Big L—"Harlem's Finest: A Freestyle History Vol. I & II" Review
You think you know what a great rapper sounds like? Think again...
Listening to certain records takes me back to certain times in my life. It reminds me not only of how things used to be, but how I used to be; how I used to behave, how I used to talk, and how I used to consume content.
My freshman year at Taft High School in Chicago was one of the best roller coasters of my life. This was around 2008, when the landscape of hip-hop was finding itself fusing with electronic pop music, with artists like Kevin Rudolph collaborating with Lil' Wayne, The Neptunes with Common, Estelle with Kanye West, T.I. with Justin Timberlake, Usher with Young Jeezy, etc. These were all top hits on the charts, and while it wasn't all bad, there was definitely an over-saturation of this content. Hip-hop was being fused with pop music to an extent that I really couldn't stand. It started to sound so stale and generic by the end of the year, but everyone else was just eating it up.
Lucky for me, I found an alternative a year or two prior by beginning my journey in to old school hip-hop. After finding a whole bunch of my uncle's CDs and tapes in my grandmother's basement, I pretty much heard everything there was to hear from there. Little did I know, there were a whole bunch of other CDs lying around the house that happened to be the type of rap music I would enjoy. I always saw this one CD on the top shelf of my grandmother's armoire, with the title erroneously written on the disc, Harlem's Finest: A History of Free Style. I decided one night to give it a shot. With a name like Big L, I automatically assumed it was some hardcore shit. The Big Picture was in that basement, but only the case, not the CD.
I had absolutely no idea what to expect once I popped it in to the stereo. It starts off with a brief radio interview as the intro, and the first track we hear him spit is on "Rock N. Wills Audition." I was quite impressed with his rapping ability and flows. He was already one of the nicest emcees I had ever heard, but more or less what I expected from a rapper in the 90s. I came to appreciate this song more due to me discovering the origin of the beats used on the set. The first was Marley Marl's "The Symphony," and the second was Big Daddy Kane's "Ain't No Half-Steppin'," which I had never heard before, and later discovered on a VHS tape with the music video recorded on it. Anyways, the second half, with the Kane beat, had him spitting even harder and faster. By this point, I kept on replaying the song. I hadn't heard this level of verbosity yet.
The next track, "Stretch & Bobbito '92 Freestyle," was where I officially need to throw up. At not even a minute and twenty seconds, he sounded sharper than before.
"I cook rappers like a chef. I'm Def like Jef, right to left, my raps are badder than morning breath."
"Rhymes I create on my couch be gold tooth, battling me's like fighting a gorilla in a phone booth. I rip mics and rock the cool speeches, nowadays, rappers think they mothafuckin' school teachas. 1, 2, 1, 2, rapper I run through. Fuck karate, I practice gun-fu."
😦 There's a part that I can't even recite because he raps so fast, that to this day, no matter how many times I've heard it, I still don't got it down. The best part, and somehow the worst, was that I had relatively tame expectations. As much as I loved rap, it was hard for me to get through certain records due to how bleak and violent they could be. I never imagined myself getting in to it, and I swore by hip-hop that was only conscious, like KRS-One, Public Enemy, and Gang Starr. I just assumed that Big L was another on-par rapper; and the next song would prove why I was dead wrong.
"You better flee, Hobbes. Or get your head thrown 3 blocks. L be keepin' niggas hearts pumpin like Reebok's. It's the nigga that bitches suck and sweat. Faggots I buck and wet. Disrespect, and I will break ya fuckin' neck. I'm known to put a cap in the duck face. I spray guns, fuck mace. I'm a nutcase from a rough place. It's called uptown, front and get bucked down. Walk through with jewels and that ass'll get stuck clown."
Ugh! 😩👌🏻🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 The sheer ferocity and viciousness is still ridiculous, combined with the effortless rhymes. However, the next part was my guilty pleasure:
"I got styles you can't copy bitch. It's the triple six, in the mix, straight from H-E- Double hockey sticks. I'm the devil's son, like my song said. I smash niggas like cornbread. You can't kill me, I was born dead."
