Monday, November 28, 2016

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 6: Notorious B.I.G (and 2Pac)

Eh, fair play.

As noted way back in this series (as measured by time; the link is Volume 1; production slow), I kept current on rap (going with that over “hip hop” per a distinction heard made in this (awesome) mixtape (also, more)) in a vague sort of way, but without mucking around so much in the innards. That had a lot to do with why I knew about rap’s greatest all-time beef – 2Pac vs. Notorious B.I.G - while really knowing nothing at all about it. Still, I picked up B.I.G’s Ready to Die barely thinking about it, and, because I was going to review that, I figured that made sense of catching up (going with) The Beef.

Like most…going with white people here, even if that’s a little broad, the whole thing felt like a waste to me. Two talented dudes shot dead months apart for nothing more than talking shit about one another sounds plenty dumb; with a better appreciation of both artists’ bodies of work, it feels even more pointless. After putting in a little research on it (won’t lie; very little research), I picked up the time-lime, and learned a (weird) thing or twenty along the way – e.g. that Tupac’s Black Panther mom, Afeni Shakur, had her bail money paid in part by Leonard Bernstein and Jane Fonda, or that Tupac picked up Tony Danza as a pen pal while in prison.

As for the details, the most earnestly thorough (mildly typo-ridden) account I’ve so far read went tipped The Beef in 2Pac’s favor, and on the fairly sound metric of units moved and posthumous reputation. (It also puts the blame for 2Pac’s death on Suge Knight, founder of Death Row Records, and holder of a sizeable adverse position to the label 2Pac founded, Makaveli Records (of which, catchy)…what? Yes, yes, I know that the overwhelming majority of people reading this already know the story better than I ever will; I’m way behind, admitted as much; this is for my education, please bear with me.) Then again, the author of that post comes at the whole thing from a place of declaring 2Pac the victor, but he’s also pretty decent to B.I.G, only musing about why he didn’t say more when The Beef heated up (ew…phrasing).

Another one of my sources, a 2011 article in (what?) The Guardian (yep, that The Guardian), comes down on the same side that I did in the end. An uneasy part of my mind keeps whispering, “not a coincidence,” in my ear, but, since I made the mistake of reading that article, and since their phrasing both captures and improves upon any formulation I arrived at so far, I’m just going to quote it:

“Tupac had the good looks, revolutionary heritage (his mother was former Black Panther Afeni Shakur) and poetic aspirations, but only middling skills. Biggie had the gangster credentials (he used to deal crack in Brooklyn), everyman appeal and effortless, weighty-but-nimble flow — to him, rapping itself was sheer poetry.”
Yeah, I’m on Team Biggie and that’s one tight summation as to why. B.I.G is simply easier on the ears, more melodic and tuneful, something that, personally, draws me to the hip hop songs that hit me from the first few bars. (My guess is that anyone who goes back to Volume 1 in this series will pick up the same tendency in the songs I picked from the Wu Tang Clan’s oeuvre.) And, to cite another source of permanent fascination, this video gets at what makes B.I.G’s flow so goddamn smooth (the song deconstructed is, “Hypnotize”).

To back up a little bit, my particular experiment pitted B.I.G’s Ready to Die against 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me. To admit a bias right off the bat, “California Love” formed my main impression of 2Pac and, frankly, I’ve always hated that song, not least because it read like a dumb party anthem to me and at a time when I avoided that shit like the plague. Overall, though, if 2Pac suffered by comparison, it had more to do with preference than anything. I’d describe 2Pac’s sound as “stripped down” – i.e. the sampling plays second fiddle to his rapping; he nails intros, but I didn’t often find songs that asked the music to carry the same water, albeit with a few exceptions (see “How Do You Want It” or, go figure, “I Ain’t Mad At Cha”). At any rate, his compositions feel a little spare to me (see, “Heartz of Men” and “Shorty Wanna Be a Thug”), a little like an afterthought. When I felt like I might have been short-changing 2Pac, I branched out one of his (many) greatest hits compilations, where I heard his profoundly touching tribute “Dear Mama.” The man had talent and, honestly, a penchant for iconography. And “2 of Americaz Most Wanted” is…really, really good (and...whaddya know? Reference to The Beef).

Where 2Pac had “California Love,” my real-world gateway to B.I.G was “Suicidal Thoughts” and even that came to me indirectly. When I heard “Bang Bang” a few years ago, a mash-up that paired “Suicidal Thoughts” and old Nancy Sinatra tune, I knew it was Biggie without actually knowing it. The same thing happened with Girl Talk’s “Smash Your Head” (which sampled a ton o' shit); maybe my ear had caught enough of B.I.G to pick up his…idiom (look, trying to avoid words that aren’t natural to a middle-aged white guy). And I’m guessing that’s how I got around to pick up Ready To Die.

When I finally put the time in, a couple things stood out. First, “Juicy” (the song sampled in “Smash Your Head”) is better in the original. B.I.G just had a better ear for melding his flow to the music, something that your (or my) ear picked up early in as “Things Done Changed.” It’s not perfect – the title track, “Ready to Die” tracks as generic “gansta rap” (doubly, when you consider the duality of Christopher Wallace’s life experience; see Bishop Loughlin Memorial v. dealing crack in Brooklyn), but “Everyday Struggle” is goddamn incredible, “Respect” feels cross-over bold, and the eternally epic “Big Poppa” subverts the whole theme of hip hop misogyny with the simple idea of approaching a woman with respect and an open ear. “Friend of Mine” follows after that…with a clunk, but, on the other side of “Big Poppa” you bump into “Me and My Bitch,” which is…a very specific love song, but one that comes from a place of respect.

For all that, “Suicidal Thoughts” remains the major artistic achievement for me. That song fucking drips with a narrative sophistication and pathos that one wouldn’t think rap can achieve until you hear it. I can’t think of any songs in the moment that exposes the despair of a diseased heart quite like it. Incredible piece of work.

At any rate, the world lost two artists too young. And, in that context, it hardly matters who was “better.”

Oh, one more thing I learned in all this: Gwen Stefani’s “Luxurious” sounded just like “Big Poppa” for a reason

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