Biggie’s Postmodern Perspective

Peter Delaney

Keywords: Music, Postmodernism, Modernism, Relativism, Metanarratives

Christopher Wallace was only twenty-four when he died. By then, he was already widely considered one of the greatest artists of his generation. The Notorious B.I.G was only able to release one album while still alive. Luckily, the record was more than enough for his music and lyrics to resonate with people from all generations across the globe. To understand why Biggie’s words were able to touch people from multiple different walks of life, we have to appreciate his ability to encapsulate and represent the human condition. Throughout his debut album, his rhymes ooze confidence, and he flaunts the perks of success, “Now my mom pimps an Ac'[Acura] with minks on her back…Now we sip Champagne when we thirsty” (“Juicy”). Yet the album titled Ready to Die (1994) begins with a birth and ends with the song “Suicidal Thoughts,” which includes a recording of the storyteller presumably killing himself while on the phone with a friend. The album tackles the mental health struggles of a man caught up in the criminal justice system with the subtle touch of an artist and the blunt nihilism of a New Yorker. Biggie’s flow is intense, fearless, and philosophical. Big takes a postmodern approach toward describing his life experience in a way that results in a remarkably poetic and relatable string of seventeen songs. Throughout the album, Biggie’s music embodies this postmodernist school of thought through his critiques of modern society and traditional values. By analyzing the album through the context of postmodernist theory, the reason why Biggie Small’s music is still relevant decades later becomes abundantly clear.


Postmodernism can be best understood as a response to the modernism movement. In The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, Stewart Sims (2012) explains this by writing, “…postmodernism is itself the set of responses (not necessarily uniform or even compatible) to the perceived failure of modernism.” At the turn of the twentieth century, modernism emerged as a broad philosophical movement based around idealism, a belief in human reason, and optimism regarding Western principles, society, and progress. While it took different forms depending on the field and author, Blair explains that the “modernist movement… was explicitly and thoroughly committed to a metanarrative of social transformation through progress in the form of technological innovation universal rationality, and corporate power” (1991, 265). Politically and socially, modernist thought is associated with the “ideal versions of human life…and a belief in progress,” (Tate) or even a utopian attitude toward democracy and other Enlightenment-era ideals. Modernism is connected with enthusiasm toward liberal capitalism; this faith in western institutions and progress was predominant in literature, art, and philosophy in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Within the field of history, modernism and postmodernism represent two opposing approaches to writing the history of a subject. While traditionally historians have relied on overarching themes, structures, and narratives to capture a time-period, modern academics have been increasingly rejecting many of the field’s previously held tenets and invoking postmodern methodologies in their research. Following two gruesome World Wars, postmodernism emerged as a response to the traditional values rooted in modernism. Sims describes postmodernism as “a generalized loss of faith in the grand narratives of modernism that had seen the West through its heyday of industrialization, colonization and capital accumulation: whether Enlightenment rationality, liberal democracy, industrial progressor dialectical materialism” (Sims, 19). Rather than glorifying strides in development with broad notions of freedom or progress, representations focused on the conditions of the individual. A new era of thought developed with an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” and an unprecedented relativist perspective (Blair 1991, 264). As a history major, I have been forced to consider these opposing philosophies and decide on the merits of structuralism while crafting my own representations of the past. Throughout my study of rhetoric, I have noticed how almost anything can be analyzed as a rhetorical artifact. I was inspired to consider some of the postmodernist theories I had been learning about in a variety of my classes applied to the rhetoric of a generationally talented orator and one of my favorite artists, Biggie Smalls.


“It was all a dream…”, Christopher Wallace takes a moment to reflect on his childhood growing up in Brooklyn in the song “Juicy.” He rhymes about reading a hip-hop magazine called “Word Up!” and idolizing the rap stars in the cover, “Hangin’ pictures on my wall.” As he rapped these words at the Hit Factory, a studio where John Lennon used to record, he had made it by most standards; he had signed his record deal. Between his financial and professional accomplishments, Biggie exemplified the ideal American success story. Yet, this paradigm did little to represent his life experience or illustrate the mental health struggles he was going through despite his wealth. Biggie’s music resists the notion of continuous progress both in the sense of his personal life or referring to the broader society. The song, “Things Done Changed,” presents the transformation of New York City in a negative light and do little to make one believe Big had confidence in the city’s future. Far from glorying Western institutions or liberal capitalism, the album highlights the prevalence of unequal opportunity. Songs such as “Gimme the Loot” represent the perspective of somebody pushed to crime and violence as a means to afford food and strongly refute the idea that anyone who works hard can succeed in America. Lyrics disavow traditional values and expectations, as one line rhymes, “born sinner, opposite of a winner” (“Juicy”). As the postmodern movement swept through popular culture and influenced many, Big’s unapologetic nihilism resonated with others who had begun to reject conventional ideals.


