Initially published in 1985, Susan Howe’s book My Emily Dickinson is a landmark work of cultural and creative scholarship, one where Howe writes her way into the life and poetry of a newly created writer named Emily Dickinson; prior to the volume’s publication this Emily Dickinson had been largely unknown to the world. Quoting from texts with titles such as The Madwoman in the Attic, Howe discusses how, circa her writing of the volume, Dickinson was largely seen as a “Spider-Artist,” one whose personal eccentricities were as notable as her poems. Howe emphasizes how (consciously or subconsciously) gendered so much of the criticism on Dickinson’s work was, that it oftentimes said more about the analyzers themselves than the poet or her poetry. “Most literary criticism is based on calculations of interest,” Howe opines, and by virtue of that fact readers of Emily Dickinson criticism are continually given a generalized forest when they should instead be supplied with one significant tree by one significant tree. Easier to just pigeon Dickinson as a Spider-Artist, a spinner of peculiarity and mystique, rather than study her poems, trace their connective and associative tissues, the possible influences of antecedents.
Although Howe does not use the specific word in her book, what she argues against is the branding of Emily Dickinson. To brand something is to sear it with an identity that allows no real interpretation or ambiguity; boxy confinement that no longer need to be actively thought about. “Who is this Spider-Artist? Not my Emily Dickinson” Howe writes early on in My Emily Dickinson and the following pages of the volume articulate for the reader who and what Howe’s Dickinson is, namely a thinker profoundly impacted by other writers, one whose poetry (directly or indirectly) addressed all of the important matters of her day. Less an isolative, an all-white fashion choice shining pure and chaste, Susan Howe’s Emily Dickinson is a writer whose “life was language and a lexicon her landscape. The vital distinction between concealment and revelation is the essence of her work.”
There is a certain irony in Howe’s creation of Emily Dickinson, however; namely that by writing against Dickinson’s established brand Howe serves to reinvent her yet again. Studying the deep breadth of Dickinson’s reading, her annotations in volumes by Shakespeare, Blake, George Eliot and Elizabeth Barret Browning, among others, as well as the illuminative reveals found in her letters, this can surely by viewed as a positive thing. Even if the book was written in the late twentieth century, Howe introduced Emily Dickinson to a new generation of twenty-first-century-minded readers and the nineteenth-century poet’s immense stature remains secure circa 2017. Her poems didn’t change but our thinking about them did—and, courtesy of Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, this was a substantial accomplishment. Far from being a lonely shut-in, possessor of savant-like idiosyncrasies, Dickinson was instead a mere poet, one that, like so many others, studied the works of other writers and had direct influences and forbearers that profoundly impacted her poetry. Her greatness arrived via the effort she put into her poems and, although interesting to make note of, how she lived and what she wore matters far less than what she wrote.
Like Susan Howe’s Emily Dickinson, my Notorious B.I.G. (birth name Christopher Wallace) is different than the mainstream portrayal of him. To the masses Biggie is known as the quintessential gangsta rapper, one whose tautly-rendered narratives intermingled the various hustles of the urban street with the struggle to achieve fame as a rapper, nouns and verbs apart from drug deals and familial strife. As the rapper stated in multiple interviews, B.I.G.’s first album Ready to Die focused on the effort to get out of the inner-city, whereas his second LP Life After Death (which was released posthumously and is his last original work) dealt with the ravishment that graduating from the streets begets; feelings of elation and paranoia going hand-in-hand. In the bedroom, the streets or the club, as a narrator B.I.G. was, on both albums, forever fluid, his raps whip-quick and clever.
