Slugs Go Touchie Touchie
of Notorious B.I.G. –ne Biggie Smalls-‘s 1994 album, Ready To Die,
shows the emcee (or someone who looks just like him) as a toddler, sitting Indian-style in his cinched, plastic diaper, and
gripping his right ankle with his left hand. He gazes quizzically at the camera with big, droopy eyes, his chubby, simpering
face overshadowed by a big fluffy Afro-puff. The inside flap reveals a close-up of the emcee’s adult face (he was twenty-one
when the album dropped), his eyes wide and his lips pursed. Although the adult B.I.G. looks more scared than menacing, the
low, tilted camera angle (which only captures his right eye and a small slit of his left) seems calculated to make him look
definitely a connective tissue that ties the images of the child and adult Biggie to the cruel fatalism of the title Ready to Die, it’s something that’s difficult to describe in words. In fact, Biggie telegraphs the
message of Ready to Die in feelings, rather than concrete terms: the kid’s
expression conveys a mixture of sadness, toughness, and fragility that ossifies into something cold and hard in the face of
this album is about inventing a persona and inhabiting it. Yet, it also goes deeper: the gangsta myth is as much a filter
through which Biggie narrates the events of his life, as it is a romance that combines the emcee’s obsessions with death,
sex, and violence. We’re listening to the story of a life, and at the same time, we’re descending deeper and deeper
into Biggie’s personal heart of darkness.
it real is all about convincing your audience that you’re speaking honestly about your experience, and about who you
are. So if you’re rapping about strangling a bitch by her earrings and bangles during a 711 heist, then damnit, we’d
better hear the rip of cartilage, and the clank of sterling against glass, as she crumples against the cash register. We’d
also better believe you’re mean enough, and desperate enough to do it.
who originally turned realness into art was Ice Cube, because for him, rapping was a way of telling stories with such colorful
details (the project house where he sat on a teetery couch and put his Nikes on a coffee table, the momma lighting up a “sess”
and grousing ‘cause her county check wasn’t right, the bitch slinking from her bedroom with a 12 gauge Mossberg
and a bag of ya-yo), and in a tone so enduringly pissed-off, that you remembered what every song was about. Flowery metaphors
and verbal adornments are ancillary, but not a necessary element for a rapper to achieve this level of realness: It’s
about speaking with conviction, and making your words stick.
on Ice Cube’s heels, Biggie Smalls kicked “the real” up to the level of melodrama: in his raps he painted
scenes that were as emotionally-gripping, and unexpectedly poignant, as they were suffused with sex and blood. Moreover, he
rendered his rhymes as visceral punches, to make the lyrics really lodge themselves in motherfuckers’ brains. Fans remember
the line about Biggie’s honey getting on the Amtrak and “sticking the crack in the crack of her ass” in
the song “Everyday Struggle,” not because it’s a beautiful piece of poetry, but because it’s a vivid
shard of truth. It probably really happened.
more important, even, than the veracity of a rapper’s tale, is his ability to bring it to life by observing and recording
details, intensely limning characters, and creating scenes that are rich enough, and provide enough material for listeners
to draw their own conclusions. Biggie creates this kind of poetical, fly-on-the-wall account in the first verse of his song
“Things Done Changed” (the opening track on Ready to Die), which begins
with an idyllic portrait of the emcee’s childhood, coming up in the gritty Brooklyn borough of Bedford-Stuyvesant: “Remember back in the days, when niggaz had waves/Gazelle shades, and corn braids/Pitchin
pennies, honies had the high top jellies/Shootin skelly, motherfuckers was all friendly/Loungin at the barbeques, drinkin
brews with the neighborhood crews, hangin on the avenues.”
memories of high top jelly shoes, corn braids, and pitchin pennies congeal to form a space of innocence –a kind of prettified
specter of 70’s-era Brooklyn.
In his thumbnail sketch of the neighborhood, B.I.G. engenders a kind of nostalgia that’s sad rather than cloying, because
you get the sense, listening, that you’ve entered a memory that’s already fizzled out: Things done changed, after
all. But Biggie hasn’t hit that point in the story, yet: first, he tries to elicit as many details as possible, so he
can really wrap your mind around this fantasy of a lost era.
the same cinematic technique that David Lynch would use to create an eerily pristine setting like Lumberton or Twin Peaks
–a surface too slick and beautiful not to be concealing a darker, less-pretty
underside- Biggie massages the memory for long enough to disorient his listeners in the next line, when he precipitously
knocks us back into the present: “Turn your pagers, to nineteen ninety three/
Niggaz is gettin smoked G, believe me/ Talk slick, you get your neck slit quick/ Cause real street niggaz ain't havin that
shit.” All of a sudden we’re jerked forward fifteen years, and
Bedford-Stuyvesant has transformed into a gangster underworld of fast drug deals, neck-slitting, and urban mafiosos packing
tech 9s. It’s a lurch, not only in the environment, but in the emcee’s consciousness.
language of melodrama, Biggie’s raps are sapped in emotional terms, and through his emotions, Biggie reaches for a higher
register of expression than human language allows. What is true, emotionally, isn’t always correct, politically, which
is why it’s permissible for Biggie to say lines like “When the time is
right, the wine is right, I treat you right/You talk slick, I beat you right” in
“Me and My Bitch,” and still be regarded as a sympathetic character. In fact, Biggie’s raps about his “bitch”
are among his most romantic songs, because he establishes a sense of connection between two humans that seems stronger than
it would be in a more politically safe, but less earnest love song. Derisive terms like “bitch” actually make
the rap sound more honest, because they show that Biggie isn’t bothering to stray from who he is, as a character.
patterns of “Me and My Bitch” sound simple and blue, as though Biggie were trying to create dissonance between
the gloomy romance of the track, and the salty lyrics. What results is a love song that’s also a guilt song, and, ultimately,
is less about memorializing a woman, than about articulating the whole emotional conflict that love produces within the rapper.
