October 13, 2011

Abe Beame hollers respect to all the con men.

There’s a hypnotic quality to the bounce that anchors Poke and Puffy’s brilliant flip of George Mccrae’s “I Get Lifted.” Understandably, the beat and Biggie’s effortless wordplay have always mesmerized me on more casual listens.

As a fan, it can drain the fun from a song as entertaining as “Respect.” The cut contains some of Biggie’s best lyrical gems, but upon critical revisit, it’s thematically problematic. My guess is that Biggie just wanted the song to serve as a vehicle for his first stunning verse – where the fetus impatiently awaits his birth, and money and hoes sing their siren call. It’s something that fits comfortably with the demon seed persona Biggie pushes throughout the album. It’s a creative conceit that many have borrowed since, and it’s the most invested Biggie appears in the song.

Post-natal, the narrator isn’t quite as intriguing, giving us much of the same arc we’ve heard before on the album, without the memorable characters and sharp detail.  Given its hook and intro, “Respect” surprisingly turns out to be a corrective in the same vein as “Juicy.” The narrator is scared straight, going from negative to positive.

The problem is that the transition is largely glossed over. The evolution from a bad seed to a man reformed plays like little more than a mild wake up call. Sure, there’s Biggie’s brief existential meditation when all the money he had stacked goes to court fees. But on the third verse, he really fills bars for the sake of filling bars. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard a Biggie song where I wish that he had bothered to work out his verse on paper.

What Biggie appears to have attempted with “Respect” is a Bed Stuy, East of Eden. A kid born under a bad sign follows his worst inclinations to their logical conclusions, only to turn around and make good. The problem is that the song is conflicted with its Jamaican gangsta snitch murdering hook, and its absolute mess of third verse. The first 16 could have been a great candidate for Big’s version of “Book of Rhymes” (had he lived long enough to record one, and had he, you know, written.) “Respect” may not hold up under intense scrutiny, but it’s still worth your time. You can learn more from a great artist’s misstep than from a mediocre artist’s hit.

MP3: The Notorious B.I.G.-“Respect”

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