Solo Albums: Ready to Die (1994), Life After Death (1997)
Group Albums: Conspiracy (1995)
Biggest Hits: "Juicy" (1994), "Big Poppa" (1994), "One More Chance / Stay With Me (Remix)" (1995), "Hyponotize" (1997), "Mo Money Mo Problems" (1997)
We all know precisely when and where Biggie's five-year run ends: Early morning hours of March 9, 1997, outside a VIBE magazine party at L.A.'s Petersen Automotive Museum. When Christopher George Latore Wallace died at age 25 from multiple gunshot wounds in a case that will remain officially unsolved forever, Voletta Wallace lost her son, Faith Evans lost her husband, Tyanna and CJ lost their dad, and the world lost a motherfucking rap phenomenon.
The Notorious B.I.G.'s entire career was flawless, moving from strength to strength like trees to branches, cliffs to avalanches. His was a case of extraordinary raw talent nurtured in the bosom of BK's crack-infested streets and peppered with periodic visits to a Jamaican sound-system playing uncle and a New Orleans jazz legend neighbor who played the roles of musical mentor, recording engineer, and cinematographer. Biggie Smalls was a perfect storm.
So where do we start? Limiting ourselves to just five years, we lose surprisingly little. His crucial 1991 demo tape, which was recorded in DJ 50 Grand's basement, re-recorded at Mister Cee's home studio, submitted to Matty C at The Source, and which eventually landed in the hands of an Uptown Records A&R named Sean Combs who was busy building an empire of his own. Biggie made a handful of records in 1992, including an unreleased song for Uptown called "Biggie Got The Hype Shit," a Heavy D posse cut called "A Buncha Niggas" on which Biggie shares the mic with 3rd Eye, Guru, Rob-O, and Busta Rhymes, a collab with Neneh Cherry called "Buddy X," and another collab with Aaron Hall called "Why You Tryin' To Play Me."
Believe it or not, every other Biggie record you know and love falls into his miraculous five-year run. The Who's The Man? soundtrack album dropped on April 20, 1993 and Biggie's infectiously reckless "Party and Bullshit" was released as the fourth single in late June. Tupac Shakur reportedly kept the cassingle on repeat, and made periodic visits to Bed-Stuy BK to kick it with the 21 year-old MC who described himself as "a chubby nigga on the scene."
A couple months later came Mary J. Blige's sublime "Real Love (Remix)," with Biggie's exuberant opening line "Look up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane!" After that came the remix of Super Cat's "Dolly My Baby." Biggie ended that verse with a Papa San hook because he knew what it meant to rhyme alongside the Don Dada, so why not represent his own yardie roots? On the title cut from Mary J. Blige's What's the 411? Remix album, Biggie let loose a scandalously slack interlude that would eventually evolve into "Dreams" (of fuckin' an R&B bitch), a song so raw that it prompted Patti Labelle to call Biggie up and demand an apology—which he promptly gave her.
Despite what you may have heard, Voletta's son had nuff broughtupsy. He closed out 1993 with the legendary "Garden freestyle" recorded at the Budweiser Superfest ("I got seven Mac 11s, about eight 38s, nine 9s, ten Mac 10s, the shits never end...") during which Big demonstrated that his real firepower was the booming cannon he kept concealed in his larynx-the one he used to blow 2Pac, Scoob, and Shyheim off the MSG stage.
By 1994 we were hearing the first singles off Ready To Die, "Juicy" b/w "Unbelievable"—perhaps the best-loved and best-ever Biggie songs, respectively—followed by "Big Poppa" b/w "Warning." The crucial guest appearances began that same year with "Flava In Ya Ear," which effectively ended Craig Mack's career and made Bad Boy Records a one-man show (aside from Puffy of course).
By 1995 it was all about the "One More Chance/Stay With Me" remix, which made Biggie a commercial force across the country, ceritified platinum just as his beef with Pac was getting truly scary. And then everyone became obsessed with "Who Shot Ya" and the Jr. Mafia joints—"Get Money" and "Players' Anthem"—not to mention the whole Lil Kim album Hard Core (Biggie's background vocals on "Drugs" may be his most slept-on performance).
Before even cracking the cellophane on his certified-diamond sophomore double-album, we must address some royal guest spots, including "Brooklyn's Finest" with future King of NY Jay Z, "This Time Around" with lifetime King of Pop Michael Jackson (aka "My nigga Mike"), and "Can't Stop The Reign" with King of the Paint Shaquille O'Neal. And let's not forget the remix to 112's "Only You" featuring Biggie and Ma$e, a definitive Bad Boy party-starter that ranks right up there with posthumous Puffy release "Benjamins."
The whole macabre Life After Death experience kicks off with "Hypnotize," a club banger that became the soundtrack for Biggie's chaotic/cathartic funeral procession through BK. Other indelible highlights include the double-time tour-de-force "Notorious Thugs," the redemptive "Sky's The Limit," and the unrepentantly salacious "Fuckin You Tonight" featuring R.Kelly. But really you can pick any one of the 24 tracks on this masterpiece and wax poetic ad naseum. Both the album's Primo cuts—"Kick In The Door" and "10 Crack Commandments"—are all-time classics, despite the fact that Puffy said "this joint ain't hot" of the former and Chuck D sued over the latter. You could spend a lifetime puzzling over ominous subliminal-studded records like "What's Beef," "Long Kiss Goodnight" and "You're Nobody Till Somebody Kills You."
The greatest five-year run in hip-hop history comes to an end with Biggie's final recording, laid down the night before he was murdered: an unbearably epic song that would be titled "Victory" and released on Puffy's No Way Out album. "You heard of us," Biggie intones, "the murderous, most shady." Near the end of his verse he calls himself "the underboss of this holocaust," leaving Busta screaming "where the fuck you at?" What Puff said on "Benjamins" was true: "It's all real in the field." Sometimes too real. — Rob Kenner