The Number Ones

May 3, 1997

The Number Ones: The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

There is dark poetry in the way that Biggie Smalls, quite possibly the greatest rapper who has ever walked on this planet, started his career with a classic LP called Ready To Die and then followed it with Life After Death, a gargantuan double album that arrived in stores 16 days after Biggie’s murder. That seems like a strange coincidence, but it’s really not. Biggie spent his entire career obsessed with death because he knew that death was a constant possibility. In his music, you can hear the anxiety and hedonism of a guy who’s already achieved legend status but who knows that his success won’t keep him safe.

Ready To Die, one of my all-time favorite albums in any genre, is a stark, self-contradictory portrait of a troubled young man who doesn’t think that he deserves to see another day. The album has party songs, sex songs, and up-from-nothing motivational songs, but it’s firmly rooted in street life, in the dark first-person tales of robberies or reprisals or shootouts. The album famously ends with “Suicidal Thoughts,” the song where Biggie goes into deep and unsparing detail about his disgust with himself, then with a gunshot sound that seems to imply Biggie’s suicide.

That moment from “Suicidal Thoughts” is also the opening-track intro to Life After Death. Biggie’s sprawling sophomore album, then, begins with that stark imagery of this ascendant young star taking his own life, and it goes straight from there into “Somebody’s Gotta Die,” a grim story-song about street vengeance. Biggie breathlessly narrates a tale where he learns of a friend’s murder and then sets out to track down and kill the man responsible. “Somebody’s Gotta Die” ends with a hellish twist. Biggie finds the guy and fires six bullets into him, then realizes that the man he just killed was holding his daughter. From there, in a moment of tonal whiplash, Life After Death goes directly into “Hypnotize,” one of the greatest party songs of all time.

That tonal whiplash was nothing new for Biggie Smalls, a man who could make pillow-talk sound like a declaration of war and murder sound seductive. Biggie left behind a tiny catalog at the time of his death, but that catalog contains multitudes. When “Hypnotize” took off around the time of Biggie’s murder, the song seemed to transcend death itself. Biggie’s music almost certainly got more attention in the wake of his death, which is something that Biggie would’ve understood instinctively. Life After Death, after all, ends eerily with the brooding song “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” But “Hypnotize” soundtracked parties for years afterwards. The song was too alive to be overshadowed by death.

At this point, it feels pointless to delve too deeply into Biggie’s biography, since it’s been so endlessly mythologized, not least by Biggie himself. But since I understand that this column has readers who weren’t paying a ton of attention to rap music at the time, here’s the short version. Christopher Wallace, the son of Jamaican immigrants, was born in Brooklyn and raised right on the border between the Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods. (When Biggie was born, the #1 song in America was Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”) Christopher’s father was out of the picture, and he was raised by his mother Voletta, a preschool teacher. Young Christopher — nicknamed “Big” early on for obvious reasons — was a gifted student who didn’t see much future in school. He later claimed that he started slinging crack rock at the age of 12. His mother, who was working all the time, had no idea.

The 17-year-old Biggie dropped out of high school in 1989, and he went into crack sales full-time. Biggie started rapping on street-corners while dealing, and he quickly gained a reputation as the guy who could shut down any rapper in any Brooklyn neighborhood. But Biggie’s focus on criminal activities kept him in trouble. He was arrested a few times, and in 1991, he served nine months in jail after getting caught selling crack in North Carolina. After his release, Biggie got a little more serious about music. He took the name Biggie Smalls, after Calvin Lockhart’s bookie in the Sidney Poitier-directed 1975 blaxploitation comedy Let’s Do It Again, and he recorded a demo tape.

Biggie’s demo caught the attention of Mister Cee, Big Daddy Kane’s DJ, and of Matty C, a columnist for the rap magazine The Source. Matty featured Biggie in his storied “Unsigned Hype” column. Sean “Puffy” Combs ventured deep into Brooklyn to find this rapper and got him signed to Uptown Records, the label where Combs was A&R director. Biggie made his on-record debut on “A Buncha N***as,” a 1993 posse cut from Uptown star Heavy D. (Heavy D’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “Now That We’ve Found Love,” peaked at #11.)

While he was on Uptown, Biggie was still dealing, even though Puffy was constantly lobbying him to stop. Biggie rapped on remixes for Mary J. Blige, Neneh Cherry, and Super Cat, and he also learned that he had to change his name. A complete-unknown white kiddie-rapper had taken the name Biggy Smallz, and he threatened to sue, so Biggie became officially known as the Notorious B.I.G. (Nobody calls him that, though, so I will continue to refer to him as “Biggie” in this column.) Biggie had his breakthrough when his bellowing anthem “Party & Bullshit” appeared on the soundtrack of the Uptown-produced movie Who’s The Man and became an underground hit.

