There’s one song in hip-hop that embodies the culture perfectly. It’s an homage to the past with hope for the future. Steeped in the harsh reality of the streets while being markedly optimistic, it’s the rag-to-riches tale of the hustle – and that’s why it rises to the top of the rap canon. BBC Music polled music journalists, critics, artists and industry experts, and the results are in. The greatest hip-hop song of all time, in their opinion, is Juicy by The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls.
The 1994 release is a watershed moment in the timeline of hip-hop, marking the official arrival of Biggie Smalls (born Christopher Wallace). Juicy is a modern bildungsroman of a young, black man growing up in Brooklyn. “It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up! Magazine,” he recalls about his life. “I made the change from a common thief/To up close and personal with Robin Leach.”
Tapping into his natural storytelling ability, Biggie vividly shares the story of the struggle, of being broke and overlooked. “Born sinner, the opposite of a winner/Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner?” he asks. Sure, he’s flexing his braggadocio, but there’s also touching vulnerability amid the machismo. “Girls used to diss me/Now they write letters ’cause they miss me,” he admits. “Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood/And it's still all good.”
Juicy was heralded as a classic pretty much out of the gate, and it catapulted the 22-year-old into the upper echelons of rap. A self-fulfilling prophecy: a new rap king in the East was crowned
That rise – from when “birthdays was the worst days” to champagne-sipping glory – is the quintessential rap Cinderella tale. In that vein, Sean “Diddy” Combs served as Biggie’s sonic steward and godfather. Diddy (or Pete Rock, depending on which version of the story you believe) tapped into a winning formula of flipping classic ’80s samples for the succulent beat. Mtume’s No 1 R&B hit Juicy Fruit adds an addictive melody and gives Biggie’s hard rhymes an upbeat, feel-good vibe.
Juicy is synonymous with hip-hop’s ambitious ethos. It’s become such a staple that every hip-hop head is expected to know the first verse by heart – at least. Biggie’s life and career were cut tragically short in 1997. However, Diddy helped bolster the mythology of Juicy with the next generation by making it a key plot device on 2002’s reality show Making The Band. Contestants were made to recite the song’s bars out loud in order to prove their musical chops.
There’s a universality in Juicy that enables it to stand the test of time, whether you grew up in the belly of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood, or you experience your own daily struggle. Twenty-five years later, Biggie’s uplifting message of perseverance, of better days, still resonates. We don’t have him around anymore, but the aspiration he left behind continues to inspire. And it’s all good.
More on BBC Music’s greatest hip-hop songs of all time:
The 25 greatest hip-hop songs of all time
What critics had to say about the top 10
Full list of critics who participated – and how they voted
Trends and surprises in the poll (not available in UK)
Why are there so few women in hip-hop polls?
Playlist of the top 25 songs (Spotify)
How many of the songs in the poll do you agree with? Let us know with the hashtag #GreatestHipHopSongs on Facebook or Twitter.
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