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The 50 Best Notorious B.I.G. Songs

On the 25th anniversary of the legendary rapper’s tragic death, we honour his incredible musical legacy by counting down his 50 best songs.

Chris Walter/WireImage; Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; Larry Busacca/WireImage

When Christopher George Latore Wallace was fatally shot at a Los Angeles traffic light on March 9, 1997, he was 24 years old and had released one album. But his stature at the time was towering, due both to his peerless artistic gifts and the desperately competitive atmosphere within hip-hop, viewed either rightly or wrongly as one of the few career dreams for Black kids boxed in by poverty, mass incarceration, racist drug policy, and corrupt, violent policing. That stature has only grown in the 25 years since. If the Notorious B.I.G. isn’t the greatest rapper ever (he is), then he’s the most respected. His narrative mastery, linguistic joy, dizzyingly rhythmic flows, emotional depth, and wry wisdom have never been equaled. Here’s why Biggie Smalls is still the illest.

From Rolling Stone US

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‘Sky’s the Limit’ feat. 112 (1997)

According to producer DJ Clark Kent, the beat for “Sky’s the Limit” passed through several rappers, including Jay-Z and LL Cool J, before the Notorious B.I.G. secured it for Life After Death. “When he heard ‘Sky’s the Limit,’ I was like, well this track is for Akinyele, so you can’t have it. He’s like, ‘Nah, I need that’,” the producer told BET in 2017. Peaking at Number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Sky’s the Limit” finds Biggie reminiscing about his pre-stardom hustler days over a soulful groove lifted from Bobby Caldwell’s “My Flame.” But it’s mostly famous for Spike Jonze’s imaginative video, where young children were cast in the roles of Biggie, 112, Lil Kim, Puff Daddy, and Mase. —M.R.

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‘What’s Beef?’ (1997)

The supposed feud with Death Row Records was working Biggie’s last nerve; rappers posing like they were eager to start a shootout with any and everybody was laughable. So he tried to give some perspective. Hip-hop, like all art, is an imaginative shading of reality, and the studio does not protect you from life outside, which our antihero explained using a series of torture metaphors. Unfortunately, 2Pac, as we know, did not give a fuck. —C.A.

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‘Crush on You’ Lil’ Kim feat. Lil’ Cease (1996)

What Biggie brings to Lil’ Kim’s hit is an anchoring earworm of a hook that takes it over the top. B.I.G., whose appearance on the track isn’t credited, comes through with the most mellow voice you hear. And it works like a charm. His playful overtures seem to harmonize with the lush chords (lifted from Jeff Lorber’s 1979 single, “Rain Dance”), making this flirt fest the aural equivalent to a “Do you like me? Check yes or no” note. —W.D.

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‘Ready to Die’ (1994)

“Ready to Die” is a chilling blast of fatalism from a man who all but invited death to a staring contest. Like some Fulton Street version of Antonio Block in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Bed-Stuy’s Finest played chess with mortality. When he pleads, “Fuck the world, fuck my moms and my girl/My life is played out like a Jheri curl,” you can’t help but be moved by his stoicism. —W.D.

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‘Madison Square Garden Freestyle’ Big Scoob, the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Shyheim, Big Daddy Kane (1995)

On Oct. 22, 1993, Big Daddy Kane, backing dancer Scoob Lover, and DJ Mister Cee performed a 10-minute set at the Budweiser Superfest — an annual touring revue headlined that year by SWV, Bell Biv Devoe, and Silk. “Being it’s New York, we wanted to do something extra crazy for the show. So we asked Big to come out,” Mister Cee told MTV in 2010. When they got to the venue, 2Pac and onetime Wu-Tang affiliate Shyheim were there, too. Kane then brought all three rappers onstage for one of the most memorable live freestyle sessions in rap history. Thanks to Mister Cee capturing the moment on cassette, Biggie’s shout “Where Brooklyn at?” is now legendary. —M.R.

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‘Suicidal Thoughts’ (1994)

On Ready to Die’s closing song, all Biggie’s bravado and audacity have been ground down to guilt and self-pity. A phone call from Diddy shakes him awake, and he raps his reply in one three-minute verse: “I swear to God I want to just slit my wrists,” he spits. It’s an unmatched, hip-hop portrayal of utter despair, especially when he admits that he willfully betrayed his loved ones. —C.A.

