/  05.21.2022

New York City has planned a planet-sized salute to The Notorious B.I.G. for what would have been his 50th birthday on May 21, 2022. 

America’s largest city rarely engages in such multifaceted grandeur, but in this case, the pomp and circumstance is absolutely apropos. The gravity of The Notorious B.I.G. remains as unflinching on what would’ve been his 50th birthday as it was when he tragically passed 25 years ago.

Here’s what the city lined up: 

In Brooklyn, the Barclays Center will host a video montage celebrating his life and music on the expansive oculus display above the stadium’s entrance. 

The MTA plans to sell 50,000 limited edition metrocards emblazoned with that ubiquitous Barron Claiborne “King Of New York” image of Biggie Smalls rocking a tilted crown which will be exclusively available at three subway stations near Wallace’s Bedford Stuyvesant childhood home: Lafayette Ave., Clinton-Washington Ave. and Atlantic Ave.–Barclays Center. Each card will feature a QR code allowing holders access to an Instagram filter of the rap titan. 

Amazon is even in the mix. The company partnered with nonprofit Beautify Earth movement to debut Biggie Smalls murals created by local artists in each of New York City’s five boroughs. 

Perhaps most impressively, in Manhattan, the iconic Empire State Building will shine in red and white, with an illuminated crown spinning on top, an ode to the undisputed King of New York. 

All of this for a rapper

No. 

All of this for one of the most inspiring and influential figures in American history

All of this for the Ultimate MC.

GRAVITY: READY TO DIE

One of the most revealing Biggie Smalls anecdotes comes courtesy of acclaimed producer Easy Mo Bee. Mo Bee produced seminal offerings for a bevy of platinum selling artists and was fundamental in the creation of Biggie’s 1994 classic debut Ready To Die

He told a story describing a conversation about the title track, which is included in the inset booklet inside Ready To Die’s 25th anniversary reissue. The first verse to the song “Ready To Die” concludes with a jarring look into Biggie’s mindset at the time: “Fuck the world, fuck my Moms and my girl / My life is played out like a jheri curl, I’m ready to die!”

As Mo Bee tells it, once Big left the booth, he asked him if he realized that he had just said “fuck my moms” on wax. Here’s what Biggie said in response: 

“Yeah, Mo, I know. Listen, Mo Bee, I don’t actually mean fuck my Moms, knowhatumsayin’? That’s just how I’m feelin right now. She got this cancer on her breast, I got a baby on the way. I’m gonna try this music shit with Puff, but if it don’t work out, I’m going back to the streets. It’s mad stress right now.” 

The gravity of that time in Biggie’s life wasn’t lost on the Brooklyn native. The straight A student turned street hustler knew his proverbial back was against the wall and breaking big through bars was the only way to remove the weight of the world without turning back to a life of crime. It was go Big or go bust. Nothing in between. And the urgency of that moment reverberates through every syllable delivered in that incomparable, bottom-heavy, nasally baritone voice throughout his culture-shifting debut. 

Death Row Records — home to Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, etc. — were the league leaders back then. Visceral gangsta raps over g-funk samples dominated the charts and the conversation. With Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Nas’ Illmatic, the foundation of the New York rap renaissance had been laid, but the broader cultural energy was coming from the West Coast. So much so that even in the “Intro” to Ready To Die, Snoop Dogg’s “Tha Shiznit”– off of his chart-topping debut Doggystyle — is included in the background. 

Ready To Die hit the earth like a comet through its grounded gangsta narratives and weighty — sometimes shocking — depictions of a kid from a shattered family living the life of an aspiring drug kingpin who then becomes so repulsed with himself that he commits suicide. It’s been described by cultural commentator Cheo Hodari Coker as simultaneously “gangster and political.” 

You can hear that political yet gangster sentiment through bars like, “I know how it feels to wake up fucked up / pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell” (“Everyday Struggle”). Or on “Gimme The Loot” where he spews, “I wouldn’t care if you’re pregnant / Give me the baby rings and the No. 1 Mom pendant” with such vitriol that the word “pregnant” was played in reverse on the original album because the imagery was too powerful for a commercial release. (They say “no women and no children.” Apparently Biggie’s circumstances didn’t include room to be distracted by either.) 

That political yet gangster sentiment permeates through the opening of “Juicy,” Hip Hop’s quintessential Horatio Alger tome about the pot-holed laden journey from rags to riches. 

“Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’,” Biggie says. “To all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustlin’ in front of that called the police on me when I was just tryin’ to make some money to feed my daughter. And all the niggas in the struggle… it’s all good baby baby.”

