If you’re going to talk about rankings and lists, and you’re the least bit interested in rap, then you’ve got to wonder: Does comparing 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. even get us anywhere?

Andrew Skidmore

They were the twin stars of rap’s surreal push into the public eye.

Their deaths have embodied the unfairly short life-span (both artistic and physical) forced onto rap artists.

Both have seen their posthumous legacies raided by a cavalcade of puppeteers and shills.

But their styles were as divergent as their lives were joined at the hip.

They’ve become morality tales, icons, demi-gods and cultural touchstones for pretty much every section of American youth.

Someone asked me what our generation’s uniting moment was. You know, The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Nirvana’s Nevermind. The type of moment/movement that gets chalked up in Time/Life anthologies until our grandkids turn around and ask us about some long-forgotten year in our twenties. We’ve got a moment, and as sad as it is to say, that generational moment is the harrowing time encompassing the shooting deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie.

Putting their pasts and their lives behind us (and we have to do this, to make the ad hominem and biographical arguments secondary to the art itself), is, after all, the only real way of taking these men and their music seriously.

Without upsetting the geometric balance of the world around us, and with a generous artistic appraisal of both men’s catalogues, I can safely say that the Notorious B.I.G. was a superior MC, album artist, lyricist and artistic presence than 2Pac.

Let the threats and taunts begin.

Notorious B.I.G.’s two proper albums, the breath-stealing debut of Ready To Die and the operatic double-album Life After Death, are brutal, darkly introspective albums with jaw-dropping lyrical adroitness. From the diamond-cut internal rhymes of “Hypnotize” to the stunning images of “Suicidal Thoughts,” both of Biggie’s studio albums enthrall listeners with consummate hardcore raps that meld memory, imagination and a palpable sense of alienation. The fact that Biggie’s record labels had faith in him from the very start (he was, after all, the man who brought the spotlight of the rap world back to the East Coast after California G-Funk), didn’t just make his life more complex and interesting, it subtly affected his art in a way no rapper has channeled since.

Biggie allowed fame, or at least the concept of it, to seep into his art. He never threw artistic tantrums (see 2Pac’s “Hit ‘Em Up”). He could play both sides of an equation. Both “Mo Money, Mo Problems” and “You’re Nobody (‘Till Somebody Kills You)” are about fame. One is the quintessential big-budget rap jam; the other is a bleak, unflinching take on the role of the black male artist in society. He never needed to scream for redemption and understanding from the public, his records spoke for themselves.

And it’s those records that ultimately put him over the top. Even at 17 tracks, his debut probably only has one genuine filler song (“Respect”) and even his double album – the double album being the true bane of all rappers – has only four or five forgettable joints.

Now compare that to 2Pac. Pac never put out a genuinely five-star album; both of Big’s albums easily slide past 4.5 stars. Ready To Die alone is a Top 10 rap album of all time. 2Pac’s only essential offering is his greatest hits collection. Pac is a singles artist, no different than Grandmaster Flash. Even his stronger albums like Me Against The World are rife with half-serious screeching (“Lord Knows”) and way too many appearances by the Outlawz. Frankly, 2Pac was a decent rapper whose thug-life manifestos are just decent updates of Ice Cube’s early work. Yes, both Cube and Pac rage against inner-city dehumanization. But 2Pac’s zeal, incredibly “spiritual” and edifying verses can be preachy enough to alienate. He took Ice Cube’s template and just made it abstract and instructional. Biggie always showed before he told; too many times 2Pac would “teach” and “preach” instead of letting his diction and verses do the work for him. Biggie was the craftsman; Pac was the star-crossed, flickering candle. 2Pac’s lasting memory is his startling rise to fame and his tumultuous self-destruction. People obsess over 2Pac’s actions because it’s far more compelling than his art. He’s still a Top 20 rapper to be sure, but nowhere near Biggie’s ridiculous blend of charm, use of metaphor and simile and vision for albums.

I don’t mean to slander 2Pac’s legacy (Suge Knight and the Shakur family seems to be doing a very good job of that); he’s arguably done more for rap as a icon than anyone else, but it’s important to remember that as much of a man as he was, he was an artist, and a pretty good one at that.

Just not as good as Biggie.

-Evan loves rap music and wishes he was half the rapper 2Pac was. Send him 2Pac fanpics at evanbmcg@umich.edu.

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