Notorious B.I.G.: Hemingway of the Hood

News outlets from Washington to Nigeria are honoring the memory of Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G., today, the 18th anniversary of the rapper’s death in Los Angeles.

He was gunned down outside a Vibe Magazine industry party on March 9, 1997.

Despite releasing only one album in his lifetime (chillingly, his Diamond-certified sophomore Life After Death came out two weeks after his death), the MC has earned martyr status in the hip-hop community. More than an entertainer, he is regarded as the unofficial poet laureate of the projects. A master raconteur with a wizard’s command of the English language, Biggie Smalls had an uncanny knack for painting vivid, elaborate images using few words.

“My 9’s my mind/My pen’s my Mack 10.”

“Big was a novelist on wax,” Cheo Hodari Coker, co-screenwriter of the Notorious biopic, told the Toronto Star.

He compared the rapper’s wordplay to that of Hemingway, whose signature condensed syntax concealed stories with highly intricate and complex structures.

“Who’s next to flip on that cat with that grip on rap?”

Biggie’s grasp of this literary convention is evident in the humorous articulation of his own self-image on “One More Chance” (“Heartthrob never/black and ugly as ever”) as well as in the poignantly concise depiction of his deprived Brooklyn childhood on “Juicy”:

“Wonder why Christmas missed us?”

The New Yorker’s David Denby says Biggie’s “masterly control of rhythm, internal rhyme, metaphor and story,” made him a literary genius, while Adam Bradley, author of Book of Rhymes: Poetics of Hip-Hop, credits his “ability to match violence with rueful comedy.”

“If there’s beef between us/We can settle it/With the chrome and metal sh*t/I make it hot like a kettle get”

“There’s gonna be a lot of slow singing/and flower bringing/if my burglar alarms starts ringing.”

In Book of Rhymes, Ralph Ellison is quoted as saying “Each poet creates his own language from that which he finds around him.” Considering this, it is hardly surprising that Biggie would be so unsparing in his use of obscenities. The violence, sexism, crime and homophobia that Biggie evoked in his lyrics were surely ubiquitous in 1980s Bedford-Stuyvesant (“do-or-die Bed-Stuy”) where he sold crack as a teenager.

In Nick Broomfield’s documentary Biggie & Tupac, B.I.G.’s mother, Voletta Wallace, echoed Ellison in defending her son’s controversial lyrics. “My son was a poet who wrote about what he saw,” she said. “Was it filth? Yes, it was.”

“But it was a filthy story.”