Thirteen years ago today, Big L, widely regarded as one of the best and most creative rappers to ever do it, was gunned down outside a Harlem apartment. Even if you don't know his name, you know his style, as the rapper's mastery of multisyllabic words and stand up comic-level punchlines influenced everyone from Eminem to Jay-Z to Mac Miller (the latter recently showed off his new tattoo dedicated to the rapper).
It's a testament to the rapper's skill that despite only releasing one proper album (followed by the inevitable string of posthumous releases), Big L's legacy has been felt for years. Here are 10 tracks to get you started, but if you need more background music, we've got a full Tribute Playlist up on our Spotify app.
Named after his company Flamboyant Entertainment, this track from the rapper's posthumous album The Big Picture sees L working the multi-syllabics, surprising you "like a blind date/L rhyme great/And I'm a increase the crime rate for old time's sake."
9. "Da Graveyard"
Even when L rhymed that he was known for "snatchin' purses and bombin purses," it was always with a wink-wink far removed from the gangsta posturing of his peers. This track from L's only proper album Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous features then-unknown rapper Jay-Z. Yep. Jigga was a mere guest to L's spotlighting role.
8. "Fed Up wit the Bulls**t"
L was always known as a punchline rapper, but also wrote about social criticism as on this track, which details police harassment and brutality. "One murdered my man like it was okay/For the life he ended/He got suspended with no pay," rhymed L.
7. "Devil's Son"
Flipping a Nas sample from Main Source's "Live at the BBQ," this is L at his most aggressive and violent. I can't really quote anything from this without my boss calling me in for "a meeting," but it's worth checking out.
"The most valuable poet on the M-I-C." L's official video is a bit too smoothed out, neutering the rapper's growling flow. I'm going with the original version, which flips DeBarge's "Stay With Me" (the same piano loop Biggie would later use for the remix of "One More Chance") for a track that's simultaneously laid-back and boastful.
At the height of the ebonics controversy, the rapper recorded an entire song defining numerous slang words. "A hotel's a telly/A cell phone's a celly/Jealous is jelly/Your food box is your belly." Suburban white hip hop fans everywhere took notes.
4. "'98 Freestyle"
When the rapper appeared on popular hip hop radio DJs Stretch and Bobbito's show for two blistering verses, it was a showcase for some of his best punchlines. "Ask Beavis, I get nothing but head." "I'ma take you out your misery/And after this/Put you in the social studies book 'cause you're history." And many more lines that are NSFW. Big L sums up his legacy arrogantly but truthfully: "You could listen to my first album/And tell where a lot of n***as got their whole style from."
3. "Size 'Em Up"
One of L's most popular songs, the rapper flipped "You Can Exit," a mellow 1970s R&B song by Gloria Gaynor, into a horn-blasted William Wallace-sized announcement that L has arrived. This is what you put on before a fight to psych yourself up. You will win.
2. "Put It On"
Big L's first single floats over a bouncy, radio-friendly beat that paradoxically works perfectly with his rough, street-ingrained flow. Producer and friend Lord Finesse said that the label "wanted something with a hook that would be kinda catchy, and something they could get radio play with. Like, everything [L] did was dark, and it was gangsta." "And when it comes to gettin' nookie/ I'm not a rookie/I got girls that make that chick Toni Braxton look like Whoopi." Brilliant.
1. 1995 Big L and Jay-Z Freestyle
In February, 1995, Big L and Jay-Z went on Stretch and Bobbito's show, and their appearance became an underground classic thanks to L's witty lyrics and Jay-Z's early, hyper-speed flow. Jigga would release his debut album Reasonable Doubt a year later (and almost sign Big L to Roc-A-Fella years later), but gets shown up by the master here.