In Blair’s translation of one of Nietzsche’s lectures, there is a discussion surrounding the connection between rhetoric and persuasion. “In rhetoric, there is also an imitation of nature as a basic means to persuade. The listener will believe in the earnestness of the speaker and the truth of the thing advocated only if the speaker and his language are adequately suited to one another” (“Gimme the Loot”). By establishing the persuasiveness of reflect real life-experiences in arguments, Blair illuminates the postmodernist appeal. Postmodernism recognizes the difference in individual perspectives and fights against the existence of objectivity or universal truths. In the lecture, Nietzsche reflected, “The highest sensual pleasure borders on the highest disgust… Hamann says: clarity is the right distribution of light and shadow” (1983, 116). “Ready to Die” is reflective of an extreme relativist stance, allowing his audience to ride the wave of his human experience and bringing them with him as he reflects on the low points and peaks of his life. By offering a true reflection of his experience, rather than only flaunting his highest moments, Biggie’s rhetoric could be experimental and break the form of the genre and still come across as sincere. Describing the shift from the modern to the postmodern era in art, Sims writes, “Because postmodernism broke the established rules about style, it introduced a new era of freedom and a sense that ‘anything goes” (19). His description demonstrates how Biggie’s music reflects some of the core values of postmodernism. “Often funny, tongue-in-cheek or ludicrous; [postmodernism] can be confrontational and controversial, challenging the boundaries of taste; but most crucially, it reflects a self-awareness of style itself… Often mixing different artistic and popular styles” (19). The album breaks from traditional expectations of the genre by incorporating a variety of styles and sounds while focusing on themes rarely touched in previous hip-hop records. Scattered amongst the hit songs are experimental interludes that record real conversations, arguments, and sexual intercourse from Biggie’s life. By rejecting the genre’s traditional forms, conventions, and truths, the record takes on a postmodernist flavor, one that probably strengthened its appeal to an increasingly nihilistic audience.


In a song Biggie raps, “this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’” (“Juicy”). Nevertheless, the irony of the album is that it tells the story of triumph against all odds, but ends in a suicide. Big did amount for something, but still, in the end, it was not enough. By employing this narrative arch, Big’s music pushes back against the westernized ideal of success and mimics the relativist perspective of a postmodernist. Biggie’s knowledge of postmodernist scholarship is unknown. However, his rejection of romanticized metanarratives, break from traditional conventions of the genre, and relativist approach toward depicting his life experience in his music, all seem to be influenced by the postmodernist movement. I have appreciated this opportunity to rhetorically analyze one of my favorite pieces of art and it has been surprising to see the relevance of these academic theories. Considering this, and the fact that this essay still needs a dedication, I would like to dedicate this paper to one Christopher Wallace and all the teachers that helped me amount to this.

Works Cited


Blair, Carole, et al. “Public Memorializing in Postmodernity: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial as Prototype.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 77, no. 3, Routledge, Aug. 1991, pp. 265.


Sim, Stuart. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. Routledge, 2012.


Tate. “Modernism – Art Term.” Tate,


The Notorious B.I.G, “Gimme the Loot” Ready to Die, 1994.


The Notorious B.I.G, “Juicy” Ready to Die, 1994.


The Notorious B.I.G, “Juicy” Ready to Die, 1994. The+Notorious+B.I.G.


The Notorious B.I.G, “Suicidal Thoughts,” Ready to Die, 1994.


The Notorious B.I.G, “Things Done Changed” Ready to Die, 1994.


Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Carole Blair. “Nietzsche’s ‘Lecture Notes on Rhetoric’: A Translation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 16, no. 2, Penn State University Press, 1983.


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Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Peter Delaney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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