We’re an eclectic blog here with eclectic tastes. I’d like to think that my most attractive selling point to the other contributors was that “I know about rap.” So I’m introducing a new off the hook feature that will help connect with the urban-suburban hip-hop settings. As you can see above, it’s called “No Two Things Are Alike.” It’s about rap songs and will appear semimonthly on the first and fifteenth (pretty much). The caveat applies to weekends when we do not publish. Both the feature title and publication dates are an homage to a Jay-Z lyric from the song “December 4th,” with added inspiration from a series of mix tapes by the crew over at Crossfaded Bacon. The inaugural edition of this feature will focus on “Big Poppa,” the 1995 single by Notorious B.I.G. a.k.a. Biggie Smalls (né Christopher George Latore Wallace) from the 1994 album Ready to Die.
“Big Poppa” starts with a slow groove, the theme sampled from the brothers Isley song “Between the Sheets.” As the source of the hook for “Big Poppa” suggests, “Big Poppa” is largely a song about seduction. Its roots in funk and relaxed delivery of the rhymes even recall some of Dr. Dre’s work on The Chronic and his development of G-funk. But back to the lecture at hand.
Mr. Smalls’ producer, Sean “Puff Daddy/Puffy/P-Diddy/Diddy/ad infinitum” Combs, uses snippets of his own laughter, encouragement, and general concurrence with B.I.G. to enhance the intimate nature of the song. Combs quite literally whispers in your ear. Puffy later entreats the object of Biggie’s wooing to acquaint her friends with the rappers’ friends. Biggie’s delivery is slow, clear, and jowly. One can picture the large man sweating hams from his portly frame.
The structure of the song is similar to most popular music in its verse-chorus-verse-chorus design. In the first verse Notorious introduces himself to the crowd, similar to Chrétien de Troyes’ introduction to Li chevaliers de la charette: “To all the ladies in the place with style and grace, allow me to lace these lyrical wishes…” But unlike Chrétien who was working for Marie de Champagne, Biggie does not have a specific lady in mind yet.
As the chorus comes in Biggie presents his morally equivocal view. His rationale for not wanting a club shootout is pleasure instead of genuine concern for human life. He sees some women “who should be having his baby, baby.” Furthermore, Smalls does not indicate if this union will occur within or without of wedlock, and whether or not he desires offspring now or in the future. Oddly enough, it seems that Biggie’s hedonistic yet responsible call for restraint was actually keeping Mr. Combs from shooting up a club. After the larger rapper’s death Diddy became embroiled in a club shooting fiasco in New York City.
In the second verse Biggie moves in on a specific target. Indicating how clever he is, he only approaches a woman after another suitor has bought a drink for her. His invitation is for a midnight romp including a meal of “a t-bone steak, cheese, eggs, and Welch’s Grape [soda].” After a successful conquest and another chorus, the third and final verse reiterates the Notorious B.I.G. creed. The verse comes as an answer to Puffy’s question, “How you livin’, Biggie Smalls?” The response, “In mansion and Benzes, givin’ ends to my friends and it feels stupendous,” is a perfect summary of the worldview Smalls’ has. He is having a good time and having a good time helping others have a good time. While Biggie goes on to describe his rags-to-riches story, this lyric stands out because it so accurately describes how having money can help negate a traumatic past. Even the lo-fi heroes The Mountain Goats improbably use the line in one of their memorable songs.
Thus “Big Poppa.” It is a song of seduction based not on romance, but on cleverness enabled by wealth. While it is possible Biggie could have found a mate without his money, he relies on it as a crutch to emphasize his prowess. This prefigures the transformation that occurs in hip-hop in the late 1990s, a moment in which money and having it becomes the ultimate focus. In his song “Why Hip Hop Sucks in ’96” DJ Shadow explains with a simple sample—”It’s the money.”
-Michael E. van Landingham