Storytelling and Rap Twenty Years Later: On The Notorious B.I.G.'s Impact on Hip Hop
By Jaylin Paschal
This day, twenty years ago, The Notorious B.I.G. was murdered at twenty-four in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles.
It would be an understatement to say that Biggie, arguably the greatest rapper of all time, has had a lasting impact on Hip Hop as a genre and a culture. He changed the way we both write and listen to music. Nothing has been the same since his reign, and nothing has been the same since his fall. Even as I was born exactly a year and one week after his murder, he's influenced my life immeasurably. Almost all of my understanding of Hip Hop is against a Biggie Smalls background. Any rapper is compared to him, unfairly. Any album, especially any debut album, goes against Ready to Die. He is my frame of reference and I never experienced the world with him in it. I can only imagine. His presence was so ethereal and so massive, Nas told Zane Lowe that he thought Biggie’s death marked “the end of rap.”
As a writer, I have no choice but to admire Biggie. He was a master of language, wielding words and rhymes to captivate listeners--no surprise that one of his biggest hits is titled "Hypnotize." He understood that rap isn't simply about the literal meaning of the way words are defined, but also about the implied meaning of connotation and the way words sound. Think of "Who Shot Ya," and consider the delivery. It's much more about the aggression than the lyrics; more about how he asks "Who shot ya?" than the fact that he asked. His raps were as reliant on onomatopoeic qualities and social context as they were on rhyme scheme and traditional lyricism.
But his most powerful writing tool was his storytelling; the way you could visualize damn near every verse he ever wrote. I've studied novelists who don't do as good a job with imagery and plot in hundreds of pages as Biggie did with sixteen bars. "Warning," for example, is a movie, from the first seconds of pager beeps to the last seconds of gunshots. "Juicy" vividly illustrates the transition from a humble adolescence to Hip Hop superstardom. "Ten Crack Commandments" uses narrative techniques by providing instructions, explanations and then examples to get a vital point across about street survival. Even the disgusting, disturbing "Dead Wrong," with Eminem is undeniably brilliant in it's visualization. And the addition of the skits and sound effects on many of his tracks only adds to the storytelling aspect of his work.
Today, he remains the greatest storyteller in Hip Hop history, alongside the likes of Slick Rick.
He's most likely in your Top Five's Top Five, if somehow he's not in your own. His influence as a "great" trickles down to contemporary Hip Hop, and likely will until the death of the genre. Today, storytelling is an integral part of rap. From tracks like Speaker Knockerz's "Rico's Story" and to Drake explaining how he caught his 5"2' mother trying to leave home, it's become a key element of every track and every album. Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City is one epic tale. Since Biggie, plots have mattered more. Transitioning from one thought to the next has become what critics look for, rather than being blown away by punchline after punchline (despite the excitement that style can bring). And you can't really listen to much of anyone or anything without hearing a Biggie sample or reference. And just about everyone wanting to claim the throne knows they have to go through him. Some don't even try, and simply aim to be listed alongside him, re: Lil Wayne's "Mr. Carter" lyric "And next time you mention Pac, Biggie,/ And Jay-Z/ Don't forget Weezy/ Baby!" Even little suburban white kids who go by names like "Matty B Raps" go around remixing "Juicy" on their scooters.
And if all of this is not evidence enough to how meaningful Christopher Wallace has been to Hip Hop, simply consider how the world stops every March 9th to remember him. Radio stations, streaming services, rappers, singers, writers, New Yorkers, music lovers, all of us. The wound is still open; the pain still fresh; the murder still unresolved. And for those of us, like me, who are too young to recount the loss, it exists as some catastrophe we try to grapple with the way we grapple with all cultural travesties--carefully.