One of the most rewarding parts of being a music fan is picking a side and arguing for it to the ends of the earth. Pac or Biggie? Britney or Christina? Beatles or Stones? In the series Pop Battles, The Ringer will try to settle long-standing music rivalries using listener data from Spotify, the world’s largest music-streaming service. How are today’s young people connecting with the legendary artists of yesteryear, and what does it say about the way these artists will be interpreted in the future?
It should come as no surprise that, in terms of raw streams, Pac edges out Biggie. The West Coast rapper had a prolific output that included five solo studio albums in as many years and a seemingly endless trove of unreleased material that has been meted out haphazardly in posthumous albums, compilations, soundtracks, and live recordings following his death. Spotify’s stream count here doesn’t even include the roughly 40 million listens for The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, the 1996 album released under the Pac alias Makaveli, or the album he made with the short-lived California group Thug Life.
Tupac has breadth in the streaming era, but his biggest hits lack the universality of Biggie’s (Pac’s 10 most popular songs on Spotify have accrued more than 300 million streams; Biggie’s have more than half a billion). His sprawling discography makes it tough for younger listeners to find a proper point of entry. Should you start with his 1991 solo debut, 2Pacalypse Now, which captures Pac’s deep empathy through “Brenda’s Got a Baby”? Or skip five years ahead to his most streamed LP, All Eyez On Me, a double album with the scope of a blockbuster movie and an epic music video to match? It’s also pretty easy to encounter Pac first through his confusing morass of posthumous work — the first album listed under his name is an unfortunate 2007 compilation called Nu Mixx Klazzics Vol. 2 (Evolution: Duets and Remixes), which features the even-more-unfortunate “Hail Mary (ft. the Outlaws).”
With the 20th anniversary of his death approaching, Pac has lived considerably longer as a myth than he ever did as a man. Throughout his career he seemed pulled in two directions, part anarchist rebel ready to spray bullet holes through the fraying social fabric, part sensitive poet providing a platform for the voiceless victims in his community, especially single mothers. (Pac also played the Lothario, but this seems to be fading from memory — of his hits that cracked the Billboard Top 10, “How Do You Want It” has the fewest Spotify spins.) “Ambitionz Az a Ridah,” his most popular Spotify song and the first track he recorded after an 11-month stint in prison, reinforces his outlaw status. But before he died he didn’t want such aggressive tracks to consume his persona. “The thing that bothers me is that it seems like all the sensitive stuff I write just goes unnoticed. … The media doesn’t get who I am at all,” he said in a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Or maybe they just can’t accept it.” He cited “Dear Mama” as a heartfelt track aimed to tug at “homies’ heart strings.”
One of the songs that best captures both halves of Pac’s persona is already being quickly forgotten, according to Spotify’s stats. “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” the fiery lead single for Tupac’s second album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., marries pointed criticism of police violence in black communities with a direct call for armed rebellion. It’s a startlingly raw song that captures the racial turmoil that has engulfed the United States in the last month. But it’s also at odds with the gentler version of Tupac that emerged after his death via posthumously released songs like “Ghetto Gospel,” in which the rapper is reanimated so he can pray for racial reconciliation and world peace alongside Elton John. “Ghetto Gospel” has nearly 50 million Spotify plays; “Holler If Ya Hear Me” has fewer than 1.5 million.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Tupac has been played more times on Spotify, but more people are listening to Biggie on a regular basis. Nineteen years after his death, the Notorious B.I.G. averages more monthly listeners, 5.8 million, than a wide range of deceased icons on the platform, including David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, and Whitney Houston.
Even more so than Pac, the Biggie that towered over mid-’90s hip-hop is different from the one that’s holding his own on the Spotify charts. The most popular Biggie song on the streaming service is 2015’s “Old Thing Back,” a European dance track by the Norwegian DJ Matoma. “Old Thing Back” is a remix of “Want That Old Thing Back,” a 2007 song that pairs Big with heir unapparent Ja Rule and New Edition member Ralph Tresvant (Ja has a thing for New Edition). “Want That Old Thing Back” lifts Biggie’s verses from 1994’s “One More Chance,” a standout track from Biggie’s solo debut, Ready to Die — but not to be confused with the “One More Chance/Stay With Me” remix, which includes the same chorus but new verses, instrumentation, and backing vocals from Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige. The original “One More Chance” has already gone through four iterations and counting.
Such has been Biggie’s lot in the afterlife. Of his three solo LPs, 1994’s Ready to Die (the only one released before he was killed) is his most streamed, and for good reason — it’s a deeply personal reflection on the streets that raised him, at times despairing, seductive, darkly comic, and triumphant. Everything his voice has been attached to since then lacks the same clarity of vision. At best, his postdebut material is a compromise between creative and commercial interests.
At worst? Besides Ja Rule, Big has also been posthumously paired with Frank Sinatra, Miley Cyrus, The xx, Korn, and, inevitably, Tupac Shakur. Perhaps this was the inevitable fate of a man whose record label allegedly invented the remix, but the tracks largely play as novelties that are slowly eclipsing his actual art. His buttery flow feels more ubiquitous than ever, but his vulnerable persona — the one that makes you want to reach through the Walkman/iPod/Spotify app and tell him everything is going to be OK — is getting drowned out by all the remixes.
One of the songs that best captures Biggie’s spirit is Life After Death’s “I Got a Story to Tell,” which has a confoundingly low 3.8 million streams on Spotify. On the acoustic-guitar-driven track (bold in ’97), Big raps about an affair gone wrong with the wife of a New York Knicks player (Anthony Mason?). Then he tells the exact same story to a group of friends because that’s how incredible it is. The first time through, the tale is a cinematic drama; the second time, it’s a situational comedy. Biggie’s boundless charisma carries both tellings. It probably wouldn’t make for a good mashup, but it helps convey what made the Notorious B.I.G. one of the greatest of all time.