There is a common misperception when it comes to hip-hop lyricism and commercial sales. Often, fans, rap critics and artists themselves believe that in order to garner platinum plaques, quality rhymes have to be sacrificed.
Fifteen years ago today, on April 28, 1998, Big Pun proved that notion was severely flawed when he dropped his debut LP, Capital Punishment.
Marked by expert wordplay, vivid storytelling, knee-slapping humor and catchy choruses, Pun’s first album went on to cement him as one of rap’s greats. The entire album was heralded by fans and critics alike, and thanks to its salsa-tinged single “Still Not a Player,” the Big Punisher became the first Latino solo rap act to sell a million-plus albums.
“I’m the first Latino soloist ever to get a platinum plaque, and that’s special to me, because we love hip-hop, and as kids, we need somebody to look to, to strive further,” Big Pun told MTV’s “News 1515” show back in August 1998, right after Capital Punishment hit the million mark.
Pun influenced many who came after him, and it all started with Capital Punishment. The 24-track masterpiece opens with a cinematic sample from the 1994 street drama “Fresh.” “Punisher be taking out all you superheroes,” hollers then-child actor Luis Lantigua, who was actually referencing the Marvel Comics character the rapper took his name from.
Every song that followed backed the boastful claim in the intro, but instead of comic heroes, the Bronx, New York, rap assassin aimed to take out his hip-hop competitors. The Juju-produced “Beware” is driven by pounding drums, terrifying string plucks and endless lyrical threats. “My squad is real and holds it regardless/ What size of the largest, we polish the floor with the rawest hard-core artist,” the 300-pound titan rhymed.
“Super Lyrical” paired Pun with Roots rapper Black Thought in an intense back-and-forth rhyme joust, and on “Dream Shatterer,” the skilled word dealer continued to wow fans with his rapid-fire delivery. At times, he even impressed himself. “Sometimes rhyming, I blow my own mind, like Nirvana,” he rapped.
With “I’m Not a Player,” Capital Punishment’s first official single, the rotund sex symbol rapped of his most explicit sexual exploits over a choice O’Jays sample. He then got murderous alongside his mentor Fat Joe on “Twinz (Deep Cover ’98).” It was on the latter when Pun delivered his most impressive tongue-twister. “Dead in the middle of Little Italy/ Little did we know that we riddled some middle men who didn’t do diddly,” he rhymed without taking a single breath.
While each song had its own distinct flavor, the album never let up lyrically. Whether he was speaking about lost love (“Punish Me”) or dabbling in dancehall with Wyclef Jean (“Caribbean Connection”), the Big Punisher never sacrificed a single lyric to cater to radio or other commercial outlets. The feat put him in a class of selected rap torchbearers like Jay-Z, Eminem and Nas, though Pun never reached their heights. The potential was there, but Pun’s career and life were cut short when he died February 7, 2000, after suffering from complications stemming from extreme obesity.
Before he died, he managed to complete his sophomore LP, Yeeeah Baby, which eventually dropped in April of that year, but when it was all said and done, Capital Punishment forever stands as his crown jewel.