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‘Real Love (Remix)’ Mary J. Blige feat. the Notorious B.I.G. (1992)

Most of the time, Big’s ladies were off-screen, singing the hook. “Real Love” is a balance of equals, the queen of hip-hop soul and the king of New York as natural allies. Biggie dips in, support a fellow monarch in her time of need (“Look up in the sky It’s a bird, it’s a plane/ Nope, it’s Mary Jane, ain’t a damn thing changed”) and bounces. Perfect. —J.G.

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‘One More Chance / Stay With Me (Remix)’ feat. Faith Evans (1995)

Sharing very little but subject matter with the porny Ready to Die album cut called “One More Chance,” this R&B remix sports a few lines as iconic as anything in his catalog. This is Biggie at his second-person best, laying out the case (“First thing’s first…”) for sex with him, complete with future separated spouse Evans singing the hook. Closing argument: “Your flight leaves at eight/Her flight lands at nine, my game just rewinds.” Why yes, he was indeed the player president. —J.G.

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‘Gimme the Loot’ (1994)

If you were walking alone, epecially at night, in 1980s/’90s New York City, getting mugged was a daily concern. Here, Biggie voiced what that reality meant for Black youth — the need to project fearlessness and strength, while constantly being suspicious, on alert, and harassed by bigoted cops. Rapid-fire rapping as himself and his younger self (using different voices), he played a pair of overamped thieves, doing more posturing than robbing, to a morbidly absurd extent (“I been robbin’ motherfuckers since the slave ships”). —C.A.

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‘I Got a Story to Tell’ (1997)

Not a fable or jarring, pothole-level street drama, this is pure dramatic monologue told simply for the raw-dog joy of telling. It boasts nothing but the protagonist’s considerable, if nasty, charms and resourceful wit. Propelled by Bucwild’s lickety-split beat (built from Al Jackson Jr.’s crispy drums on Al Green’s “I’m Glad You’re Mine”), Biggie talks shit about his sexual perils, in this case on the mattress of New York Knicks bully baller Anthony Mason. —C.A.

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‘Kick in the Door’ (1997)

DJ Premier was a drummer himself, and perhaps that’s why his beats have such an immutable grit, jolt, and dimension, yet snugly fit with the song’s other elements (sharply scratched samples, sound effects, etc.). And maybe that’s why, on “Kick in the Door,” Biggie’s slightly bemused voice has such a hyperfocused, pinpoint force. Yes, the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sample adds a bone-chilling thrill, but the show is Biggie methodically rhyming circles, trapezoids, rhombuses, and fucking obtuse triangles around his hapless contemporaries. It’s not a diss song; it’s over. —C.A.

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‘Warning’ (1994)

In the history of murder ballads, Biggie should be in the pantheon, along with Ghostface Killah, Slick Rick, Kool G Rap, Ice-T, et al. And “Warning” is a spiky myth of hateration told with shuddering concision and visual splendor that would fluster the Greek god of jealousy (what’s gucci, Phthonos?). Big raps in the voice of two different characters; is depressed and dismayed that Brooklyn kids would try him simply because of his success; and then flips to their point of view as they recognize the infrared dots on their foreheads. —C.A.

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‘Things Done Changed’ (1994)

On Ready to Die‘s intro, the character of “The Notorious B.I.G.” gets out of jail, and as “Things Done Changed” picks up the story, he’s briefly nostalgic. But the grinding, violent misery and racist contempt of the crack era has blighted his memories. Producer Darnell Scott builds a twinkling, but hard-hitting, arrangement from a Main Ingredient sample that mirrors Biggie as he moves from irritable to disgusted to reflective. His sign-off: “Shit, my mama got cancer in her breast, don’t ask me why I’m motherfuckin’ stressed.” —C.A.

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‘Party and Bullshit’ (1993)

Out of context, this debut single (paid for by Puffy Combs, then at Uptown Records) is in hot pursuit of fairly mundane, youthful pleasures — girls, weed, the latest sneakers. But it’s early ’90s New York, so Biggie’s guard is up and his body armored, rip-roaring and reckless, counterpunching with caustic punchlines, and quoting the Last Poets’ and Rodney King’s entreaties to Black America like some crazy shit some dude said at a party. —C.A.

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‘Unbelievable’ (1994)

A neck-snapping call to order amid a hail of bullets, “Unbelievable” is Biggie announcing himself as “the livest one” on his Bed-Stuy promenade and beyond. Not only did he strike fear in MCs with a landslide of outlandish, gun-waving punchlines and elbow-throwing internal rhymes, he illuminated project-hallway imagery, taunted white bystanders, and instructed DJ Premier to sample the smoothly sung title from a random verse on an R. Kelly slow jam. —C.A.

