Hip Hop and the Storytelling Tradition
Those of us who learned to write from the blues are to be envied, and
those of us who have since forgotten the lessons are to be pitied.
—Murray Kempton, “Bessie Smith: Poet”
To hear it told in certain corners of his native hood, the Notorious B.I.G.'s crime epic “Niggas Bleed” was either a work of deft urban fiction or some sublime boulevard journalism with the names changed to protect those who plead innocent. In either case, it is not the kind of story that comes with that stamp of authenticity: Based on True Events. The MC, almost by musical necessity, comes down firmly on the art-imitating-life side of the equation. Had traditional fiction been his bag, there would be no question as to where the creator of the above tale was coming from, no doubt as to the genre angle he was working. But his was a different route. “Niggas Bleed”—the eleventh track on his presciently classic sophomore album, Life After Death—might be the signal achievement of an artist who helped redefine hip hop's storytelling tradition.
A masterpiece of lyrical economy, the song relays the detailed exploits of a hustler trying to come up on his grand score. In a single verse, he conveys an entire introduction:
Today's agenda: Got the briefcase up in the Sentra
Go to room 112. Tell 'em Blanco sent ya.
The protagonist has been charged with delivering a suitcase to a hotel room for a kingpin named Blanco. Moments later we hear the boss caution him that the recipients of that bag are known killers: “these cats you