Culture Trips

The Notorious BIG: his 20 greatest tracks – ranked! | Notorious BIG

20. One More Chance/Stay With Me (1994)

In its original version a nasty sex rhyme – “I got the cleanest, meanest penis” etc – the remix tones down the lyrics and smooths the music by way of DeBarge’s 1983 hit Stay With Me, drafting in a vocal from Biggie’s wife, Faith Evans, to spectacular effect. End result: a beautifully languid slow jam.

19. Warning (1994)

A beautifully concise bit of storytelling, complete with an impressively naturalistic conversational interlude during which Biggie, in character as a friend, informs himself that someone has taken a hit out on him. The rapper elects to lie in wait: needless to say, it doesn’t end well for his would-be assailants.

18. Sky’s the Limit (1997)

One of several tracks that took on a different hue after Biggie’s death in 1997, aged 24, Sky’s the Limit was initially Life After Death’s equivalent of his breakthrough hit Juicy, an alternately wistful and dark account of his rise. Posthumously, it sounded like a self-penned eulogy, complete with epitaph: “Live the phrase ‘Sky’s the limit’”.

17. Craig Mack – Flava in Ya Ear (remix feat Notorious BIG, LL Cool J, Rampage & Busta Rhymes) (1994)

Both an incredible single and an object lesson in the perils of getting Biggie Smalls to guest on your track; despite the stellar company, his verse turns the song into his show. Craig Mack’s debut album was duly eclipsed by the release of Ready to Die a week beforehand.

Biggie Smalls.
Photograph: Des Willie/Redferns

16. Funkmaster Flex – Biggie/Tupac Live Freestyle (1999) / Come On (feat Sadat X) (1999)

Your choice as to how you want to hear one of Biggie’s most iconic verses: the studio take is grimily exciting, with a great turn by Brand Nubian’s Sadat X; the 1993 live version is lo-fi, utterly electric from the opening bellow of “Where’s Brooklyn at?” and captures his soon-to-sour friendship with Tupac on tape.

15. Gimme the Loot (1994)

By modern standards, the guest list on Ready to Die is minimal, but you don’t need star features if you can duet with yourself as grippingly as Biggie does here. His voice is sped up to suggest he’s talking to his younger self, depicting a series of robberies in grim detail.

14. Big Poppa (1994)

By most accounts, the making of Biggie’s debut album was a struggle between the rapper’s street instincts and Sean “Puffy” Combs’s commerciality. On this slow jam, the latter won. Note the original lyrical twists – no how’s-your-father until Biggie has had his dinner! – and period detail: a pre-Auto-Tune, wildly off-key vocal on the hook.

13. Junior Mafia – Get Money (feat the Notorious BIG) (1996)

Take your pick from the Sylvia Striplin-sampling original, or the remix based on Dennis Edwards’ Don’t Look Any Further, it’s all about the sparring between Biggie and Lil’ Kim, who trade different verses on each version. If you believe the rumours, they sound evenly matched because Biggie had a hand in writing her rhymes.

12. What’s Beef? (1997)

Notorious BIG at his most chilling, delivering a litany of horror – his threats cover everything from raping and murdering children to arson and castration – in a disturbingly blase tone, the mood heightened by the track’s eerie strings, excerpted from, of all things, a luxuriant 70s cover of Bacharach and David’s Close to You.

‘Versace shades watchin’ ya.’
‘Versace shades watchin’ ya.’ Photograph: Chris Walter/WireImage

11. Jay-Z – Brooklyn’s Finest (feat the Notorious BIG) (1996)

After Biggie’s death, Brooklyn’s Finest took on the poignant sense of one era passing and another beginning; had he lived, it would have sounded like an up-and-coming MC gamely attempting to take on a star who insouciantly proves his worth. Either way, the pair trading verses is completely gripping.

