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COMMENTARY

Heartthrob Never: On The Beauty Of Biggie Smalls

Twenty years after his death, remembering what the late rapper meant to the kids who looked like him

Everyone has a story about the morning they found out. One of my friends heard it on a car radio on the way to temple. Another, who happened to be living on the West Coast, stayed up all night monitoring the news, waiting for the final verdict on what wreckage the bullet’s journey had left in its wake. For me, it was less romantic: a Saturday morning, searching for cartoons on a rare morning of cable television in my childhood home, and stopping on a news report of gunfire in Los Angeles. On that morning, 20 years ago today, the TV showed a car riddled with bullets. Some said The Notorious B.I.G. should have never gone to Los Angeles, with Tupac’s death and the intensity of their feud still lingering in the air. But no one wants to be governed by violence, even if they are a walking target, larger than life.

I mourned Biggie’s death first because in the house where I heard the news of his death, I was the youngest of four children, two of them brothers who were light-skinned and charming, built perfectly from time in the gym. I was dark-skinned, of my father’s complexion. The gap my mother had in between her front teeth was passed down to my own. As the youngest in a poor family, I sometimes had the clothing that my two older brothers had lived small lives inside of already. I understood that I was less attractive than my brothers before I was able to get a grasp of attractiveness. To be fair, it isn’t as if I was banished to a clock tower. Rather, it was the looks we got when in public together, or the ways I was made to imagine myself an afterthought in the company of girls at our neighborhood park. Once you understand what it looks and feels like to not be seen, it is something that is unshakable. Early on, I realized that I would have to become intensely focused on building a personality that didn’t need looks to carry it, in case I didn’t ever grow into a more traditional idea of attractiveness. I had no template for anything less traditional being appealing — not until the rapid ascension of The Notorious B.I.G.

Mick Jagger ain’t all that good-looking, but he sure can dance himself as pretty as he wants to be. Frank Sinatra said “I am a thing of beauty” and wore a suit so well that the world would’ve believed it no matter what he looked like. Christopher Wallace was not skinny nor white, but he was the unexpected voice behind the perfecting of the rap ballad. The “One More Chance” remix was as much an instant rap classic as it was a lounge tune — something that could have been delivered by a singer in a tailored suit behind a silver microphone. It is Biggie’s most enduring work, in part due to how fascinating it was to hear a man of his stature and appearance speaking that plainly and boldly about what he would and would not do in the bedroom, boasting of his exploits despite acknowledging his ugliness. It worked because it was believable. Biggie was charming, magnetic, and, by all accounts, always an object of some desire.

The moral here, for me, isn’t necessarily that any of our confidence should be solely tied to the people who find us attractive, or the people who don’t look past us to someone else. But I found myself — as dark as I was, as traditionally unattractive as I imagined myself to be — drawn to this man making himself impossible to miss. It bears mentioning that in the era of Biggie’s rise, rap’s masculinity was working in tandem with the genre’s rising pop appeal, meaning that some of rap’s biggest faces were also sex symbols, intentionally or unintentionally. Tupac and LL Cool J would swagger through their music videos shirtless, showing off their chiseled physiques. Another approach, for someone like Method Man, for example, would rely on a smoothness that sat at the intersection of a romanticized streetwise hustler and prom-king charm.

Biggie had a different type of charm, which largely relied on how well he sat in contrast to other men. He was a honed and polished storyteller, taking to the craft in a way that seemed like it might have been sharpened by isolation. His voice was a thick and heavy siren, like a jazz horn tuned wrong but still mesmerizing. He had a smile that cut a bright half-moon across the otherwise darkness of his face. None of these things alone made him beautiful. But the combination of them, paired with the fact that he knew well how to use them, perhaps made him beautiful. He found a lane among the muscular, light-skinned men who assumed the admiration of women as a right, something they had earned for all of the work they’d put into their physical selves.

You could see the shift in his style and confidence when the money came. Compare the old shots of him in his early career, with oversize t-shirts underneath jerseys and ill-fitting jean shorts, to his appearance in the “Big Poppa” music video in 1995: hat tilted at a perfect angle, turtleneck and leather jacket fitting comfortably on his wide body. We could talk now about the style that comes with money and the appeal that fame can give. But if you were young and dark at that time, as I was, there was no real negotiation of these nuances. From where I sat, Biggie’s confidence was one I could access, well before considering all of the exploits he boasted of, and thinking on a base level about how to build a personality that might be appealing enough to start a conversation somewhere I might have been otherwise invisible.

I like that Biggie did not seem to imagine himself a thinner man. I like that he spoke of his bulk, made it a character in his articulation of himself. I like that he didn’t always hide his weight underneath jokes, as the film and television tropes often go. Our bodies, as they are, aren’t flaws. What made the persona that Biggie created so great was that he knew this. If he did think of himself as a sex symbol in the mold of Jagger or Sinatra, it was all mental work, and not projecting their physiques onto himself.

It’s not as if The Notorious B.I.G. helped me get dates, or helped my insecurities around my looks as a kid vanish. But he helped me look into the mirror and see a type of possibility. It was less about the boasting he did, or the women (and the ideas of women) that were both loved and torn down in the process. What I liked and learned is how to carry yourself when nestled into a lineage of men that you fit into, but also do not fit into.

Truthfully, I do not listen to much of Biggie’s music anymore. As I’ve aged, some songs have gotten harder for me to square with, even though I still appreciate the craft behind them. But I haven’t dismissed the entire discography. I still listen to “One More Chance” in the summer, when it can spill out of my open car windows, the way I first heard it. I’ve done all right growing into my face, my awkward smile, and everything else that I was generously passed down from my parents, or at least I’ve hit an age at which such things seem to matter less.

Another thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that there is nothing overwhelmingly spectacular about a man who thinks himself beautiful in a world that will consistently affirm it if he speaks his beauty out loud enough. The lessons we learn are a slow march, like the words that would spill from Biggie’s thick tongue when I was young and nodding along in the emptiness of my room, wishing to be as confident about anything as he was about himself. I imagine that confidence is what pointed him west in March 1997, when everyone around him said it was too dangerous. I imagine, with that confidence, he thought there was no person, no idea that he couldn’t seduce and get to bow at his feet. Not even death.