A popular debate in Hip-Hop has always been whether Jay-Z still becomes the pop culture icon he is today had The Notorious B.I.G. never passed away in 1997. In a different sport with different characters, it’s somewhat in a similar vein to pondering “would Michael Jordan have still won six rings had Len Bias never O.D.’d on coke?” Although we (the Internet age) condition ourselves otherwise, coming to a correct answer is impossible and saying Jay had no chance to ever stand side-by-side popularity and talent-wise alongside Biggie all but negates everything we’ve come to witness from Jay since 1996.
Artistically speaking, Jay and Biggie’s sibling-like chemistry is what continues to drive the proverbial knife in the back deeper a decade and a half later. Rap was cheated out of one of the truly special bonds capable of producing who knows how many timeless staples. Jay knows this. The fans do too. Even those close to both stand by the testament of what could’ve been.
Lil Kim once said, “B.I.G. admired Jay on the hustling level. I think he saw Jay was gonna be able to maneuver the game the way he is. I think he always seen that in Jay.” By all accounts, both motivated each other spawning urban legends of the two recording their verses multiple times to out-do the other; Jay later admitted, “I don’t have anyone to bounce off of, you understand? We bounced off each other like, ‘Oh that was crazy; I gotta make something crazier.’” That type of bond – established long before either cashed their first rap check – is about as rare as a four-leaf clover, especially in Hip-Hop where friendships evaporate as bank accounts rise and fall.
Jay-Z is about as mild-mannered of a guy there is in any walk of life. Never one to get too animated either way, that personality trait has been used to his advantage throughout his career painting himself as a ex-drug dealer turned multi-millionaire, legal hustler conglomerate. And outside of the 2011 MTV VMAs when an unfiltered look of pride over took his face when Beyonce announced her pregnancy, it’d be difficult to find many (on camera) instances where Jay reacted sans for whenever speaking about B.I.G.
A year following Biggie’s murder, MTV sat down with Jay who revealed his stubbornness to accept his friend’s passing and its impact on In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Again, Jay kept his cool, but his demeanor happened to say everything without saying a word. An old adage preaches to look a man in his eyes and his true story will soon unravel. In this case – and for anyone whoever lost a friend they consider more family than family – there is pain, albeit masked. Having an equal, a competitor, someone to respect and base your own accomplishments off of is a blessing. It’s more of a self-evaluation and a spiritual way of ensuring complacency is never taken for granted.
It’s why Jay tirelessly compared his rap DNA to Biggie and only Biggie. It’s why he took a liking to Kanye. It’s why Watch The Throne happened because The Commission didn’t and that was the only feat Jay’s career lacked – to do a joint album with the only other artist he felt could push him to creative limits he never knew he had. It’s almost as if Jay-Z got a second chance to make a first impression some 16 years later in a game he helped push to new heights.
That brings the topic back to its original question. “Would Jay-Z still be as big of a star if B.I.G. never dies?” My answer? The landscape admittedly alters itself, yet Jay’s talent takes its own course. B.I.G. and Jigga grow to become even bigger stars. Jay still spawns into the businessman (and business, man) he is today. Fast forward to September 28, 2012. The two Brooklyn rap gods and Kings of New York open the doors to the Barclays Center with a joint concert running through hours of hits. Just Christopher Wallace and Shawn Carter on stage. Together. Just the way I’m sure Jay would’ve wanted.
Reality and fantasy rarely meet at the same intersection, nor does a consensus opinion. So while rap heads debate the career treks of two of the game’s most indelible personalities, Jay’s mind is elsewhere to a question haunting him even as business ventures, album sales and his influence reach levels far beyond the top floor of any Marcy housing project.
“How much more could I have accomplished had B.I.G. never died?”