Friday, August 31, 2007
Albums You Should Own: Big L - Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous
“Put It On”, the very, first song on Big L’s classic debut Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous, contains the bitterly ironic lines: “If you battle L, you picked the wrong head/I smash mics like cornbread/You can’t kill me, I was born dead.”
The tragedy of Big L’s murder isn’t quite the same as Biggie’s or Tupac’s tragic demise. Big L was not in the midst of violent beef between fellow rappers nor was he nearly as famous or iconic as them. By all accounts, his murder was in retaliation of a street debt that L’s brother had gotten involved with and couldn’t pay because he was in jail. The true tragedy of the murder is that world never got a chance to see just how amazingly gifted Big L was as lyricist and an artist. His only album that he released while living, Lifestylez Ov Poor & Dangerous, only serves as a bitter reminder of what could have been with Big L if he had lived.
Make no mistake, Big L was waaaaay ahead of his time. If you were to trace the lyrical DNA of every generic mixtape rapper working in the United States (and especially in New York), it would trace directly back to Lamont Coleman. Big L was the prototype for what I’ve somewhat mockingly called the “Punchline Lyricist.” Punchline lyricism is a form of rapping in which poeticism and storytelling are eschewed for witty or comedic one-liners and similes(*cough* usually about how much coke you sell *cough*) or rather as they are more commonly referred to “punchlines.” While I may mock Young Murda-A-Lot for being simplistic and clichéd when a rapper drops an album full of cheesy one-liners comparing cocaine to white girls or whatever; make no mistake Big L was a true master at the art form. His punchlines were vicious, and full of a dark, twisted wit that seems to escape the Jae Millz’ of the world. He’s the MC that Pusha T or Lil’ Wayne are trying to be but can’t quite pull off when they rhyme. His punchlines could be both perversely funny and at the same time extremely threatening. And yet oddly , he had this weird every man charm that made him quite likable and palatable despite him threatening to beat your mother, your daughter and your girlfriend up with a shovel. Make no mistake, Big L was truly a hardcore rapper and not in the sanitized radio friendly, 50 Cent way. He was not for everybody but oh, was he good.
Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous is like listening to horror film set in Harlem on wax. “Danger Zone” might just be pound for pound the hardest and most offensive rap record ever produced. Amongst numerous Satanic references on the record, Big L brazenly declares “They say a real man won’t hit a girl/but I ain’t real cuz I beat bitches up.” Also on that particular record, I believe he claims that he murders nuns on Sunday, that he doesn’t believe in God, would rape Christ, and doesn’t really give a shit because he knows he’s going to hell anyway. The first time, I heard that record, my mouth dropped. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I then immediately replayed the song over and over, again because I was perversely thrilled to hear a record that dark, warped and twisted but at the same time have a knowing, sly sense of humor to it all. As if to say, “You motherfuckers thought you knew hardcore. I’ll show you hardcore!” I don’t even think Marilyn Manson would go as far as say he would rape Jesus Christ.
While “Danger Zone” is L at his darkest, “Put It On” is L when he’s at his most playful. Over a Buckwild beat and a memorable chorus provided by Kid Capri himself, Big L drops memorable punchlines after memorable punchlines giving a clinic to future emcees on how to rock a mic. It’s a thrilling opener and represents one of the only playful moment on album that is darker than dark.
If there is anything that is weak about this album, the production is workmanlike and isn’t nearly as show stopping as Big L’s raw lyricism. It’s handled mostly by Big L’s D.I.T.C. cohorts, Buckwild, Lord Finesse and Showbiz, and they do give an album a gritty, hard texture that fits perfectly with the album but I wonder if this album received the level of production that Jay-Z had on Reasonable Doubt (who also shows up on the great posse cut “Da Graveyard” in all of his pre-Roc-A-Fella Fu-Schnickens biting glory) or Raekwon had on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx than this album would be in the pantheon of great rap records those currently occupy.
Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous remains one of the lesser known classics of the mid-90s New York hardcore renaissance and I decided to write about it to give it a bit of the more shine it deserves. If you listen to it, pay particular close attention to Big L’s style of rhyming and you can exactly see how many of your favorite rappers owe Big L their career whether they know it or not. Murder is always tragic but when it takes away such a young and talented artist who never got their fair shot at superstardom than have you have to wonder what it’s all for.