Day 170: "Hope You Niggas Sleep" feat. Cash Money Millionaires – Notorious B.I.G., Born Again, 1999
Today is the 20th anniversary of the Notorious B.I.G.'s death. I tend to think these kinds of anniversaries are exhausting, particularly in the online sphere, where they become competitions of performative fandom and end up flattening out artists' legacies into a focused day of appreciating them, which is counter to the way that real appreciation of art actually works. With Biggie, it's especially weird because, given that his career was so short, every one of the last three years or so has come with one or more 20th anniversary milestones. But my own grumpiness about the way that anniversaries get dissected is no reason to ignore good things, and the upshot of this particular round of remembrance is that it has yielded a lot of thoughtful commentary and reflection on Christopher Wallace's career.
Puff himself weighed in, while, over at Pitchfork, the site devoted their daily review coverage across the board to essays about B.I.G.'s albums (Ready to Die, predictably and deservedly, got a perfect 10). One of those reviewed, in an astute essay by Jayson Greene, is Born Again, the first of many posthumous B.I.G. collections to come. It's an album that, truthfully, I have never bothered paying attention to because of the general negative connotations of posthumous releases and the bad reputations Biggie's have gotten in particular. And so I learned today for the first time (this is the benefit of these anniversaries in action) that there is a Notorious B.I.G. song featuring Baby and the Hot Boys, produced by Mannie Fresh.
As Greene points out in his review (and as everyone who has ever listened to any posthumous rap collection ever can guess), the chemistry between B.I.G.'s recorded vocals and Mannie Fresh's beat is not there, as cool as that collaboration would have been had it happened in real life. The vocals sound like they were recorded from another room, and they are buried under Mannie Fresh's lively synths. While Biggie was one of the (arguably) few New York rappers with the elasticity in his flow to handle a Mannie Fresh beat, that's not what he was recording over, and no amount of wizardry on anyone's part can fully bridge the gap. On the bright side, at least Juvenile can claim he had the hottest verse on a song with Biggie, albeit via the cheat code of getting to record a verse that actually sounds at home on the beat.
Yet I think there is a lot to take away from this song nonetheless. In 1999, Cash Money was the hottest new thing in rap, and Puff Daddy, given his excellent instincts as a tastemaker and for pushing rap's sound forward, was obviously aware of that. Getting them on this hotly anticipated album was a no-brainer from a business perspective, and, while it was a bit of a flop from a creative perspective, it was also an inspired artistic decision in one sense: for the historical record. The years after B.I.G.'s death created a vacuum in New York rap that gave rise to Jay Z's career, which in turn became an inspiration for Wayne. As the Hot Boys began to erode, Wayne became more explicit in his ambitions to be remembered in the same breath as Biggie and Jay Z, and he's rapped numerous lines to that effect. His most famous album, Tha Carter III, even jacks the cover aesthetic of Ready to Die.
Following in those footsteps meant more than simply borrowing branding ideas, though, and the B.I.G. verse on this song is a good capsule of the kind of technical lessons that Wayne took away from his Brooklyn forebears. Beyond his natural charisma and gift for evocative storytelling, one of B.I.G.'s distinctive musical talents is the way that he constructs his bars to maximize the percussive qualities of his voice. Usually, but not always, this means building internal rhymes, and it generally also means starting and stopping sentences outside of the natural pacing of the structure of bars in the song.
There is a great example of this in "Hope You Niggas Sleep," where B.I.G. raps, "I got styles like karate / jiu jitsu when I hit you then I split you / like a cantaloupe / hope you got a rope to hang yourself." Look at/listen to how he uses all those hard consonants to build out the sound and turn his voice into an instrument that can be woven into and play against the track. It sounds… very much in line with what Wayne built his reputation on during his mid-00s run.
So sure, this song itself may not be the greatest ever, but it's worthwhile for the mere fact that it completes the circle, putting the best rapper of his era alongside the guy who would go on to take that mantle a decade later. If that's not a good history lesson for today, what is?
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