On “Suicidal Thoughts,” that sentiment reaches its tragic conclusion. “I reach my peak. I can’t speak,” he says gravely. “Call my nigga Chic, tell him that my will is weak. I’m sick of niggas lyin’, I’m sick of bitches hawkin’. Matter of fact, I’m sick of talking [gunshot].” 

Dynamic. Foreboding. Deeply personal yet supremely accessible. Effortlessly captivating. The gravity of Ready To Die ushered in an era of elegant mafioso rap while simultaneously snatching the microphone from the West Coast, bringing the energy back to its birthplace. It pushed culture forward and cemented “The Black Frank White” as the King Of New York, marveling millions worldwide since its release. 

GRAVITY: LIFE AFTER DEATH

One of the most telling Biggie Smalls superlatives is that, despite passing away in 1997, he is still consistently considered one of, if not THE, greatest rapper of all time. Perhaps GOAT conversations are anecdotal in nature, but 25 years later, it’s difficult to find a top rapper list that doesn’t include Christopher Wallace somewhere in the top 10, if not in the top 5, if not No. 1. Ready To Die was in a sense a dark Cinderella story, but his sophomore release, Life After Death, is when those visions of grandeur littered all across “Juicy” came to chart-topping fruition. 

Lead single “Hypnotize” is a rollicking experience in itself. It’s gripping yet celebratory, Scorsese-ready yet light hearted, rooted in similar dark narratives as found on Ready To Die minus the broader circumstances surrounding Christopher Wallace’s actual life. In the video, which is the last video Big was alive to shoot, he’s smiling alongside Puff Daddy. The two are in a speed boat being chased by who-knows-who in helicopters. Later, they’re in a Benz being chased by a gang of who-knows-who on motorcycles. Then, they’re dancing in front of a giant fish tank full of mermaids. It’s the type of excess that defined Clinton-era America yet compelling enough to include lines like “At my arraignment, note to the plaintiff, your daughter’s tied up in a Brooklyn basement” almost as a throwaway story. It’s a smash hit in every sense and, not surprisingly, would become Biggie’s first No. 1 record. 

“Mo Money Mo Problems” was the second single released off of Life After Death. The track is anthemic, designed for the turn-up, and crafted with mass appeal in mind. Sadly, he wasn’t alive to shoot the music video, but the moment where the visual cuts away from Puff Daddy and Mase’s shiny suit party to an interview clip of Biggie talking about the track’s thesis remains solemnly beguiling. “That’s real yo,” he says. “That ain’t exaggerating at all. The more money you make, the more problems you get and jealousy and envy. There’s something there. It comes with the territory, man. It’s just negative energy like my man Puff say.” Then immediately after the clip, that incomparable, bottom-heavy, nasally baritone voice booms “B-I-G-P-O-P-P-A / No info for the D-E-A / Federal agents mad ‘cause I’m flagrant / Tap my cell, and the phone in the basement.” 25 years later and it’s impossible to be anywhere in public when that verse drops and everyone around isn’t quoting it in unison. It’s a smash hit in every sense, and not surprisingly, would become Biggie’s second No. 1 record. 

Life After Death released 16 days after Biggie Smalls was murdered, but the strategic creation of that gargantuan double disc ensured its chart-topping legacy. Along with a Wikileaks worth of reasons why Biggie is arguably the best to ever grasp a mic, his ability to lyrically supersede anyone else appearing on the track — shifting styles to match or manhandle depending on the topic — is part of what separates him from the rest of rap’s aristocracy

B.I.G. always sounded bigger than the average.  

Whether spitting sultry yet salacious raps on “F!*@ You Tonight” or kicking mack-tastic rhymes like “When the Remmy’s in the system / ain’t no telling / will I fuck ‘em, will I diss em” alongside Bay Area Too Short’s super-pimpery, or straight disrespecting Cleveland’s Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony’s seemingly impossible double time flow on the seminal “Notorious Thugs,” Biggie always triumphed by track’s end. He always left the most memorable impression. 

By showcasing his superior skill set rocking with artists from the West Coast, the Midwest, the South, the East Coast — bum-rushing their arena each time — Life After Death subsequently contained a song with guaranteed radio appeal in every region in the country, an innovative approach at the time. Diddy, of course, laid out the album’s strategy, but Biggie was otherworldly enough to pull it off in spectacular fashion. 

Christopher Wallace took The Notorious B.I.G. show straight to each region, rocking with their best, spreading his lyrical exercise from their angle, directly garnering local respect. When he left us in 1997, we all felt it directly because he spoke to all of us in our own language alongside mavens from our own backyards. The gravity of Life After Death pulled in fans from all corners of America through No. 1 hit records and album cuts targeting each region, and not surprisingly, it became Biggie Smalls’ first No. 1 album. 