Equally important to the rapper’s international fame was, as mentioned in his album titles, his staunch fixation on death, a fixation made tragically real with his own murder in 1997. It’s one of the paradoxes of modern life that the longer the average human lifespan gets—81 years old for females in the U.S., 77 for males; in the UK, 83 years old for females, 79 for males, each of those numbers, regardless of country or gender, being the longest in recorded history—the greater our collective cultural interest in all types and spectacles of death, the gorier, more malevolent the better. This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, and journalistic terms like if it bleeds it leads were first uttered in the eighteenth century, if not before. Having the speakers of their songs utilize a variety of different gun types, Glocks to Berettas to Mack 10s, in a variety of different scenarios, robberies to murders to acts of self-protection, dozens (and dozens) of rappers before The Notorious B.I.G. capitalized on this grimness, as have dozens (and dozens) of rappers after him. The macabre nature of this reality is central to certain strands of rap, certainly, but as author and sociologist Michael Eric Dyson puts it in his 2007 volume Know What I Mean?—Reflections on Hip-Hop, “We live in a culture where the obsession with the gun is painfully conspicuous, from its ubiquity in Hollywood action films to the ad campaigns for the National Rifle Association (NRA). No other industrialized nation is so consumed by the gun as the symbol of freedom, which, as it turns out, is the very thing that can lead to bondage to death and destruction.” As a titillating vehicle of death, it’s not just hip-hop brandishing firearms, not by any means.
Further, the more authentically rendered by each rapper that death seems to be for the contemporary listener the more likely she is going to keep on buying and listening, song by song, album after album. Keeping it real and keeping it 100 means nothing less and if a rapper comes off as contrived or artificial their verses fail accordingly—or at least that’s the common myth, one that especially rang true during the years B.I.G. was alive. This version of thinking is one where the real always trumps the creative, and the two components, both necessities of a certain kind, only warily co-exist.
Dyson also addresses this notion in the “How Real is This?—Prisons, iPods, Pimps, and the Search for Authentic Homes” chapter of Know What I Mean, writing that such real vs. fake arguments in hip-hop are often, knowingly or not, manifestations of an outside “[e]ssentialism [that] is often conjured by bigotry and attack. We’ve got to see things in that dynamic give-and-take, because there’s a cleavage that’s being created, a real dichotomy: having something imposed on a culture versus attempting to identify the legitimate outlines of that culture from within”. In other words, it’s very easy to deem something false or inauthentic, especially when an outside party is doing the deeming. Harder, though, to objectively, in an unbiased manner, state why such invalidity exists and what the ramifications of the falsity might be.
Leaving no room for unfettered creation’s vast power of purchase, such authenticity-as-greatness belief systems still hold sway in the twenty-first century as well. In their Dec. 2015 article “The 10 Best Rappers of All Time,” Billboard.com lists The Notorious B.I.G. as #1 overall, lauding in their brief write-up how Ready to Die was “mined straight from his experiences in the Brooklyn streets.” (Also highlighted is, of course, the deathiness of the rapper’s life and lyrics; although later noting that he was a legend prior to his murder, the piece begins, peculiarly, with the statement “Death at a young age can often elevate a rapper from modern-day star to bona fide legend.” Peculiar but unsurprising.)
Yet what makes the Notorious B.I.G who he is (my Notorious B.I.G.) is not the authenticity of lived fact but of fictional imagination, a fiction made all the more real in his songs due to its lucidly imagined qualities. Built on his lyrics, B.I.G.’s capture as a rapper is in his narratives, their breadth and depth. Versed in cinematic swathes, word turned image, those tales emphasize a theatricality that deeply resonated with millions, from the suburbs to the inner city. Pigeonholing the MC as a mere “gangsta rapper” does a disservice to what, line by line, the rapper’s best songs are able to achieve. The vivacity of their imaginative (with emphasis on the image element of the word imaginative) qualities overrides all other components, even—especially—the deathly ones.
As stated earlier, twenty years after his passing we live in a world that B.I.G. could only have dreamed about, particularly with regards to the primacy of the image. For a rapper who understood how powerful mediums like the music video were to disseminating his songs to the record-buying public, B.I.G. would have no doubt been entranced by image-based social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat, ones that artists of every ilk use to promote and publicize their work. With certain (younger) smartphone users spending three hours a day staring at their phones and Instagram in particular adding users by the million in periods as short as just four months—from December 15, 2016–April 26, 2017 the website expanded from 600 million members to 700 million—contemporary culture lives in a music video now; we can access it at any time, from anywhere. This video, then, is largely image-based, relying on every possible articulation of show don’t tell. In a matter of minutes musicians can create their own content, upload it to their own Facebook or Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, and near-instantly see the result of their creation.