Biggie suffered a setback when André Harrell fired Puffy Combs from Uptown in 1993 and, almost as an afterthought, dropped Biggie from the label’s roster. But when Puff set up his new label Bad Boy in association with Arista, Biggie became his main-attraction artist. In the summer of 1994, Biggie’s Bad Boy labelmate Craig Mack reached #9 with “Flava In Ya Ear.” That song owed a whole lot of its pop success to its all-star posse cut remix, and Biggie had the riveting opening verse on that remix, talking about “You’re mad because my style you’re admirin’/ Don’t be mad, UPS is hirin’.” (That “Flava In Ya Ear” remix is a 10.)

In September of ’94, Biggie released Ready To Die. The album came out in the midst of a creative rebirth of New York rap, which had been wrongfooted by the sudden rise of West Coast G-funk. Ready To Die came out shortly after the release of other New York classics like Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Illmatic. Unlike those albums, though, Ready To Die aimed to be just as slick and forbidding as the music that was coming out of Death Row Records at the time, and it succeeded wildly. Biggie was a rapper with the complete package. As a writer, he was dense and allusive, great at working little assonant internal rhymes while still keeping a coherent narrative going. He was also bold and brash and charismatic, and his booming voice instantly commanded attention. Biggie first reached the Hot 100 as a lead artist with the self-mythologizing origin story “Juicy,” which peaked at #27 but which might now be Biggie’s best-loved song.

There’s a fascinating dynamic at work on Ready To Die. Biggie clearly imagined himself as part of a lineage of New York rappers, while Puffy pushed Biggie toward pop-crossover status, encouraging him to depict himself as a sex symbol and to rap over clean, nostalgic samples. Biggie was reluctant to adapt Puffy’s approach, but Puffy’s pop instincts were tremendous. In 1994, Biggie made it to #6 with “Big Poppa,” a laid-back party song that definitely adapted some of G-funk’s sonic movies. (It’s a 9.) Later that year, Puffy remixed the Biggie album track “One More Chance,” adding all sorts of sweeteners, and “One More Chance/Stay With Me” peaked at #2. (It’s another 9.)

One of the sweetening agents on that “One More Chance” remix was Faith Evans, an R&B singer signed to Bad Boy. (As lead artist, Faith Evans’ highest-charting single is 1998’s “Love Like This,” which peaked at #7. It’s an 8. As a guest, Evans will appear in this column very soon.) Biggie met Faith at a Bad Boy photoshoot a month before Ready To Die came out, and the two got married five days later. It was not a storybook marriage. Biggie regularly cheated on Faith, sometimes with the female rappers who he took under his tutelage. In 1996, Biggie and Faith were fully estranged, and Biggie’s former friend Tupac Shakur released “Hit ‘Em Up,” a withering diss track that included the claim that he’d had sex with Biggie’s wife. “Hit ‘Em Up” came out as one of the B-sides to “How Do U Want It,” Pac’s only #1 hit, and it got a lot of attention.

Biggie never really responded to “Hit ‘Em Up,” though he did throw little shots at Pac and Death Row from time to time. In the years between albums, Biggie mostly tried to stay above the fray, but the story of the East Coast/West Coast feud captured imaginations, and Biggie could never fully get away from it. Still, Biggie’s career thrived. Ready To Die was an instant classic that went double platinum during Biggie’s lifetime. (It’s now platinum six times over.) In the years that followed, Biggie collaborated with Michael Jackson, rapped on hits from Bad Boy labelmates like Total and 112, and released an album with his group Junior M.A.F.I.A. (Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s highest-charting single, the 1995 Biggie showcase “Player’s Anthem,” peaked at #13.)

In September of 1996, Tupac Shakur was shot dead in Las Vegas. At the time, Biggie was already working on Life After Death. LA Times writer Chuck Phillips once claimed that Biggie had supplied the gun that ended Pac’s life, but other journalists have debunked Phillips’ story. By most accounts, Pac’s murder unnerved Biggie deeply. A few days after Pac’s death, the Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Lil Cease crashed a rented SUV. Biggie, who never drove, was a passenger, and Biggie was hospitalized for months. (The cane on the “Hypnotize” single cover is not a prop.) Biggie thought about quitting rap in that moment, but instead he worked harder, and Life After Death became a double album.

Life After Death was supposed to be a kind of rebirth — Biggie leaving behind the violence and depression of his younger years, focusing on the maximalist good-time music that Puffy was pushing. There’s plenty of murder-talk on Life After Death, but the album veers all over the place sonically, creating this lush and complicated bed for Biggie to talk his talk. Puffy had gone on a trip to Trinidad with the Hitmen, his Bad Boy production team, and they’d made most of the beats that would appear on Life After Death and on Puffy’s own solo album. Puffy co-produced “Hypnotize” with Hitmen producers Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie and Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, both of whom had studied at Howard at the same time at Puff and who’d released one go-nowhere 1991 album as the rap duo Two Kings In A Cipher. Puffy, D-Dot, and Amen-Ra built the “Hypnotize” beat from a sample of “Rise,” the funky Herb Alpert instrumental that had been a #1 hit in 1979.