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‘Hypnotize’ (1997)

“Hypnotize” was released on March , 1997, five days before Biggie’s death, and many fans heard the tragic news of his passing just as they were first basking in the glow of this glorious party anthem. Skimming a sample of Herb Alpert’s “Rise” and a Slick Rick interpolation, “Hypnotize” was an opulent stunner, a smash-hit celebration of the wealth, women, and sweaters once dreamed about and now fully available, rapped in a style that was savvy, subtle, and slick. The more distance from 3/9/97, the more of a joyful remembrance this song became. —J.G.  

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‘Everyday Struggle’ (1994)

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that if society broke down, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That broken society is Biggie’s subject on this bookend to “Juicy,” where the drug trade exploits those who suffer most from poverty, racism, and the rest. A lovely melodic phrase (here, from jazz pianist Dave Grusin) leavens the narrative’s unsparing baritone thunder, but it’s Big’s uncanny rhythmic cadence that keeps you breathless. —C.A.

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‘Who Shot Ya’ (1995)

“As we proceed to give you…” a lyrical lambasting of Ecclesiastical magnitude. The atmosphere alone created by the resituating of that delicate piano sample from David Porter’s “I’m Afraid the Masquerade Is Over” makes you feel as if you’ve wandered into a religious service and can’t feel your face. But Biggie’s most battle-ending performance may be remembered more for microwaving his discord with 2Pac to a point of no return. Although the song absolutely was not written about his supposed rival MC, the fact is that the lickshot reverberations of the song remain, Big and ‘Pac do not. —C.A.

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‘Ten Crack Commandments’ (1997)

In professorial mode, Biggie slaps you upside the head with a jewel-encrusted wooden pointer, and DJ Premier crafts a taut, back-stiffening beat that spotlights Chuck D’s stentorian countdown and Les McCann’s soul-jazz electric piano. The writing itself is peerless; the delivery is mesmerizing. The very idea that he’s sharing his coke-dealing tips in manual form is bonkers. Note: Just the other day, I heard a white sports-radio dork scold somebody for getting high on their own supply and wished Biggie was around to shut his ass down. —C.A

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‘Big Poppa’ (1994)

Even as a very young, belligerent street kid, Biggie carried himself with a venerable authority. He was the éminence grise of the bodega cypher. As a result, he could flow serenely over that familiar Minimoog whistle — here sampled from the Isley Brothers’ quiet-storm staple “Between the Sheets” — and still sound like he had a gun in your ribs. His sweet talk was almost formal, yet vile at the same time: “Allow me to lace these lyrical douches in your bushes”? You had to laugh, or else. —C.A.

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‘Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)’ Craig Mack feat. the Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, and Rampage (1994)

An ineffable moment when the attitude, the sound, the movement, the art, the fashion, the business, and the whole damn sociocultural engine of New York City went skrrrrrrrp. It started with the snare-crackin’, siren-swirling, funky-earth mover beat — produced by Easy Mo Bee on a SP-1200 sampler that he played like an eight-key grand piano. Apparently, Biggie thought Mack was, let’s say, “basic,” as an MC, especially beside three eventual G.O.A.T.s (plus Rampage). At the time, 22-year-old Biggie only had a single and a few features, but his opening verse set off car alarms around the world: “You’re mad ’cause my style you’re admiring/Don’t be mad, UPS is hiring.” —C.A.

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‘Juicy’ (1994)

“It was all a dream…” goes one of the most famous opening verses in history. “Juicy” was full of layers both prominent and subtle: It not only epitomized the Notorious B.I.G.’s evolution from street hustler to successful musician, but also symbolized how the East Coast rap establishment learned to adapt to shifting pop tastes and a then-omnipresent G-funk sound. Co-produced by Poke of the Trackmasters and Puffy, it’s a stark departure from the dusty boom-bap sound New York rap was known for and boasted a smoothly harmonized chorus from soon-to-be famous girl group Total. In his book Decoded, Jay-Z explained how Biggie’s ad-lib about being arrested simply for “trying to feed my daughter” held deep meaning. “I loved that he described what a lot of hustlers were going through in the streets — dissed and feared by teachers and parents and neighbors and cops, broke, working a corner to try to get some bread for basic shit — as more than some glamorous alternative to having a real job,” wrote Jay. “He elevated it to ‘the struggle.’ ” —M.R.