When writing and creating 1994’s Ready to Die and 1997’s Life After Death B.I.G. didn’t have the luxury of social media (or the Internet in general) to rely on, nor did he necessarily know beforehand if he’d be allowed the budget to create music videos to illustrate his songs. (This uncertainty of his is referenced on Ready to Die’s “The What” when, to paraphrase, the rapper states how the more often his Mac unloads the more opportunities he’ll be given to make music videos. The speakers of B.I.G.’s songs were always, of course, aware of how noisily vivid a Mac unloading might be when displayed on a visual screen. If seeing is believing hearing is the first step towards sight.)
Instead the rapper had to create his images purely out of words, forcing the listener to see them linguistically, in their mind’s proverbial eye. No matter the era or creation, every rapper has had to do this, surely. He, though, did it better than most. Employing a nonlinear narrative that’s yet cohesive, alternating point-of-views and perspectives, a song like “I Got a Story to Tell” (on Life After Death) embodies an Instagram-based aesthetic decades before the website’s creation. Although an actual music video wasn’t ever made for it, one doesn’t so much hear “I Got a Story to Tell” as see it and, pristine, such sight remains in place twenty years after the song’s release. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2015, rapper Pusha-T, from the acclaimed group Clipse, put it best: “[Big] was a master painter with words. And his flow was just so effortless. I mean, I think I’m an awesome writer, but my bars still sound like bars. Big had all these intricacies, all these colors, all these witty things—and it didn’t sound like a rap. It was a conversation.”
It’s one of his more popular songs, “I Got a Story To Tell,” although that assertion is rather meaningless, as a lot of his songs are some of his most popular songs. But “I Got a Story To Tell” is an uncontestable B.I.G. song, one that is entirely distinct to him as a rapper. The track employs what New York School poet Frank O’Hara called an “I do this, I do that” framework; from scene to scene, line by line, the speaker in “I Got a Story To Tell” relays the specific circumstances of his precarious situation, making sure to emphasize all attendant danger, intrigue and elation. But that’s stuffy academic-speak, obfuscating all that, to quote O’Hara again, from his poem “Cornkind” in his landmark 1964 collection Lunch Poems, is “hard and moist and moaning” in this mortal coil of a world.
Frank O’Hara being a vivacious, openly gay poet that died in 1966, six years prior to Christopher Wallace’s birth, at first blush it might seem incongruous to conflate the New York School poet’s work and The Notorious B.I.G.’s, especially in light of the fact that the speakers of B.I.G.’s songs occasionally used the epithet “faggot” and generally seemed mildly intolerant of homosexuality. (That said, writer, activist and close friend of B.I.G. dream hampton has previously stated how one of B.I.G.’s best friends, Mann, was gay and the rapper was entirely fine with that: “That’s my n—a . . . whatever” was purportedly his response to the news.) Matters of sexual proclivity aside, though, it’s surprising how intimately the two match up personally, poetically, artistically. Like The Notorious B.I.G., O’Hara’s life was cut short tragically young—he died at the age of 40, having been accidentally hit by a jeep on Fire Island beach outside of New York City. Although upon his death he’d already gained fame and notoriety as a poet, O’Hara’s stature and importance would balloon posthumously; this same circumstance, of course, befell the creator of Ready to Die and Life After Death.
The creative impulse seemed to manifest itself within both O’Hara and Wallace in similar ways as well. In a word, they were naturals. O’Hara was known for writing his poems quickly, effortlessly. They often appeared as complete entities on the page, not written so much as welled up from somewhere inside the poet. As detailed on the Poetry Foundation website, O’Hara’s now-famous “Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed!)” was written on the way to the poetry reading where he planned to read it, and his seminal anti-manifesto manifesto “Personism” was written in under an hour. O’Hara’s fellow New York School poet Kenneth Koch remarked upon the seemingly effortless nature of O’Hara’s genius, stating: “Something Frank had that none of the other artists and writers I know had to the same degree was a way of feeling and acting as though being an artist were the most natural thing in the world. Compared to him everyone else seemed a little self-conscious, abashed, or megalomaniacal.”
