Biggie vs. Beethoven

The Notorious BIG, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, was considered a thug by most of his teachers. One of his albums is contemptuously ‘dedicated’ to all those who told him he would amount to nothing. The track Juicy describes Biggie trying to feed his young daughter by selling drugs and being reported to the police by neighbors; ‘Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood.’ He eventually reveals the real dedication of the album, to all those ‘in the struggle’ and he has the benevolence to rise above it all, saying ‘And still it’s all good.’ My point is Biggie wasn’t a thug.

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There is a story about Beethoven walking in Vienna with the great German author and poet, Goethe (pronounced ‘Ger-ta’.) They were both ‘low-born’, i.e. not aristocrats, and it was expected that they would bow and scrape when they encountered a member of the nobility, towering geniuses though they were. On this occasion, Goethe spots a gaggle of the royal family and sighs as they approach, preparing himself for the mild humiliation of having to obsequiously kowtow. Beethoven, ever the anti-establishmentarian, pulls down his hat determinedly and strides headlong through the group, scattering them aside like stunned bowling pins. Beethoven was considered by most to be brusque, gruff, truculent (in other words, a sophisticated thug.)

Both of these men used art to communicate and exorcize the struggles they faced. For Biggie it was racism and poverty, for Beethoven, perpetual illness and deafness. And the extraordinary thing is that neither man is bitter; on the contrary, they each express a profound sense of ‘And still it’s all good’. In fact they often go further, and proclaim outright triumph. 

Beethoven’s Fifth vs. Juicy

Biggie begins by painting a picture of his ambition and the poverty of his reality: ‘It was all a dream…hangin’ pictures on my wall…Born sinner, opposite of a winner, I used to eat sardines for dinner…Considered a fool ‘cause I dropped out of high-school, Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood…when I was dead broke…in my one-room shack.’

The power of the imagery comes from the juxtaposition of this wretchedness and the fact that he is speaking from a place of having transcended it, ‘I made the change from a common thief…Livin’ life without fear, Puttin’ five karats in my girl’s ear…Celebratin’ every day, no more public housin’…Now we sip champagne when we thirsty…’Cause I went from negative to positive…And it’s all good.’ 

The arc traced here is identical to the story Beethoven tells in his Fifth Symphony (the famous, “Da, da, da, DAH!”) Those first three notes are filled with phenomenal forward momentum (ambition?) and yet they immediately run headlong into a brick wall on the long note (the “DAH!” - remind you of anyone, scattering a crowd like bowling pins?) They try again in the second phrase, and again they are stopped dead in their tracks. They can’t catch a break. Their frustration is given voice, with the same four-note motif repeated and repeated and repeated in different parts of the orchestra, like they are all talking to each other about their own personal battles, vindicating each other. This builds on itself, as the emotion mounts, and eventually bursts forth in a torrent of sound from the whole orchestra. Most of the first movement explores different facets of this same idea.

The middle movements tell a different story. The second is like Biggie’s flash-forwards of comfort and luxury. The third movement is another aspect of the conflict from the opening. It is alternately sinister and grim, stentorian, wry and mirthless.

And then comes the Breakthrough. Beethoven actually joins the last two movements together with an extended transition, which had hardly ever been done before (this is my favorite moment in the whole work!) He makes the grim gloom of the third movement arduously climb its way, tentatively at first and then with growing assurance, to the blazing glory of the Finale. From darkness to light. From struggle to victory.  

For me, both depictions of strife resonate weightily. They express something universal: life can be really hard. And by acknowledging this, and sharing it, we achieve some kind of catharsis. But both also offer us hope. We emerge empowered, because both artists are telling us, ‘I have been down. I have been where you are. But I made it through. And it’s all good.’

Here is Gustavo Dudamel conducting the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth:

And here is Juicy by The Notorious BIG:

If you are interested, check out this recording by the phenomenal conductor Carlos Kleiber with the Vienna Philharmonic. There is no video, just the music, but it is my favorite ever performance of the Fifth Symphony. It is searingly intense from the first notes to the last!

Kirsten Hicks