July 20, 2012
Remember how I said that the difference between a good Ol’ Dirty Bastard song and a great Ol’ Dirty Bastard song is the amount of tension? Well, the Notorious B.I.G. took that principle and, as was his wont, ballooned it to gargantuan proportions. Instead of a rivalry between MC and producer, Biggie generated friction all by himself. There he was: a rotund, lithping, wheezing hulk of a man, who usually looked much older than he was, and always looked much sadder. But his flow! Biggie’s flow had the kind of quick-footed nimbleness that men like Nas—who looked exactly the way he sounded—couldn’t hope to catch up with. When we listen to Biggie patter, “Damn right, if they head right, Biggie there, e’ry night,” we’re not just listening to the way he finesses his way through syllables. We’re listening with the expectation that at any point, he might trip over his own tongue, or gasp for breath. Biggie sounded exactly the way he looked—except when he was rapping. Biggie rapping was like using a ship’s cannon as a surgical instrument, and pulling it off.
“Hypnotize” is the pinnacle of Biggie’s brief career. Puff Daddy—he was Puff Daddy back then, dancing in all the artists’ videos—jacked the rhythm track of an old ’79 Herb Alpert joint and turned it into the backbone of beautiful, slow-rolling menace. The sharp stabs that punctuate things, the monotone Pam Long chorus: these are things that should be in a much scarier song. Likewise, Biggie himself isn’t exactly in full party mode: “At my arraignment, note for the plaintiff, ‘Your daughter’s tied up in a Brooklyn basement’—face it, not guilty,” he narrates.
The reason Biggie and Puffy were such a good team was that they understood what people want. Before the Neptunes hit the charts, Sean “Puffy” Combs was the go-to guy—along with his elite cadre, the Hit Men—for high-bounce hooks and grooves that stuck in people’s heads. (And yes, he made songs like “Come With Me”—now try and get the “Kashmir” riff out of your head. See?) With the instinctive human lizard-brain urges covered—the feet tapping, the heads bobbing—Biggie was free to do what he did best: charm people. That’s the secret to his immortality. The tension got us listening, but the suave ease with which Biggie made us want to hear more was what kept us. He relates his Mafia don fantasies with the swagger and bravado of someone who may not believe them, but he can damn sure see every detail in his mind.
“Hypnotize” is the acme of 90s hip-hop because of all that. It had the glitter for the club kids and the grime for the dope dealers. It was a pimp-hand Otherness fantasy for the white suburban kids, a slick dance beat for the 8th-grade girls, and an epic Hype Williams video for MTV. It had something for everyone, and didn’t compromise a bit to provide it.