Known for memorizing his raps and never actually writing them down on paper, simply reciting and re-reciting them in his head, B.I.G. was the same way. In his biography Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of The Notorious B.I.G, author and journalist Cheo Hodari Coker quotes frequent Biggie producer Easy Mo Bee on the rapper’s method of creation:
“He ain’t take no long time to do no song,” Mo Bee said. “When Big went in the booth, he usually knew what he was going to do. All the other times he’s sitting over there in the chair looking big and fat. He just be cutting his eyes left and right, looking at everybody, sitting there mumbling to himself. Breathing hard, just mumbling. Then he’d say, ‘Mo, I’m ready.’ And he’d just go in there and knock it out.”
They were of profoundly different worlds and eras, O’Hara and Wallace, yet two peas in a pod.
The most important point of comparison between the two, however, lies in each figure’s artistic duality. As a poet O’Hara possessed a boundless flux, one that allowed the speakers of his poems a fluidity grounded in real-life and yet also ethereally above it. The poetry in Lunch Poems is of a diaristic nature, filled withw places, times, and images specific to O’Hara’s own life. Jumping from lunch date to lunch date (“It is 12:10 in New York and I am wondering/ if I will finish this in time to meet Norman for lunch/ ah lunch!” ; “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul”) and seemingly written off the cuff, in the moment, the collection’s “I do this I do that” formula embodies what O’Hara—in the aforementioned hastily written 1959 manifesto that’s subsequently been cited hundreds of times—deemed “Personism.” In brief, Personism entails writing on one’s nerve—“If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep’”—while simultaneously creating a poetic persona in one’s work that is creatively greater than the individualistic scope of the poet, her self-absorbed wants and whims—“Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it!” The creative shakes hands with the personal in a Personism-based poem and both of those facets are given equal emphasis and billing; one can’t exist without the other. The work is thus based on the poet’s life but not fully beholden to it—that’s where the “all art” part comes in.
Personism is thereby the difference between Biggie Smalls and Christopher Wallace. Each of those guises is, to use that catch-all word, authentic but in different ways. Without Christopher Wallace’s personal life Biggie Smalls would not exist and without Smalls’ creative interpretations Christopher Wallace would be less fantastical rapper, more ho-hum diarist. Both parts, in the end, congeal to make the whole that is The Notorious B.I.G.
“[H]ard and moist and moaning,” do you like sexual congress, dear reader? Intercourse of the sexual variety? Fucking, in that coarsest of words? The speakers of O’Hara’s poems had such carnality on their minds regularly and the same holds true for B.I.G. Perhaps the truest of acts possible, sex nevertheless, on some level, involves a kind of othered duality; you are both yourself and someone else. As O’Hara declares in “Cornkind,” “you are of me, that’s what/ and that’s the meaning of fertility.” True casanovas, then, quickly come to terms with the fact that sex is but a first chapter to a longer type of consummation. A start but never an end.
This is especially true in The Notorious B.I.G.’s “I Got a Story to Tell.” At its core the song’s narrative is simple: B.I.G.’s speaker—Frank White on this particular track, White being one of the rapper’s regular AKA stand-ins—sleeps with a woman who is dating a New York Knicks basketball player, then, upon that player’s unexpected return home, holds the player up for all his cash. From there the story moves to a different time and location, post-stickup, wherein White describes to his friends what he did and how he did it. Two different versions of the same story are thus related in “I Got a Story to Tell.” One occurs in the heat of the moment and the other is, as William Wordsworth said about the poetic act, a form of “emotion recollected in tranquility.” Providing contrasting insight and details, each version, however, need be present for the song to achieve the success that it does. No rose without a thorn—or in this case cuckolding without bombastic post-cuckolding hero-bravado talk.