This tangle of emotions is what makes “Me and My Bitch” one of the edgiest songs in hip hop: sex, violence, and
desire all loop into each other, such that, by some weird alchemy, the emcee is able to convince his audience that a beating
is as much a part of the romance as a moonlit night.
In the end
of “Me and My Bitch” the bitch dies, of course, taking a stray bullet that was actually destined for her man.
Thus, Biggie cements her place in the pantheon of melodrama: a tragic, star-crossed lover who proves her virtue by suffering.
Yet, even though the rapper harks back to classical conceptions of romance, he approaches them with his own ambivalence, and
his own personality.
was the romance of Biggie Smalls –or, more accurately, the primal force that drove his raps. In “Suicidal Thoughts”
–the track with which he closes Ready To Die- B.I.G. raps: “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell/ ‘Cause I’m a piece o’ shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’
tell/ It don’t make sense going to heaven with the goodie-goodies, dressed in white/ I like black tims, and black hoodies/
God’ll ‘probly have me on some real strict shit/No sleeping all day, no getting my dick licked/ Hangin’
with the goody-goodies, lounging in paradise/ Fuck that shit, I wanna tote guns and shoot dice.”
most salient in this verse is the stark contrast of black and white –used as stand-in terms for “good” and
“evil”, though it’s not clear which stands for what- that becomes a frame for Biggie to talk about death.
He rejects the lily-whiteness of popular conceptions of heaven, preferring, instead, a kind of fade-into-blackness that has
been, effectively, the thrust of his life. The gangsta underworld that Biggie describes in his rhymes –the space in
which he works, lives, and loves- is always-already perilously close to death. Essentially, it’s what “realness”
boils down to, in gangsta rap: the thread that connects your particular pains to a more all-encompassing, universal darkness.
fatalism isn’t always bleak, or menacing, or sad: the emcee saw the potential for death to be sexy, and he milked it
for all it was worth. In Biggie Smalls’ last freestyle –recorded on the Wake Up Show with DJs Sway and Tech, months
before the emcee’s untimely death- he describes murder as a kind of art, that’s dark and foreboding, but also
I smoke back words and dutchies, you can’t touch me
Try to rush me, slugs go touchie touchie
You’re bleeding lovely, with your spirit above me
Or beneath me, your whole life you live sleepy
Now you rest eternally sleepy, you burn when you creep me
Rest where the worms and the weak be…
Niggas in my faction don’t like asking questions
Strictly gun-testing, coke measuring…
With my sycamore style: More sicker than yours
Four-four and fifty-four drawers
That’s my epaulette, stares my lair
Yes my dear, shit’s official, only the feds I fear
Here’s a tissue, stop your blood-clot crying
The kids, the dog, everybody dying
No lying, so don’t you get suspicious
I’m Big Dangerous, you’re just a little vicious…
Hold ya’all breath, I told ya’all
Death controls ya’all, B.I.G. don’t fold ya’all
I spit phrases that’ll thrill you
You’re nobody ‘til somebody kills you.
difficult to understand the special kind of intelligence that manifests in the rhymes of Biggie Smalls. You have to imagine
yourself in a studio with him, watching as he weaves words into black brambles that scribble Gothic patterns on the windows.
It’s a level of profundity that sidesteps the literal, because you feel it before you see it: distorted meanings, light
in darkness, taboo-images of blood and gore that the emcee renders so personal, they verge on being sexual. Rhyming is all
about taking your thoughts in directions that nobody else can.
metaphors are queerly and starkly elegant, and at the same time, unapologetically ugly: bleed
lovely. For this rapper, death is a pursed lip, sucking smoke from a dutchie: a long kiss goodnight.
If the thrust
of hip hop is toward a black essence, then Biggie Smalls is, perhaps, the greatest rapper of all time, because he personifies
blackness in its moral, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. You could argue, perhaps, that the race implications of “black”
are always attendant to the character of Biggie Smalls –that, as a character, he becomes a hyperbolic representation
of the criminal, sexual, and moral elements that are commonly ascribed to black men.
In the best
poetry of Biggie Smalls, those elements –criminality, disenfranchisement, sex, and death- are all in a piece, and yet,
even as he integrates them, Biggie eclipses them. Perhaps Biggie’s perennial death wish is mostly about his attachment
to the marginal, and his desire to always be fully within, but also a little outside of the roles that are cultivated for
him. While meanings often tangle or loop into each other in his poetry, it’s clear that he always defined his identity
negatively: Black meant not only “dark”, but “peripheral.” If there was one thing Biggie knew for
sure, it was that the world wasn’t ready to embrace him, so he rejoined: “fuck it, then, I’m ready to die.”