Being that I was, and still am, a Christian, this was simultaneously repulsive and amazing. Soon, this entire mixtape was like my crack. It wasn't so much what he said, but how he said it. It could've been anything really, but just so long as it sounded dope, I'd repeat it, pretending like I wrote it to win rap battles in school. So instead of breaking down every track, I'm just going to give you a few of my favorite lines. Now, word of warning. THIS IS EXTREMELY VULGAR:
"Big L is a large boss. Known for puttin' mo holes in a nigga body then a golf course. I'm crazy quick to knock a duck off. I pull out then buck off. And tear a nigga grill right the fuck off!.. I wreck the mics, plus the whole stage, rockin' cornrow braids, I'm killin mothafuckas like old age." -93 Freestyle
"Only fuck wit keys, and not the kind that be lockin' doors." -94 Freestyle"I be the mic hawker, rap enforcer, native New Yorka, slick talka, beat walka, stalka."- 94 Freestyle
"Ayo, my crew be deliverin' hot lead with gats I clench, rappers I jack and lynch, nobody could fuck wit the way I be killin' this shit in rap events. Big L is that nigga you expect to catch wreck on any cassette deck. I'm so ahead of my time, my parents haven't met yet." -95 Freestyle
"All through high school, I had braids. Kept mad blades. Stabbin' teachers to death that gave me bad grades." -95 Freestyle
"I'm comin' through ya hole wit Glocks buckin, ya whole block duckin'. Every bitch that I'm fuckin' wit now cock suckin'. It's like I'm allergic to not fuckin." - Doo Wop Niggas
"Where I'm from, believe me, snitches get kilt. Niggas be hustlin' daily, tryna fuck more bitches than Wilt."- Doo Wop Niggas
"Put 'cho raggedy house up nigga, o shut 'cho mouth up. Before I buck lead, and make a lot of blood shed. Turn your tux red. I'm far from broke, got enough bread, and mad hoes ask Beavis, I get nothing Butt-head." -98 Freestyle
As you can see, from just a few of these, this is the level of savagery that Lamont "Big L" Coleman put on display for the world. It's vile, nasty, crude, excessively vulgar, and graphically violent. To this day, very few are even comparable. Most would put Eminem in there, but honestly, I don't feel he was ever this gross. Of course, L was a flawless rapper, but the vibe of this mixtape is what makes this, in my opinion, his best body of work. It consists almost entirely of radio freestyles and performances, with a few songs and an unreleased single at the end of it. It's pure, raw, and unfiltered. The lo-fi quality of these recordings of L rapping over some of the darkest, most sinister beats available at the time is what gives it this creepy, hardcore authenticity that is never to be replicated again. "The Stretch & Bobbito Show" on WKCR college radio was truly lightening in a bottle for hip-hop. Thanks to both the advent of the Internet and people like myself spreading the revelation of "'95 Freestyle," which featured an incredible appearance from a young Jay-Z, it's now a real piece of legendary hip-hop lore.
Another particular aspect that makes this such a unique product is hearing the gradual lyrical progression in L. As the years went on, and with each radio appearance he made, his wordplay only became sharper, funnier, tighter, meaner, wittier, and faster. The result is some of the easiest-to-remember, most quotable rhymes in history. L is the culmination of everything that would make for a great rapper. His light voice coupled with his heavy emphasis on slang makes his delivery seem so effortless. I recall falling out of my chair, on my ass, laughing myself to tears where he says, "and mad hoes, ask Beavis, I get nothing Butt-head." 😂😂😭😭😭😭💀💀💀 Gets me every time. It's lines like that that have become the reason why the Internet dubbed him "The Punchline King."
If you ever wanted to know who is one of the greatest rappers of all-time, without question, dead or alive, this would be the place to start, in terms of lyricism. The problem with that is it makes nearly everything one-sided. Very few can even compete with Big L now as far as I'm concerned.
With that said, his studio material, while small, is also extraordinary, with "Lifetylez of da Poor and Dangerous" being recognized as a classic, and "The Big Picture" being an underrated gem, which actually did go Gold after his death.
There really isn't much else to say...
R.I.P. Big L