10. Notorious Thugs (feat Bone Thugs-n-Harmony) (1997)

Recorded months before his death, Notorious Thugs isn’t a song so much as a challenge: can the relatively laconic Notorious BIG speed up and keep up with the trademark hyper-speed flow of guests Bone Thugs-n-Harmony? The answer: yes, in particularly thrilling style, complete with complex internal rhyme schemes and a whip-smart reference to Eddie Murphy.

9. I Got a Story to Tell (1997)

The track that lent its name to Netflix’s new Notorious BIG documentary offers perfect evidence of how he melded a fresh approach with his devastating lyrical flow: daringly, he twice relates the (allegedly true) saga of outwitting a jealous boyfriend, first as a straight rap, then as a conversational anecdote.

8. Kick in the Door (1997)

Over a sample of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You, the Notorious BIG proclaims himself the king of New York hip-hop, a distinct up yours to Nas, who had claimed the title for himself. It’s Biggie at his hardest-hitting, bellicose threats spiked with wit (“I drop unexpectedly, like bird shit”) – an extremely convincing case.

Performing at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago in April 1995.
Performing at the International Amphitheatre in Chicago in April 1995. Photograph: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

7. Things Done Changed (1994)

A lyric that ended up being included in a 2004 anthology of African American literature, Ready to Die’s opening track offered an unsparing depiction of the havoc wrought on poor black neighbourhoods by the influx of crack: “Our parents used to take care of us / Look at them now, they’re even fuckin’ scared of us”.

6. Who Shot Ya? (1994)

You can view Who Shot Ya? as a fatal mistake: whether it was about Tupac or not, it acted as the spark in the beef that may have claimed Biggie’s life. But it’s a fantastic track, menacing, darkly funny – “I feel for you, like Chaka Khan” – with an oddly hallucinatory sound, a bad dream captured on tape.

5. Ten Crack Commandments (1997)

Later transformed into the musical Hamilton’s Ten Duel Commandments, Biggie’s witty, acerbic advice to potential dealers – “That goddam credit? Dead it! You think a crackhead paying you back? Shit, forget it!” – rides a superb, minimal DJ Premier beat, where scattered electronic beeps meet a fierce sample of Public Enemy’s Chuck D.

Biggie in 1997.
Biggie in 1997. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

4. Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems (1997)

Life After Death’s big hit found Biggie’s lyrical skills and Combs’s pop smarts in perfect harmony: the latter’s use of Diana Ross’s I’m Coming Out is inspired; the former’s verse shifts from celebrating his own success to suggesting, with a certain grim irony, that he’s interested only in music, not internecine hip-hop wars: “Bruise too much, I lose too much”.

3. Suicidal Thoughts (1994)

Ready to Die ended with the negative image of its swaggering big hits: one verse, no hook, self-loathing poured out over an austere beat. There’s shock value, but its real power comes from detail: the regret over stealing from his mother’s purse, the bleak image of “people frontin’ at my funeral like they miss me”.

2. Hypnotize (1997)

The track Biggie was in LA to record a video for when he was murdered and a posthumous US No 1, Hypnotize is a fabulous single. He sounds imperious, the Herb Alpert-sampling production is starkly funky, while the chorus nods to Slick Rick and Doug E Fresh’s old-school classic La-Di-Da-Di.

1. Juicy (1994)

In 2019, Juicy was voted not just the greatest Notorious BIG track, but the greatest hip-hop track of all time in a BBC poll. That’s obviously a debatable point, but you can see why it won. As the rapper Common pointed out, the lyrics “define the American dream”, refracted through a hip-hop lens. It’s a classic, intimate rags-to-riches saga in which the bragging feels joyful rather than obnoxious, thanks to a plethora of beautifully turned lines (“no heat, wonder why Christmas missed us”) and references to old-school rap fandom from Lovebug Starski and the long-lost US black teen magazine Word Up! to the John Wayne-themed 1984 novelty track Rappin’ Duke. The sample from Mtume’s Juicy Fruit – which Biggie initially baulked at as too pop – is also irresistible.

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