Defined in the acclaimed volume A Poet’s Glossary (2014), images and imagery are the “primary pigments” of poetry; they are both “sensuous” and “figurative” and ultimately serve to further every single readerly sense. Going further, if an image is successful in a written work it “presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” (At least according to Ezra Pound, one of the founders of the early twentieth-century Imagist poetry movement.) Instagram’s images are instant; immediacy is thus part of their appeal. What isn’t directly in an image, pictorial or linguistic, is also left to the reader or viewer’s imagination to complete. In the best of scenarios art’s two-way street minimalizes didacticism and revelation is possible with each encounter of a work.
We’re told as schoolchildren that every picture tells a story and that’s accurate. We live our lives entombed in narratives of (hopefully) our own choosing and the same holds true for certain types of poems. Referring again to A Poet’s Glossary, narrative poems contain plots, characters and settings, but as noted poet and critic Stanley Plumly states, “The secret subject, or subtext, of narrative is time…” Time shades our every motion and notion and in its own way each piece of art touches on that inevitability.
B.I.G.’s “I Got a Story to Tell” achieves its effects through a fluid melding of (instant) imagery and (character, plot and time-focused) narrative and that effect is poetic in some regard, surely. The song also resolutely inhabits the interstice between Christopher Wallace and The Notorious B.I.G. (or Biggie Smalls/Frank White). Although Wallace did have an affair with a New York Knick basketball player’s girlfriend—rapper Fat Joe revealed in 2016 that the player was bruiser power forward Anthony Mason—by all plausible accounts he did not rob Mason at gunpoint after getting caught post-coitus. (No record exists but the one-man Greek Chorus commentary/retelling that is the extended outro verse of “I Got a Story to Tell” probably did occur at some point, with Wallace narrating and his crew loudly listening and interjecting.)
Partly crafted from the rapper’s imagination—the “all art” part—while at the same time incorporating Wallace’s own lived life—“[y]ou just go on your nerve…The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages—“I Got a Story to Tell” fully (and unknowingly) embraces O’Hara’s Personism manifesto fifty-plus years after the NY School poet first penned it. This isn’t to say, however, that “I Got a Story to Tell” is more poem and less song. As B.I.G. maintained in various interviews given during his life, he didn’t read poetry and didn’t consider what he rapped to be a form of poetry. Point taken—but “I Got a Story to Tell” nevertheless contains poetic elements throughout, on imagistic levels, narrative levels, rhythmic and rhyme-based levels. No matter the work’s designation, song, poem, or both, obviously the rapper was aware of the versatility of the work he was creating while crafting “I Got a Story to Tell.”
Far more interesting than the “poetry or not poetry” question, though, is how “I Got a Story to Tell” retains its place in the world as a uniquely memorable hip-hop song, one enshrined in listeners’ minds twenty years after it was first released. When Fat Joe announced that it was Anthony Mason—or some representation of Anthony Mason—cuckolded in the rapper’s 1997 song it was national news, at least in hip-hop circles. (Hearing the reveal, the hosts of ESPN’s show Highly Questionable, where Fat Joe was a guest, exalted in the discovery: “This is a breakthrough! . . . We’ve been after this story for a while. It’s been a quest, a quest.”) With comments from the inane to insightful posted every week, The Notorious B.I.G. estate-sanctioned version of “I Got a Story to Tell” currently sits at 8.5 million views on YouTube and that number will no doubt increase to 9 million by the end of 2017. People still care; they still remember. Why?
The staying power of “I Got a Story to Tell” lies, I’d assert, in its inauthenticity, its creative qualities that ground the listener in a detail-laden restlessness both imagined and unimagined. There’s an ambiguity in the song that still entrances; good stories never grow old and “I Got a Story to Tell” contains a good story, one told in two different ways, from two different perspectives. Retaining its initial audacity twenty years later, taut strings of image and narrative, the track is a movie.
