” (Verse 3)
Big simulates a conversation about a dead man to make a trenchant point about the way death can, ironically enough, make you immortal. In the convo, Big and his friends remember Dark Skin Jermaine, a local dude who was killed over two kilos of cocaine. He struggles to remember the man’s name, but, through short, choppy sentences filled with spurts of details about the character, you can practically feel the memories rush into Biggie’s head. First he remembers the champagne-colored Range Rover, then he remembers the Gucci glasses and thinking he might have been part of Big Daddy Kane’s crew before ultimately recalling his demise. The story’s only 12 bars, but with his vivid details and a conversational dynamic, he covers a lot of ground.
3. “Gimme the Loot” (Verse 1)
A Ready to Die standout, the first verse of “Gimme the Loot” succeeds by creating two distinct personalities and laying out robbery logistics with painterly strokes. Big’s plotting robberies with a younger friend who’s got a higher-pitched voice and a child-like enthusiasm for a potential homicide. On the song, Biggie and his mans are as ruthless as they are hilarious, and Biggie’s details bring an immediacy to their threats. At one point, Big demands that a mother gives up her “No. 1 Mom” pendant and describes the welts a victim would have on their neck after getting their chain snatched. You can practically see Big going on a robbing rampage on Fulton Street.
4. “Warning” (Verse 2)
In the second verse of “Warning,” a friend explains how the rolexes, the fact that he copped his mom a crib and more made Biggie a target of robbers. Blending humor with menace, Big responds with a colorful description of a ghetto fortress with gun powder-eating rottweilers, Calicos and a Beretta to handle any and all enemies. The track begins with a warning for Big, but by the end, you’ve got the feeling that it’s the would-be robbers who should be worried.
5. “I Got a Story to Tell” (Verse 1)
For this one, Biggie tells the story of a time he hooked up with a lady who was seeing a New York Knicks player. It starts out as a typical love-making session, as Big’s got 112 blaring on the speakers, and they roll up some weed and kick it. Then, the player — who Diddy himself has confirmed to be Anthony Mason — returns and Big turns the whole situation into a robbery. The awkwardness of the situation creates a lot of suspense and the surprise ending adds a layer of humor to the story. Biggie’s known for telling some somber stories, but this one shows that, in general, he could also be very funny.
6. “Who Shot Ya?” (Verse 1)
On the first verse of “Who Shot Ya?” Big stalks his prey, and his recounting is extra cinematic: “It’s on, nigga, fuck all that bickerin’ beef/I can hear sweat tricklin’ down your cheek/Your heartbeat sound like Sasquatch feet/Thunderin’, shakin’ the concrete.” It’s a striking image that uses phrasing rappers hadn’t up to that point, showcasing just the sort of technique that made Big a legend.
7. “Things Done Changed” (Verse 1)
Plenty of ink has been spilt on the state of the ghetto before and after the introduction of crack cocaine, but no journalist could bring the immediacy that The Notorious B.I.G. brings on “Things Done Changed,” a track that breaks down the decaying community. Spitting over a sinister beat in verse one, Big explains how barbecues, good vibes and occasional fist fights turned into shootouts and dice games in project hallways. With vivid details and a ton of frankness, the verse is a perfect composite “before and after” for hoods everywhere.
8. “Big Poppa” (Verse 2)
“Big Poppa” was an obvious choice for a Ready to Die single, but it’s got all the flourishes of a well-written story. In verse two of the song, Big adopts a smooth-talking persona that’s closer to James Bond than any street-level drug dealer as he maps out a plan to lay up with a baddie. With a smooth Isley Brothers sample, his customary, conversational flow and self-aware wit, Big lays his mack down in a major way, adding another dimension to a character who, up to that point in the album, was way more concerned with robbing jewelry than stealing hearts.
9. “Niggas Bleed” (Verse 1)
“Niggas Bleed” is a tour de force of storytelling. In the first verse, Big begins the verse from the perspective of his own employer, who lays out the icy logistics of a drug deal, which, of course, could go wrong on multiple levels and lead to fatal consequences. Biggie speaks on those consequences with a vivid imagination, conjuring images of bombs in gas tanks, hit-men disguised as women and guns that can “blow the wall out.”
10. “Suicidal Thoughts”
“Suicidal Thoughts” is about as dark as it gets, as it’s basically the opposite of Logic’s “1-800-273-8255.” Through blunt honesty, Big illuminates the thought process of someone who’s ready to end it all. For the track, Big frankly admits his own inadequacy with a glass-half-empty attitude permeating the whole thing: “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell/ ‘Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell.” The song is somber, but the casual way Big notes his character flaws gives a 3D portrait of a man who’s been pushed over the edge.
11. “Ready to Die” (Verse 2)
The title song for Ready to Die sees an exasperated Biggie that shows how depraved his life circumstances have made him. His second verse lays out the pocketbook snatching and other street exploits that evolved him into the formidable drug dealer he eventually became. An aura of desperation, his frantic vocal inflection and pinpoint details make “Ready to Die” a classic.