this was by request. The boy Mike Gordon asked me to Review Big L’s Classic debut for my next installment of this section. It was a no-brainer seeing as to how the Harlem pioneer is heavily responsible for the inception and inclusion of Punchlines in my writing style.
I’m sure Mike will have plenty to say after reading this review, since it’s an album near and dear to his heart.
The pulse of the Diggin’ In The Crates collective of the 90’s is One of my favorites from my area and one of my greatest influences in rap. I studied his style so much so that I kinda outgrew it once I broke down the mechanics of how it worked. His multi-syllable flow and patterns of stacked rhyming sentences with rapid-fire delivery is not easy to recreate without sounding like a biter. But it is one that’s also not as complex as it would seem. What was to be learned from it, however, was the importance of timing. In hip-hop, just like any form of entertainment, timing is everything. L was a master of this. Even early on before the hype around him that we’ve all come to know existed.
I missed this wave somehow. This album was a Columbia records release, when Sony still had some kind of foothold on hip-hop. The same house that gave the world Illmatic. A year after that and one before The Other Columbia records classic, The Score, Big L quietly slid in with his ‘wild style‘. This product of rap’s ever-so-fabled “Golden Era” marked a turn in several trends in hip-hop. It was kind of a crossroads…somewhere at the point when the dark, grimey, rah-rah rap was on his last leg and still popular, but at the launching of the flossy, overtly braggadocio conversational style New York hip-hop of the mid- to – late 90’s that was laced with witty one-liners. Big L’s debut stood right there. You’ll hear tones of both on Lifestylez…
Now, this album wasn’t neccessarily blaring out of speakers in the Harlem streets, unless I severely missed something. But I was right there, in front of the radio in the dawn of my Hip-hop -headness, and no Big L records on the radio to be found. I do recall hearing the beat from “Put it on” loosely around the city, but I’m sure a song like that and would-be hit “MVP” got overshadowed by the Biggie song that used the same sample during that year.
See, this was before blogs. Before there were comment walls or message boards to fill with praise and nerdy dissection of lyrics. This was when the now legendary freestyle with Jay-Z was just….a freestyle. Everything known of L was all word of mouth and hip-hopper buzz. Imagine how he would have flourished in the post internet-dependent world, where folks could have seriously appreciated his wordplay and hunger. The man was an unprecedented Beast! Yet and still, I didn’t catch on to This 94-95 incarnation of L. The Hype didn’t exist until right before he died unfortunately. Before it was second nature to throw up the L with your fingers at a hip-hop show, the buzz had just started brewing for L due to the rise of Mixtapes. His collabos were growing, and he had just released the notorious “Ebonics/Size ’em up” single. I guess it didn’t hurt that somebody put the battery in the back of D.I.T.C. and they started releasing plenty of singles in preparation for their long-awaited album as a group. The rumor of him getting signed to Roc-A-Fella records at the time didn’t hurt either.
But see, this was the Big L that caught my attention. In high school, the talk about him was non-stop. I remember vividly, the day I decided to take a cue from him…. I was in summer school at La Guardia (shout out to Reeenie!), but we were across the street from MLK high school. This was right after L had passed and a summer where everyone was so laid back and in the chill zone, but of course, delinquency brings out the rappers! I was drawn into a comparative cypher in front of King with 2 kids from Queens who seemed to have lines for days. It quickly turned to a battle where my witty street-poetry lines were just not holding up and seeming to grab as much attention from the crowd as the Q-boro kids. My fellow Harlemites on the side were looking at me with disgust, saying ‘damn son, how you let these kids from Queens eat you?!’, quoting their lines and all. I turned to my homegirl at the time and she told me that my punchline game was weak, and that was what people react to. It was at that moment that I looked down at my book of rhymes and saw the sticker that I had on the cover. It was an R.I.P. sticker of Big L. I decided to make sure I never lost the crowd or any kind of battle due to lack of lines.
