Song: "Juicy" (1994)
Album: Ready to Die
It goes beyond the cliche of "a defining moment" in hip-hop. The Notorious B.I.G.'s first solo single from his debut album is the fault line for the life-span calendar of rap, in the same way human years get a "B.C." and an "A.D" there's simply "Before Biggie" and "After Biggie," in a way no other artist would come to define the trajectory of the genre or influence others. There was everything before this song, and then, everything after it. And you knew it from the first-line: It was all a dream! Like so many to come before him and so many who would come after him (and wouldn't succeed)—or like anyone with any far off ambition that seems downright naive, until they make it—Big was just another kid from the streets who dreamed of becoming a famous rapper. Who could've imagined he would come to define what it meant and still means to be a famous rapper, an essential DNA strand in any truly meaningful rap star's career?
Not him, the guy who used to read Word Up!, a magazine that was less a hip-hop magazine than it was a black pop culture mag. Rap magazines didn't exist in a meaningful way yet when he was reading magazines; they were manifested by rappers like Big coming into their own. Big's opening lines on "Juicy" work so, so well not just because they're memorable, or catchy, or come delivered so smoothly, from such a gruff narrator, but because they put his listeners in his shoes, fantasizing about a better life, and explained how hip-hop let him talk that fantasy into existence, the same reason so many people love rap themselves. And sure, he might've exaggerated to some degree—his mother's house at 226 St. James was hardly a one-room shack—but it was effective. Biggie understood the escapist thrill that daydreams of success brought him from the day-to-day stresses of living poor. The opening lines of "Juicy" weren't the first to do it, but they wed hip-hop success and the escapist fantasies of the impoverished like few memorable rap lines have since. In just one line, Big declared his love for hip-hop, and acted on it a way that meant something real.
With the bitter exception of his death, hip-hop, for its part, has reciprocated that love ever since.