The magnetism of B.I.G.’s charismatic persona is also highlighted in “I Got a Story to Tell” and this persona is, again, both fact and fiction. Wholly lived, purely fabricated, each of those elements played a role in the rapper’s success. Writing in a 2008 The New Yorker essay about Frank O’Hara, poet and critic Dan Chiasson states:
. . . O’Hara’s first real accomplishment was his personality, which became famous long before his poems did. But his personality was always a brilliant contrivance, practically a work of art: improvised, self-revising, full of feints…Someone with O’Hara’s presence could afford to regard the writing of poetry as a secondary act, a transcript of personality.
Creator of just two albums, one released after his death, the same could be said for B.I.G. He generated a cult of personality that, two decades on, has yet to be extinguished. And although he was occasionally bashful about that fact—in Unbelievable Coker quotes the rapper as downplaying his charm, remarking, “. . . I got a little, a little style to me. I don’t know, I don’t know what it is. I just think that I’m cool to be with”—in reality B.I.G., like O’Hara, knew how captivating he could be as a rapper and as a person. He also knew that the two entities weren’t one and the same.
In his 2008 book Somebody Scream! Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power, author and journalist Marcus Reeves recounts how even before 1994’s Ready to Die was released B.I.G. knew the monumental differences between The Notorious B.I.G. and Christopher Wallace; just like the “I” of any poem isn’t necessarily the “I” of its author, the (lyrical) truths of The Notorious B.I.G. were never fully the (lived) truths of Christopher Wallace. Reeves writes how, before meeting a group of reporters on press day to promote Ready to Die, Wallace showed up early to Bad Boy Records wearing his normal day-to-day attire; “T-shirt, shorts, and a pair of Timberland construction boots.” And then, not ready to talk to Reeves and the others assembled reporters yet, he kept moving:
“‘Big’ll be right out,’ a publicist informs us. ‘He’s just going to get changed.’ But what one knows, especially those who have followed commercial rap since the early days, is that he wasn’t merely freshening up with a new outfit. Big, like an actor, was getting into character or, like a superhero, getting into costume. Since hardcore rap has overwhelmingly sold (and was thriving off of) the myth of the black badass, artists were like that now, always getting into character . . .”
Reeves later relates how, having changed into more suitable attire for a rapper of his particular sensibilities—“festive button-down shirt, baggy slacks, alligator shoes, and a 504 Ventair Kangol turned ever so slightly to the side”—Wallace performs authenticity of a certain kind for the assembled group: “If silence is the code among criminals, this criminal-turned-MC was an open book, ready for the press, ready to sell us the story of his realness, the indistinguishable line between rough rhymes and a former rough life.”
A fan of the rapper, Reeves believes in B.I.G.’s story, surely, but he also makes clear how aware he is of the theatrics inherent to the transformation from the person Christopher Wallace to the rapper The Notorious B.I.G.
How was this character-as-rapper arrived at? As discussed earlier, Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson searches for Dickinson specifically through the work the poet read. Howe writes that “. . . the way to understand [Dickinson’s] writing is through her reading. This sort of study, standard for most male poets of her stature, is only recently beginning . . . a proliferation of silly books and articles continue to disregard this great writer’s working process.”
The rappers that influenced B.I.G. are well known—his song “Juicy” lists some of them and various interviews detail the group in full—but lesser known are the movies that influenced him. Neither Biggie Smalls nor Frank White were original Christopher Wallace creations; they’re instead fictional characters from films, 1975’s Let’s Do It Again (with Calvin Lockhart as Biggie Smalls) and 1990’s King of New York (with Christopher Walken as Frank White). Each in turn shaped the man who behind the microphone became known as The Notorious B.I.G.
Both films are notable for different reasons. Starring Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby as factory workers who, via the Poitier character’s hypnotism skills, fix a series of boxing matches in New Orleans to raise money for their community-minded fraternal order, Let’s Do It Again is by and large a showcase for the comedic interplay between Poitier and Cosby and represented the middle film in a trilogy that Poitier and Cosby embarked on in the mid-1970s.
