Big L – Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (Columbia) LP
And where – you might be forgiven for asking – is the hip-hop? Well, first of all, we try not to call it “hip-hop” too much around here. Hip-hop is an aerobics class you can take at some yuppie gym. What we’re talking about here is rhyming, emceeing… rapping. And few have rapped better than the legendary Big L.
Big L was arguably the most talented emcee in producer Diamond D’s perennially (commercially) underachieving Digging in the Creates posse (D.I.T.C.) He first came to the rap world’s attention with a guest spot on “Represent”, the stand-out cut from Runaway Slave, Showbiz & AG’s classic 1992 album. On this track, L fairly bursts into life: “Yo, on the mic is Big L, that brother who kicks flav’, God/Known for sending garbage emcees to the graveyard.”
While L’s considerable talent was immediately obvious to anyone who heard the opening lines of “Represent”, he didn’t get to release his own solo album until 1995 – right at the tail end of hardcore hip-hop’s early-’90s golden age. Sadly, Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous ended up being his only proper full-length release – he died in 1999, leaving the follow-up uncompleted.
What’s so great about Big L, then? Well, to really understand that, you first have to look at what’s not so great about Big L. The thing is, perhaps more than any other emcee, Big L represents the central conundrum of rap music: how can such ugly sentiments be expressed so beautifully? On “Da Graveyard” L spits: “I make a duck shed much tears/I buck queers/I don’t have it all upstairs/But who the fuck cares?”
So, the sentiments expressed on Lifestylez… are ugly, even by the standards of mid-’90s rap. In particular, L’s homophobia is utterly rancid and unforgivable. He rhymes about his professed love of murdering homosexuals on just about every cut – to the point that it gets a little ridiculous.
And it’s that very ridiculousness that contains the seed of Big L’s salvation. See, while the gritty street tales of Lifestylez… go out of their way to “represent the real”, as all hardcore hip-hop lyrics must, L had a tendency to blow things way, way out of proportion. At one point, does he really rap about killing his own momma for small change?
Big L instinctively understood that emceeing is all about elevating boastfulness to a high art. Unlike a lot of emcees, though, he also understood that you have to make that shit funny and – above all – musical. “M.V.P.” may just be the high-water mark of funny, musical boasting in rap music: “In a street brawl I strike men/Quicker than lightning/You seen what happened in my last fight, friend?/A’ight then!”
“Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous” is not only the album’s title track, it’s also the perfect summation of Big L’s lyrical aesthetic, containing classic couplets like “Yo, I admit I’m a sucker/A low down dirty, sneaky, double crossin’, connivin’ muthafucka/Breakin’ in cribs with a crow bar/I wasn’t poor, I was po’/I couldn’t afford the O.R.” and “Some say I’m ruthless, some say I’m grim/Once a brother done broke into my house and I robbed him!”
Like all D.I.T.C. releases, this album has fantastic beats – eerie, inventive and dangerously funky. But it’s Big L’s prodigious lyrical talent and his ability to charm the listener against all odds that make Lifestylez… such a stand-out classic.
It’s hard not to feel that the ruthless, homophobic psycho Big L portrayed in his lyrics was merely the creation of a very smart artist, who new how to play up to the very specific demands of hardcore hip-hop’s core audience, while subtly subverting those same demands with wit and sly self deprecation.
On other albums from this period, the token “conscious” track can sound very contrived. But the conscious single from this album, “Street Struck”, sounds incredibly heartfelt. Knowing that L had two brothers who did time in prison puts real emotional weight behind lines like: “I’ve seen a lot of my peers/Give up their careers/For some fast money/They could have been boxers, ball players or rap singers/Instead they bank robbers and crack slingers/Hey yo, they used to be legit kids/Now they corrupt/They had dreams but gave ’em up/’Cos they street struck .”
Big L’s death was a pretty sorry affair. In fact, the story of L’s demise reads like one of his own sick jokes. He was shot and killed in an apparently senseless incident – a tragic crime that remains unsolved to this day. The best the cops could figure it, he was killed as revenge for something one of his brothers did in jail.
Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous seems to be in circulation as a vinyl LP, which you can obtain via Discogs marketplace.