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Big L 

The Big Picture (Rawkus/Flamboyant)

"You can't kill me, I was born dead," the late Big L said on his first album, Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous, expressing the mentality that makes hip-hop legends like him, or Biggie or Tupac, immortal. Artists in the truest sense, they seemed to feel the weight of mortality with each breath, and the way they let loose over beats, both live and in the studio, expressed the reality that rhyming was their true love.

In February 1999, Big L was shot to death on a Harlem street corner close to where he grew up. At the time, he was one of the most respected players in the underground; few emcees could match wits with him, whether freestyle or written. He was on the verge of blowing up, like most of the NYC rappers with whom he rose: Mase and Cam'ron both debuted on Lifestylez in '95, and Jay-Z and B.I.G. were still pioneering radio territory in the mid-'90s. His crew, Diggin' in the Crates (DITC), which he joined in the early '90s, consisted of the Bronx's finest b-boys. In '98, L started his own label, Flamboyant, and started work on his second solo LP.

The Big Picture is much more polished than his gritty debut, with little DITC production and more club-oriented beats. Pete Rock and Premier make their appearances, lending the backdrops for two of the brightest gems in the stash, "Holdin' It Down" and "The Enemy," respectively. The first is an unexpectedly light club joint centered around an airy, adolescent flute lick that makes the head tilt from side to side while the drums bounce. The latter track is the coldest on the album -- it was actually released as a single on the DITC label almost three years ago. As sort of a sequel to "Fed Up with the Bullshit" off Lifestylez, L and Fat Joe criticize the provoking and shady ways of the NYPD. L spits, "I'm through with that illegal life, I'm stayin' legit, I love to hear cars come cruisin' by playin' my shit ... so get that flashlight outta my face, to bring me down, them jakes'll do whatever it takes."

His first album was critically acclaimed but remained deeply buried under other big-selling titles. The sound was too raw, and the message, telling his listeners to stay away from the illegal life, was too realistic. The Big Picture may not go platinum, but anyone who appreciates a hip-hop poet will feel this emcee's passion.

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