Credentials: 1994's Ready to Die, DJ Clue? Presents Bad Boy Vol. 1, Junior Mafia's Conspiracy, “One More Chance (Remix)" and "Who Shot Ya?," and Total's "Can't You See"
When KRS-One dropped his ‘95 fan favorite, “Rappers R N Danja,” neither he, nor the rappers mentioned, nor the even fans knew exactly how right he was. Rappers were in danger. But not from Kris’s bars—the times, they were a changin’. And they were changing because of the Notorious B.I.G. (and Puff Daddy). Big had received universal adulation for his debut, which dropped in the fall of ‘94, and as the year began he rode in high off the stream of hits that the LP would yield. But, for all its refinement, Ready to Die was still was very much product of hip-hop’s silver age. It was in the following year, 1995, that Biggie remixed and refined his sound. He took the humor and lyrical precision of East Coast rapping, but, no doubt inspired by Snoop and Dre on the West, he let his raps breathe. As a result his lyrical threats hung in the air longer, his jokes hit harder, and generally his turns of phrase became even that much more memorable (and recitable). Add to that the thematic element of aspiration, and Big had drafted the blueprint for hip-hop’s burgeoning Platinum Era.
The one-two knock-out of the silky smooth Debarge sampled “One More Chance / Stay With Me (Remix)” backed with the menacing b-side, “Who Shot Ya?” a record that separated the boys from men (and the weak from the obsolete), raised the bar. On the latter, which was a redux of both rhymes and beat from a freestyle with Keith Murray on DJ Clue’s Bad Boy Vol.1 mixtape (Keith’s portion would actually appear excerpted as an interlude on Mary J. Blige’s My World), Big coldly dissected his opponents, “Fuck all that bickering beef, I can hear sweat trickling down your cheek/Your heartbeat sound like Sasquatch feet—thundering, shaking the concrete.”
Elevating the record’s vicious raps, 2Pac would claim Big’s detached subliminals were aimed at him, and evidence of Biggie's collusion in ‘Pac’s shooting at Quad Studios. One cannot understate the importance of this feud in both rappers' success (and ultimate undoing). But Big’s true subliminal shot that year was not at 'Pac, but at Death Row’s dominance, and it was packaged as a nod.
On the same Clue tape, Biggie used a patchwork of classic Dr. Dre beats to tell one his most incredible, winding narratives on “Real Niggaz Do Real Thingz.” As Napoleon had taken the crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII, coronating himself, with that one freestyle Big demonstrated the ability to best his competitors lyrically and stylistically on their own tracks, and in doing so subtly announced his ascension. The Source concurred, crowning him “King Of New York” in their July issue. He shored his position over the summer with standout verses on R&B hits by Total and 112 as well as a starring role on Junior Mafia’s two classic singles, “Player’s Anthem” and “Get Money.”
But nothing hammered home Biggie’s place at the top of rap like his live performance video of “Me And My Bitch” from The Show soundtrack, replete in a pin-striped suit and bowler. By the end of 1995 the distance between him and every other rapper was dramatic and evident, as contenders like 2Pac and Nas reinvented themselves as ridahs and dons in reaction. But there is only one Frank White, and in 1995, the world was his, unchallenged.
Honorable Mentions: Raekwon, Prodigy, 2Pac
Although, during 1995, Big certainly embodied hip hop’s future, the supremacy of Raekwon and Prodigy’s rapping during that year cannot be overlooked. East Coast thuggery had been refined, polished and perfected, and Only Built For Cuban Linx and Mobb Deep’s The Infamous.... represented the genre’s creative climax. No reaches for radio play, the two albums were unflinching, dark and cinematic.
And the LPs’ two lead rappers, both of whom had been considered marginal MCs since their respective debuts in 1993, emerged that year as top tier talent with truly unique voices. Members of Kool G Rap’s lyrical bloodline, both took his gritty style and subject matter, abstracting it, moving off the beat, and even occasionally out of rhyme, to tell their stories in obtuse, noir fragments. Unfortunately their figurative flows may have also limited their audience.
Meanwhile, 2Pac released what many consider his best album, Me Against the World, featuring production from Easy Moe Bee. But 'Pac would spend most of the year in jail on a rape charge, so despite his obvious artistic growth, he was largely sidelined from any conversation about the being the best. That said, his October ‘95 signing to Death Row would put things in motion for him to come guns blazing the following year. —Noah Callahan-Bever (@N_C_B)
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