In a way, I’m glad it all happened like that. I caught on to Big L at the perfect time. I was there. I even saw him on his block one day getting his hair braided and caught an ice-grill. “Ebonics” changed my life. I bought his posthumous album that Rawkus records tried their damnest to beef up, I bought the Lackluster Diggin In The Crates album that was super late and only interesting on L’s verses. But it was really this album, the debut, that made me think how underrated he was. I truly believe that he was on his way to that status. He would have at least touched that late 90’s Cam type of fame. My boy used to bring print-outs of verses from his first album to school and I used to trip off of the fact that these were punchlines from ’94 that were better than what was out then. Fab would’ve had to get his weight up! It’s really a shame that up until right before his death, he was mainly an Underground artist, with One classic underground album.
This album starts off with the aforementioned “Put it on” which is probably one of the livest track 1’s in hip-hop history and so synonymous with the times… and thumping bass heavy beat that stutters near the hook build-up, background posse cheers, shout outs, and a dj (Kid Capri in this instance) obnoxiously adlibing. Yet and still it contains some of the most memorable Big L lines ever. It’s followed by “MVP” and what I presume was slated to be the big single had the album showed any promise of selling, “No Endz, No Skinz“.
Yes kiddies, you can tell by the title what era this song is from, but then again, even retreating back to that mindframe and the sound of that era, I remember thinking that this song was perhaps 2 years out of place even for the time it was out. It employed that Jazzy horn based kind of hip-hop beat that was ushered in and overused in the early 90’s by the influx of nerdy rap groups and producers looking for something more. Not to mention, rappers who just wanted to pay respect to their pop’s favorite music. It also had a cheesy call and response hook that sounded so 1993 you would think the Fu-schnickens and Onyx were doing the background vocals. You might wanna blame that on producer Showbiz being in some kind of time warp, but I truly believe that this and the other Showbiz produced tracks on the album were just old recordings that were saved up and made the final cut. The song still contains some sense of content for L, which was not his strong suit. It also was laced with humor, which was his strong suit, as well as a penchant for super misogynistic lines that bordered on bragging about abusing Women.
L’s Domestic Violence rhymes littered this album periodically. For every clever line like “I’m lookin’ nothin like your poppa, I wouldn’t give a chic 10 cent to put cheese on a Whopper!“, there’s a “a chic asked me for a ring and I put one around her whole eye!” or “and if I get Aids, then I’mma start rapin’ bitches!” (“All Black“). Just real unneccesary shit here…
But this is the entire angle of L’s approach, shock value! He makes it a point to announce his hunger to a reckless degree of not caring how he expresses it. Blame it on the Harlem sentiment of the time, the previous era of rah-rah, say-the-craziest shit-you-can-say kind of rap, or just his eagerness to stand out and grab attention, but L went out of his way to say outlandish punchlines. He’s very much so from the school of thought brought out by his mentor, Lord Finesse, who handles a fair share of production on this project. But Finesse was one of the first guys along with Kane and Kool G Rap who began taking witticism seriously in hip-hop toward the turn of the 80’s decade and began focusing on compound rhyme schemes that landed on clever sentences aimed at belittling the competition. What we have today as the standard for most rappers who we consider “nice”, was revolutionary back then and what we witness with L’s lyrics, is the evolution of that. He was second generation…designed to surpass Finesse. And he did.
But in the anxiousness to exhibit this, L would push super hard, with super hard beats accompanying to show you how serious he was, even in the midst of deadpan humor. This was the ethic that had rappers mistaking “hard” for “real” or successful, so the beats on this album were predominantly dark and grimy. Blame it on Wu-Tang. The initial 3 songs that I discussed are misleading. Until we get to the second to last tracks, we don’t hear anything close to the upbeat or groovy vibe introduced at the beginning. Everything in between is one stark, menacing New York Stick Up-Kid soundtrack.
