March 9, 2012, marks the 15th anniversary of the death of one of rap's most heralded figures, Christopher "the Notorious B.I.G." Wallace, who was gunned down in Los Angeles at the age of 24. Each year around this time, people honor the man who many agree changed the face of hip-hop.
Wallace's magic was his keen ability to weave the day-to-day drama and emotion of hustling on the streets with hard-core beats laced with smooth R&B samples and constant pop-cultural references. Wallace was able to humanize the streets through his lyricism and storytelling.
His debut single "Juicy," off his debut album, Ready to Die, opened up with Biggie talking directly to his critics, including teachers and neighbors who called the police on him when he was "just trying to feed his daughter." The rhymes were layered over Mtume's classic song "Juicy" and invoked Salt-n-Pepa, Heavy D, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl and Word Up! magazine. His lyrics demonstrated that he was a child of hip-hop culture, had respect for those who came before him in rap and R&B and was down for the "people in the struggle."
The man who referred to himself as the black Frank White — the iconic crime lord played by Christopher Walken in the cult-movie classic King of New York — kept it real, describing important family events like Christmas and birthdays as the "worst days" and exposing the reality of living in extreme poverty — which might prompt one to deal drugs. Despite the dark and brooding tone of this classic album, the music made you want to nod your head at the very least and party hard at most.
It is the loss of Wallace's tremendous storytelling and his ability to mix meaningful lyrics with spirited beats and R&B classics that leaves much to be desired in today's hip-hop music. Each year, the anniversary of his death makes one wonder what hip-hop would be like had Biggie Smalls lived.
I don't know if Jay-Z would be the reigning King of Hip-Hop, if T.I. would be the King of the South or if Lil Wayne would be the superstar that he is, but I do know that the standard for hip-hop would be higher. Rappers could not get away with using ghostwriters or Auto-Tune and making the same song over and over. Today's rappers could learn a lot from Biggie, like increasing their vocabulary, painting pictures through words, having complex lyrics that actually make sense and experimenting with R&B in a way that isn't uninspired.
The loss of B.I.G. led to the rise of rappers Jay-Z, Eminem and 50 Cent, who might have had a harder road to the top had Wallace been here to keep the proverbial bar high. It is still hard to imagine that Wallace has been gone for 15 years, since his music and legacy live on in the hearts and minds of the hip-hop community.
This is a man who lived long enough to produce only two albums. Imagine what could have been if he'd had the opportunity to truly hone his craft, like Jay-Z, for instance. One thing is for sure: With the loss of Wallace, the hip-hop community was dealt a blow from which it has never truly recovered.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.