Hip-hop hagiography: why Biggie and Tupac refuse to go away
More than 15 years after their violent deaths, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur have lost none of their power and influence
Biggie was also true to his background. He was the teenage drug dealer who did jail time and sought to glamorise that hard-knock life, with tales of both the high-life rewards and the gangsta bragging that had to be done to keep your place on the street.
For all that, Biggie was cautious, a man who thought before he shot, whereas Tupac was wild, untethered, impulsive and carefree. The former created a New York in his work through a grid of small details, whereas the latter was the big-picture dude, the well-read rapper who always sought to join up the dots and wanted his music to be about the world.
Their paths crossed, too. A fan of Biggie’s track Party and Bullshit, Tupac introduced himself after watching Biggie play in Maryland. In turn, Biggie introduced Tupac to various New York hustlers including such hoods as Haitian Jack.
When Weiss and McGarvey dissect the lyrics, you get a fresh approach to previously aired perceptions. Of course, sites such as Rap Genius have elevated the breakdown of rap lyrics to a new art, but the authors go into an ambitious dissection of these tracks and try to place lives and stories within the context of those works.
The book also looks at topics such as their presence in movies (Tupac wins this bout with appearances in films such as Poetic Justice, alongside Janet Jackson, and Above the Rim, though Notorious, George Tillman jnr’s film about Biggie, is probably better than both), critical reception, literary influences and legacy (Pac is the one who ended up in the US Library of Congress, with the lyrics to Dear Mama joining Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash in that august establishment).
Like two rappers collaborating on a track, Weiss and McGarvey trade licks and details about the rappers’ styles, words, messages, lives and afterlives like pros. Their level of research comes across on nearly every page and the fact that they’re unearthing new details and painting new pictures of a story that everyone thought had already run its course is commendable. If you think you’ve heard it all about these two rappers, here are some facts, stories and insights you’ve probably not come across before now. As the authors make plain, the music ensures that the legacies and hagiographies endure.
2pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle, by Jeff Weiss and Evan McGarvey, is published by Voyageur Press