A Few Thoughts Regarding Big Pun

The recent anniversary of Big Pun’s death had me thinking about a few things, but I was busy with some other pieces and only recently remembered to begin writing my thoughts down.

I think Big Pun was a very talented rapper. His debut album Capital Punishment still sounds good today; it is a frustrating reminder of a hardcore-bordering-on-commercial NYC sound that people either abandoned, forgot how to recreate, or simply cannot adapt to suit the sensibilities of today’s listeners. He had a knack for stringing together combinations of words that less skilled rappers could never make flow. He did a respectable job of emulating Kool G Rap’s style and adding his idiosyncrasies. That “dead in the middle of Little Italy…” stretch is clearly a great moment in multi-syllabic rhyming. He is the only Puerto Rican emcee who is regularly mentioned as being among the greatest of all time.

A few things trouble me about Big Pun’s critical reception and legacy, though.

1. As I have noted, Big Pun was a good emulator of Kool G Rap’s style, but he didn’t improve upon those techniques and he wasn’t nearly as good of a writer.

Kool G Rap wrote verses filled with menace, rage, and novelistic detail; Big Pun wrote verses that were heavy on wordplay but pretty light on substance. And yet, as time continues, I feel that Big Pun is gradually gaining the kind of wide acclaim and notoriety that Kool G Rap has only secured among die-hard east coast old schoolers. Big Pun’s commercial success and untimely death have undoubtedly played apart in this. But if we judge musical output by itself, Big Pun doesn’t deserve to be mentioned ahead of Kool G Rap in any discussion of great or influential emcees. Ever.

2. Big Pun’s overdependence on multisyllabic rhymes has probably negatively influenced a generation of younger rappers.

One of the more annoying trends of the past decade or so has been the emergence of rappers who pen mixtapes comprised of contrived, poorly executed, borderline nonsensical multisyllabic rhymes. Big Pun, whose most memorable trait is his nonstop barrage of “multis,” is continually mentioned as an all-time great, in spite of his unimpressive discography1 and his derivative style. Although some of his rapid-fire bursts are impressively coherent, there are others that rely too much on adhering to the multi-syllabic rhyming technique at the expense of every other stylistic and artistic consideration. But discussions of Big Pun’s music —occurring mostly in close proximity to the anniversary of his death in early February— are universally laudatory. Look no further than the self-titled debut from Slaughterhouse for evidence that high- profile rappers who cite Big Pun as an influence are detrimentally obsessed with multi-syllabic rhyming.

3. Big Pun’s legacy has been negatively impacted by an unnecessary emphasis on his ethnicity.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a big deal that Big Pun was the first Puerto Rican solo emcee to gain both commercial success and  be praised as a lyricist. I have no doubt that his ascension was a welcome and inspiring development for members of an ethnic group that was heavily involved in the music from its earliest days but became increasingly underrepresented once rap became more popular and lucrative.2

However, Pun’s early success3 has resulted in him becoming the sole token historical representative of all Puerto Rican emcees, to the extent that his legacy eclipses the accomplishments of all of his fellow boricua brethren combined.4 He was nice but not that nice; being so highly regarded that your legacy actually assists the erasure of your ethnic group from the historical record is a dubious distinction at best.

More importantly, Big Pun’s ethnicity isn’t actually pertinent to a discussion of his skills. There is not a distinctly Puerto Rican way to rap well. Big Pun occasionally incorporated Spanish terminology and references to Puerto Rican culture and identity in his rhymes, but his skills, like those of anyone else, are not ethno-specific.5 I remember reading an interview in the late 90s where he stated that he did not want to be remembered as a great Puerto Rican emcee, but as an emcee, period. That’s how he should be assessed and discussed, ideally. Granted, we live in an unideal world and concepts of race and ethnicity will probably forever creep into discussions where they don’t belong, but I feel that overemphasizing Big Pun’s ethnicity diminishes his individual achievements6 while further obscuring the contributions of Puerto Ricans to hip hop music and the art of emceeing in particular.