Those three producers made the “Hypnotize” beat from the slow-stroll “Rise” bassline and from an echoing guitar chord that appears about halfway through the track. As soon as he heard the beat, Biggie loved it. Herb Alpert’s nephew Randy “Badazz” Alpert had written “Rise” with his writing partner Andy Armer, and Badazz later told Soundfacts that he’d turned down multiple requests from rappers to sample “Rise.” When Puffy came to him with the request, Badazz asked why Puffy wanted to use that particular sample, and he liked Puffy’s answer: “He told me that in the summer of 1979, when he was I think 10 years old, the song was a huge hit everywhere in New York. ‘Rise,’ along with Chic’s ‘Good Times,’ were the songs that all the kids were dancing and rollerskating to that summer. He had always remembered that summer and that song.”

Badazz also says he had a feeling that “Hypnotize,” like “Rise” before it, could be a #1 hit. He was right. Badazz and Andy Armer both got writing credits on “Hypnotize,” but Bad Boy didn’t extend a credit to the person who’d originally come up with the hook. That was Slick Rick, a figure who’s come up in this column before. The original version of that hook came from “La Di Da Di,” the Slick Rick showcase that appeared on the B-side of Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew’s landmark 1985 single “The Show.” On “La Di Da Di,” Rick rapped over a beatboxing Doug E. Fresh, and he told a story about getting fresh in the morning and fending off the advances of the older women who wouldn’t leave him alone. When Rick rejects the too-aggressive mother of a prospective girlfriend, she sings him a song: “Ricky Ricky Ricky, can’t you see?/ Somehow, your words just hypnotize me/ And I just love your jazzy ways/ MC Rick, my love is here to say.” Slick Rick remains unmoved.

On “Hypnotize,” Biggie took that little bit of “La Di Da Di,” adjusted the wording slightly, and used it as a chorus. Biggie sang those lines himself on the “Hypnotize” demo, but on the single itself, the hook comes from Pam Long, one of the members of the Bad Boy girl group Total. (As lead artists, Total’s highest-charting single is the 1998 Missy Elliott collab “Trippin’,” which peaked at #7. It’s an 8. As guests, Total reached #3 when they sang the hook on the 1996 LL Cool J track “Loungin’.” It’s a 6.)

“Hypnotize” has a great slow-roll beat and a sticky hook, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making more of that than Biggie did. Biggie sinks into that groove with total authority, declaiming his own greatness in all sorts of witty, winky ways. Virtually everything that Biggie says on “Hypnotize” sounds like a hook. Individual lines are inscribed deep in rap’s DNA. There’s the opening line from the opening verse: “Ha, slicker than your average.” There’s this: “Dead right, if the head right, Biggie there erry night/ Poppa been smooth since days of Underoos.” Biggie never learned to drive, but a beautiful awe still creeps into his voice when he describes luxury vehicles: “The Lexus LS four and a half/ Bulletproof glass, tints if I want some ass.” One verse starts with Biggie describing how girls from certain cities are most into certain designers. There’s humor in his voice, as if he’s lightly mocking these girls’ materialism, but he also sounds proud to know this and to share this information with the world.

Biggie sounds like he’s having a great time throughout “Hypnotize,” but the song also represents Biggie ramping his style up for global consumption. On Ready To Die, it was enough for Biggie to talk about selling coke on corners or living in mansion and Benzes, giving ends to his friends and it feels stupendous. On Life After Death, Biggie goes bigger. His criminal exploits become the stuff of gangster movies. Biggie was already calling himself the Black Frank White, after Christopher Walken’s character in King Of New York, and he takes things further on “Hypnotize.” Consider the scenario laid out in this quick little aside: “At my arraignment, note for the plaintiff/ ‘Your daughter’s tied up in a Brooklyn basement.'” That story could be a whole song, but on “Hypnotize,” it’s just Biggie riffing — a line to kick out in between bragging about his “mansion paid for, no car payments” and how he’s “richer than Richie.”