In a supporting role Let’s Do It Again also features Calvin Lockhart as gangster Biggie Smalls and in this context it’s as interesting to note what isn’t on screen versus what is. A gangster of national stature, Lockhart plays Smalls as someone who epitomizes the phrase speak softly and carry a big stick. By virtue of his calm, his lack of overt posturing or aggression, Lockhart’s Biggie Smalls comes off as insidious. This is contrasted in the film by the character of Kansas City Mack, a small-time Kansas City gangster who, hotheaded and fiery, is the exact opposite of Biggie Smalls and plays his nemesis.
The Biggie Smalls in Let’s Do It Again lacks all semblance of flamboyance and bluster, two traits that Christopher Wallace’s Smalls contained in droves. Yet what B.I.G. no doubt did find enthralling about Lockhart’s Biggie—to the point that he unsuccessfully tried to make Biggie Smalls his legal rap moniker, only settling on The Notorious B.I.G. after a lawsuit was brought against him—is the way that whenever he (Smalls) appears onscreen he dominates his surroundings, sometimes without even saying a word. Let’s Do It Again is a comedy but when Lockhart’s character appears onscreen the threat of violence seems to subtly pervade; the lower Biggie Smalls’ voice gets, the less he articulates, the more he seems to say.
As a teenage rapper Wallace initially assumed the name Biggie Smalls because it represented a contradiction of sorts; where Lockhart was skinny and leading man role handsome Wallace was large and rotund, not possessive of a “traditional” type of attractiveness. As his career progressed, though, Wallace’s use of the Biggie Smalls name also, knowingly or unknowingly, encompassed the silence is golden ethos that Lockhart’s Smalls had embodied. Unlike a lot of rappers past and present, Big didn’t name-call those he had a problem with on his recorded songs or in his live concerts. As he voiced on Life After Death song “Ten Crack Commandments,” moving in silence, filled with the soundless purpose of intent, is always superior to any other (noisy) option and such is Calvin Lockhart’s Biggie Smalls’ belief as well.
On the other end of the spectrum, Christopher Walken’s Frank White in King of New York is the type of gangster that rolls up to a funeral entirely populated by police officers, and, in midday, by his own hand, at point blank range, murders the cop he has a personal vendetta with. Frank White is a caricature of a certain sort in King of New York. Having spent half of his life in prison on drug charges, now that he’s out he oysters the world as a matter of course, sleeping with who he wants (his beautiful blond-haired lawyer, mostly), killing who he wants (rivals ganglords, members of his own crew who have turned on him and contemptuous cops and police chiefs, mostly) and essentially living free as the proverbial King of New York he now believes he has full license to be. White also, of course, has a benevolent side and an early plot thread of the film involves the gangster’s efforts to, via his illegally-sourced money, build children’s hospitals in disenfranchised New York neighborhoods, the kind the King of New York once grew up in.
The way Walken portrays him, Frank White is a maniacal tyrant. He is a tyrant, though, with an underlying sense of compassion and humanity; one of his refrains in the film is the line “I never killed anybody who didn’t deserve it.” (Which is admittedly a standard gangster trope.) When, after killing a police commissioner at the film’s end, White, shot himself, dies in the back of an abandoned cab in the middle of New York’s Times Square, cops slowly and confusedly swarming, unsure where to look, the viewer is allowed a moment of introspection: who is Frank White? Bloodthirsty, vindictive gangster or, as he maintains to law enforcement and anyone else who’ll listen, a moralist intent on working within the narrow confines that American capitalism and democracy allows him? In his key soliloquy in King of New York White asks rhetorical questions that most law-abiding citizens would rather not ponder, lest it force them to think beyond every drugs are bad and corruption is wrong black and white distinction:
You think ambushing me in some nightclub’s gonna stop what makes people take drugs? This country spends $100 billion a year on getting high, and it’s not because of me. All that time I was wasting in jail, it just got worse. I’m not your problem. I’m just a businessman.