GRAVITY: BIGGIE’S BILLION DOLLAR CONTEMPORARIES

One of the most looming questions about what The Notorious B.I.G. is: What might his life had been like had he not been murdered on March 9, 1997? It’s a hypothetical that’s impossible to answer, but one that easily comes to the forefront of the mind because of the way Biggie dominated the space at that time. 

In a conversation with MTV News in 1998, JAY-Z talked about how Biggie’s passing affected him personally and how the tragedy changed the direction of his second album In My Lifetime Vol. 1. Biggie appeared on Hov’s debut album, Reasonable Doubt, on the track “Brooklyn’s Finest.” Hov returned the favor, appealing as a guest on Life After Death’s “I Love The Dough.” Here’s how Hov described the loss he felt: 

“I don’t have anyone to bounce off of, you understand?” Hov said. “We bounced off each other like, ‘Oh that was crazy; I gotta make something crazier.’ When you don’t have that, you don’t have that gauge. It’s just hard to adjust; you have to find other ways to motivate yourself… A lot of different songs were influenced by what was happening. ‘City Is Mine,’ the first verse, you could just hear it. I think two hooks on there came from songs that he had previously recorded…”

Nas and Biggie experienced somewhat of a cold war during that era. “Kick In The Door” (off of Life After Death) was a competitive shot at the Queens lyricist. Illmatic is one of hip hop’s most important offerings and debuted five months prior to Ready To Die. During a conversation with DJ Khaled on his We The Best show on Beats 1, Nas talked about the time he and Biggie attempted to record the remix to “Gimme The Loot.” Here’s how Nas described what happened: 

“I know he had tried to get me on Ready to Die and, it never happened, so he wanted to do the ‘Gimme the Loot (Remix)’, so we was in [the studio] to do [the song]. ‘Cause Ready to Die had already come out and was already killing everything and so we was in there trying to do that. He put up the beat and I started writing, but then he started smoking this shit. He had some of that chocolate and uh, he lit some of that up… so we kinda, like, lit and I was like, ‘I ain’t got nothing.’ I was sayin’ ‘This is over today… I knew it was a wrap for me that night and, you know, he went on and did [‘Young G’s’] without me… after witnessing that genius, I just went home.”

Snoop Dogg was so omnipresent in that era that, not only was “Tha Shiznit” included in the intro to Ready To Die, Biggie also mentioned him at the beginning of Life After Death’s “Somebody’s Gotta To Die.” The song opens with “I’m sitting in the crib dreaming about Lear jets and coupes, the way Salt ‘Shoops’ and how to sell records like Snoop.” 

In a conversation with Fatman Scoop on Instagram, Snoop recalled the moment Biggie played “Somebody’s Gotta Die” for him before it was released commercially. The conversation takes place in the aftermath of the death of Tupac Shakur — Biggie’s longtime friend turned rival. Here’s what Snoop said: 

“They in there smoking some bullshit ass weed and I come in there with that thang that killed John Wayne, you know what I mean? I pull my weed out and change the temperature of the room. So Biggie’s at the board and he’s like, ‘Hey Snoop, I want you to hear this shit. The motherfucker pressed play… It was like him letting me know in front of all his homeboys, ‘Nigga I fuck with you, I love you and I ain’t gon’ never have a problem with you. So going forward me and his situation, it never was a situation to begin with, but we had that understanding that, that’s all in the game of war. You win some, you lose some.”

JAY-Z. Nas. Snoop. Three brilliant creators who’ve become household names, certified superstars, and purveyors of the future of Black excellence. Puff Daddy not only introduced the world to The Notorious B.I.G., but also a generation of what Black excellence in business could be, should be, and now is. 

Biggie was at the epicenter of the hip hop universe and each planetary contemporary in his orbit shot off to billion dollar legacies. Toss in Wu-Tang Clan and Dr. Dre and it’s impossible to think that the gravitational force that each of them all agreed upon wouldn’t have reached similar astronomical levels had he not been tragically murdered in 1997.

But that’s neither here nor there. In art, hypothesizing is an indelible way to distract from the present. And presently, despite leaving the world 25 years ago, Biggie Smalls remains one of the most unifying forces in American culture. The young man who grew up “fat, Black, and ugly as ever” revealed so much of himself in such an impactful manner, inspiring millions worldwide that, from atop the Empire State Building to the bottom of all of our hearts, the gravity of the Christopher Wallace legacy is omnipotent, affecting each of us forever.

Can you imagine a world without The Notorious B.I.G?

Fortunately for all of us, we don’t have to. 

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