If you get deep into the “Hypnotize” lyrics, there’s a lot of bloodthirst. Biggie will squeeze three at your cherry M-3 and bang every MC easily. He’ll blast, squeeze first, ask questions last. He also describes himself doing a whole lot of fucking. He invites you to have sex on rugs that’s Persian or to come up to your job and hit you while you workin’. Either way, he’ll leave that ass leakin’ like rappers’ demos. (Even in the pre-internet days, there was a brisk New York street-corner trade in bootlegged rap mixtapes; lots of demos that weren’t for public consumption still found their way into the world.) Even with all the sex and violence, though, “Hypnotize” never sounds shocking. It’s too good-natured. You can hear Biggie’s smile, and you know instinctively that he’s presenting all this stuff as escapist cinematic entertainment. He even highlights the gulf between his player talk and his headknock shit: “At last, a n***a rappin’ about blunts and broads, tits and bras, ménage à trois, sex in expensive cars/ I’ll still leave you on the pavement.”

That “at last” might sound like it’s a joke, but it’s not. When Biggie was alive, most of his peers were not going over-the-top with the extravagant rich-life boasting. Biggie had ascended to the point where he could rap about escargots and a car that go 160 swiftly, and he saw this as a win both for himself and for rap in general. In the years since, a great many rappers have chased that same grandeur, and nobody’s ever done it better than Biggie. Biggie just had a knack for saying stuff that sounded good. Play “Hypnotize” in your car, late at night, when there’s nobody else on the road and nothing but green lights ahead of you, and you will feel invincible.

Invincibility is a big theme of the “Hypnotize” video. Paul Hunter, the same director who’d made Puffy’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” clip and who would later make the movie Bulletproof Monk, stages an insane, incoherent action-movie spectacle. The video opens with Biggie and Puff in a speedboat, being chased by helicopters, and Biggie is so unbothered by his pursuers that he keeps rapping and smiling the whole time. He’s still smiling in the next scene, when Puffy is speeding backwards in a sports car as more faceless guys go after them on motorcycles. We don’t get any backstory, though you can probably assume that the people chasing them are cops. Later on, we see Biggie and Puff at a lavishly appointed party where the centerpiece is a giant fishtank full of dancers dressed as mermaids. We also see those same dancers in the ocean when Biggie and Puff are in their boat chase, and I guess the implication is that Biggie and Puffy are friends with actual mermaids?

Biggie didn’t live to see any of these, but 1997 was the year of insane action-movie blockbusters like Con Air and Face/Off. The “Hypnotize” video taps right into that same spectacle-happy zeitgeist, and it’s a blast. But I’ve never been a fan of how the “Hypnotize” clip, like so many other peak-era big-budget Bad Boy videos, drowns out the song with the sounds of helicopters and explosions. With that in mind, then, here’s “Hypnotize” embedded with no video bullshit:

Biggie released the “Hypnotize” single on March 4, 1997. Five days later, Biggie was in LA, leaving a Soul Train Awards after-party, when a car pulled up alongside and an unidentified gunman shot Biggie once. Biggie’s team rushed him to the hospital, and he was pronounced dead later that night. Biggie was 24 years old. A few weeks later, Biggie’s label boss Puff Daddy landed at #1 for the first time. “Hypnotize” debuted at #2 and soon pushed Puffy’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” out of the #1 spot. When that happened, Biggie became the fifth artist to top the Hot 100 posthumously.

Biggie died 17 years after the previous posthumous #1 hitmaker John Lennon, who was shot down in massively different circumstances. The previous posthumous #1 hits — Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” Janis Joplin’s “Me And Bobby McGee,” Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle,” Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over” — are all bittersweet songs in one way or another. “Hypnotize” is not. Biggie was younger than any of those other artists, but for all its crime-life boasts, “Hypnotize” is pure arrogant party-fuel. That’s how it played even after Biggie’s death. During Biggie’s funeral procession, crowds jammed Brooklyn streets to say goodbye. But when you see footage of people playing “Hypnotize” during that procession, it’s not a sad farewell. It’s a celebration, an explosion of love.

When “Hypnotize” reached #1, Biggie Smalls was nearly two months gone. But Biggie’s music continued to play everywhere for months afterward. Incredibly, we will see Biggie in this column again.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: For a very brief period in 1998, the Rock walked out to the WWF ring to a version of his theme music that had been put together specifically to rip off “Hypnotize” as hard as possible. Here’s the Rock, with his fake “Hypnotize” music, heading out to fight Al Snow on Monday Night Raw:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the great 1999 high-school flick 10 Things I Hate About You where a drunk Julia Stiles jumps up on a table and dances to “Hypnotize”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Hundreds upon hundreds of rappers have probably paraphrased the line about “if the head right, Biggie there erry night.” Here’s Nelly using that line on the hook of his great 2000 hit “E.I.”:

(“E.I.” peaked at #15. Nelly will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Monica singing over the “Hypnotize” beat on her 2002 album track “I’m Back”:

(Monica will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Hypnotize” soundtracking a brief scene in the 2018 masterpiece Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse:

(The Spider-Verse soundtrack will eventually appear in this column.)

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