What appealed to the rapper who later decreed himself to be “the black Frank White” in King of New York is the frenetic nature of Walken’s performance, certainly. A showman, Frank White is the opposite of Calvin Lockhart’s Biggie Smalls; he wants the attention, wants everyone around him to know who he is and where he stands. Spending half your life in a prison cell will do this to a person, no doubt, but one gets the sense that Frank White was always someone who various lights—of spots, of patrol cars—shined brightly upon.
The suavity of Calvin Lockhart’s Biggie Smalls and the excessiveness of Christopher Walken’s Frank White meet in the middle with Christopher Wallace’s Notorious B.I.G. Knowing the power of their respective soft and loud personalities, both characters inhabit a willful deception, one that they use to their advantage. As a rapper, then, B.I.G. took that advantage and made it his own, variously embodying each character’s dominant trait in many of his songs; alternating tone, scope and tenor from verse to verse. Twenty years on the rapper’s duality as an MC still leaves a formidable mark.
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” wrote Kurt Vonnegut in the 1966 introduction to his novel Mother Night (1961). If Vonnegut’s assertion yet rings true B.I.G. chose his pretendings as a rapper carefully. Imagined and yet indelibly authentic, they make him who he is and how he sounds.
At the end of My Emily Dickinson Susan Howe takes a step back from her subject, stating universally:
Poetry is the great stimulation of life…. Poetry is redemption from pessimism. Poetry is affirmation in negation, ammunition in the yellow eye of a gun that an allegorical pilgrim will shoot straight into the quiet of Night’s frame.
Replace poetry for hip hop in those sentences and all still holds true. When Howe was writing her book in the early 1980s Emily Dickinson had been dead for near a hundred years (she died in May 1886) and yet the power of her work and self allowed and allows for new interpretations and modes of thinking a full century later. Howe’s Emily Dickinson isn’t necessarily every person’s, surely. Due to the vastness of the poetry, though, Dickinson’s imagination working on each reader in finely calibrated ways, we are each allowed our own Emily Dickinson if we so desire one. Reading the poet closely is an act of creation and re-creation every time.
Twenty years after his own passing, my Notorious B.I.G. possesses a power that, like Dickinson’s, exists beyond death. Far from being a single-faceted gangsta rapper that solely relied on his own life experiences to come up with the narratives encased within his raps, B.I.G. crafted images that combined the imaginative and the actual flawlessly, fully authentic. As detailed in Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto and the poet’s own poems, the speakers of B.I.G.’s songs offer the listener an experience that is fictional—“all art”—and yet borne out of the instantaneous circumstances entrapped within real life; “[y]ou just go on your nerve.” Melded with the cinematic mythology he built for himself, the allure of my Notorious B.I.G. lies in the rapper’s sense of the fantastical. When coupled with tantalizing details from his own lived life, then, on songs like “I Got a Story to Tell” B.I.G. is not one rapper but two. Many hip-hop artists rap in character and most also incorporate both lived and fictional elements—but B.I.G. did it better than many and most. It’s why twenty years later his songs are still endlessly referenced and quoted; why both casual listeners and professional rappers alike search out where reality and fiction co-exist in them, parsing out the particulars. Hearing his most accomplished songs is seeing them; luxuriating in the reality of B.I.G.’s imagination. Fully immersed, it is like being alive twice, to quote from one of the colleagues of the great Chinese poet Tu-Fu.
“I am large, I contain multitudes” is how Emily Dickinson’s contemporary Walt Whitman put in the fifty-first section of “Song of Myself” and decreeing The Notorious B.I.G. to be large, container of multitudes, is perhaps the easiest way to conclude. Yet it’s the first two lines of that fifty-first section that are more worth focusing upon I think. Whitman writes:
The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
With every listen B.I.G.’s music fills the next folds of the future and, still evolving, it will continue to do so for years to come. “Grace/ to be born and live as variously as possible” declared Frank O’Hara in one of his poems and The Notorious B.I.G. fully enacted such graceful variety in his life and art.
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