Sometimes it works, where it becomes apparent that L may be playing a role or creating a fictionally exaggerated version of himself, Like on the title track. The extreme scenarios depicted by l in this song clearly planted the seeds for stuff like Cam’s “Confessions“. Like I said, there was some kind of Harlem kid sentiment to be the best and outdo any other rapper that came before by pulling the crazy card. I guess the idea was to talk so insane that it trumped bragging itself.
Where Big L shined the most tho,
was in his storytelling and picture painting. Like a more hands on, and less poetic Nas, L weaved street stories from a narrative standpoint, usually in third person. They were relatable, tho Harlem-Centric (as were most of his rhymes – you already know! Harlem all day!), and easy to follow. From loose diatribes like “I can’t Understand it” and “Fed Up With The Bullshit“, to more solid tales like “Lifestylez...” and “Street Struck“, L was definitely an urban Griot in his own right.
What makes this album the most famous, is who was actually made famous or became so subsequently. The biggest tragedy, many believe, is that 2 of the most minor guests on this album went on to become 2 of the BIGGEST rappers to ever set foot in the game. Their fame even while L was still alive was like a slap in the face, because guess what? No Big L features on their projects! We never know what goes on behind the scenes for sure, but you can definitely see L’s sense of charity in full effect back then when he shares the mic with 7 other Harlem niggas destined to NEVER make it on the song “8 iz enuff“. In this mix is a young, unpolished Cam’ron who can get easily lost in the sauce if you’re not distinctly looking for him. This same generosity is extended on the Horrible track “The Graveyard“, where the names that you know on it are the only names worth knowing! Lord Finesse sets it off and Jay-Z (version 1.0) comes off as eager as L does, shoutin his verse and rapping with at least 4 different flows to make sure you know he’s got versatility. Safe to say, L was better than all of them at this point in their careers.
However, at some point in time, L got stuck. The dudes he was attempting to bring up had surpassed him in multiple aspects. He might’ve relied on his rhyme-for-rhyme style too heavily. Although he would often fore-go the couplets that his peers used and developed a unique pattern of stacking sentences and speeding up to slow back down, after a while it can get almost predictable. Or at least to me, what weighed that style down was the fact that in the frenzy to get to that oh-so special last line, he squeezed a bunch of random, awkwardly placed words and sentences in to make it connect. And if they all did interweave, then it was usually a series of wild sentences that would all lead to one outrageous conclusion, like on “The Graveyard” where L exclaims that he’s “lightin’ niggas like incense, gettin’ men lynched, and when tense, I’m killin infants for ten cents!” Really tho? This line resonated with me and my boy Brandon so much that we started referring to rhymes when rappers reach to make punchlines connect as that ol’ ‘infants for 10 cents’ shit.
Either way, Big L is one of the nicest ever, and I think he could’ve gave Big and Jay some comp had he got his content game up. L doesn’t welcome you into Harlem as a tour guide, he instead pulls a Training Day move on you; he puts you in the passenger seat and takes you as he makes his crazy runs and tells you to pay attention. This album is 139th street and Lenox avenue essentially. If you want to hear some of the greatest punchlines in hip-hop history, then peep this classic album. But if you’re looking for depth or some kind of Journey, this is not the record.
Overall, as a Classic Album, I give Big L’s Lifestylez Ov Da Poor N Dangerous 8 Candles out of a possible
4, 8, 12 or 16.
4(Classic Just because where it stands in Hip-Hop, whether it be the time of it’s release, it’s influence, or the popularity of it’s singles overall)
8(Classic because it was solid for it’s time, but may be a little dated or less than amazing by today’s standards)
12(Classic as a complete release and probably celebrated widely on the surface, but possibly lacking one key element – be it one song that doesn’t fit, a wack guest appearance, lyrics, lack of depth or beats)
16(Classic all around)
My Favorite joints are “Let em have it L“, “Street Struck“, “Lifestylez Ov Da Poor N Dangerous” and “MVP“