This are not issues directly related to the man himself, but the way that his legacy is handled. I don’t hate the guy or his music, and I’m not mad that he is honored, but I feel that the discussion that surrounds his music is problematic, for the reasons I have noted. What says you, the reader? — Thun

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  1. Only his debut album is even worth revisiting. []
  2. Raquel Rivera’s New York Ricans From The Hip Hop Zone discusses this process and numerous other issues related to Puerto Rican identity and hip hop. []
  3. Pun is often credited, by way of his own lyrical boasts, as being the first Latino rapper to release an album that was certified platinum, but technically he’s only the first soloist, since Prince Markie Dee received a platinum plaque as a member of the Fat Boys. Cypress Hill also beat him by several years. []
  4. Pioneering Puerto Rican emcees, just off the top of my head: Tito from the Fearless Four, Prince Whipper Whip and Rubie Dee from the Fantastic Five, Prince Markie Dee of the Fat Boys, Rammelzee, The Mean Machine, Spanish Fly and The Terrible Two, Charlie Rock from The Fantasy 3, and The Real Roxanne. That’s a pretty significant early presence in hip hop, which doesn’t even take DJs or producers into consideration. It isn’t often discussed. These artists don’t deserve to be swept under the rug. There are talented emcees of Puerto Rican descent that are worthy of mention in every other era of rap, as well. []
  5. I am not suggesting that ethnicity is never relevant when discussing an artist and his work, I am just protesting a sustained inappropriate emphasis on ethnicity in discussions of artistic matters. []
  6. In certain contexts, his ethnicity is brought up to overstate his importance and/or talent, too, for what it’s worth. []

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51 Responses to “A Few Thoughts Regarding Big Pun”

  1. done says:

    This is so on point, I love Pun but I agree & always was hesitant to call him overrated cos Its sort of hard to defend but youv done a great job. He was an 8, maybe a 7 but definitly not a 10. Same deal with Capital Punishment.

    My skin crawls now when I hear people say “multis”, cos like you said its often used at the expense of tons of other important skills. Complicated does not = good neccisarily, and often just = bad nowadays cos some rappers think thats all there is to it. If you cant blow people away with monosylabble rhymes, making them more complex almost certainly wont help you. Im pretty sure Slaughterhouse actually were more influenced by people like Kool G rap and Nas and just either missed the point or only listened to shit like 4,5, 6, which was more focoused on the cold technicalities.

    The overemphasis on his ethnicitys true too, plus the amount of DJs & producers would take up a whole post: Charlie Chase, Tony Touch, Doo Wop, Domingo, Kid Capri etc. Actually, white people always were more easily accepted in thoses areas too i thought, with people like Paul C & Rick Rubin all having respected careers.

    • Thun says:

      I’m not suggesting that Slaughterhouse’s insipid mediocrity should be blamed entirely on Pun’s influence. A project of such magnificent failure likely has a constellation of muses. I’m sure they were convinced that they were channeling everyone from AZ and Nas to G Rap and BDK while contriving their noisy hackery.

      But Big Pun is known mostly for his multi overdependence, which is never critically evaluated. That’s the problem. Or a part of it.

  2. hl says:

    I personally think Capitol Punishment it one to of the greatest albums ever made, but I completely agree with your analysis. Very respectful argument Thun.

    @Done Yes, I think it’s safe to say Slaughterhouse missed the point. lol

  3. done says:

    Ha yeah them dudes werent much fun. Ilike one or two Royce singles though, the ones with premo beats.

  4. done says:

    and i had no idea RamellZee (that dudes worse than Moe Dee & Ghadaffy for spelling. Tragedy only confused this further.) was hispanic.

  5. Yohan says:

    This might very well be one of your most concisely written pieces. I agree with nearly everything, although I do think it is a bit harsh to blame Big Pun for all the bad multisyllabic-based (is that even a word?) rappers that subsequently came after him, although he might have been the one who relied on it the most.

  6. Victor says:

    Overall, you are correct. That said I do think that he did imbue the G Rap template with his own charisma. Also, Yeahh Baby had more than a handful of heaters (watch those, 100%, my turn, nigga shit).

    • Thun says:

      I probably overstated my case regarding his use of Kool G. Rap’s style. Sure, Pun had his own idiosyncrasies, no doubt about it.

  7. Trademark says:

    great stuff! Although I don’t believe he is gaining ground in the “legacy” department. Maybe it depends on the circles you run in, but hardly a hip hop head out here in the southwest speaks his name. In fact both PUN and 2pac seem to be losing ground to BIGGIE in the dead legend race. It might have something to do with PUFFY still trying to milk the BIG man for all he is worth?

    • Thun says:

      It’d be hard to tell if he’s gained ground in the legacy department, but he doesn’t appear to have lost ground at all, judging by the round of online tributes this past February.

      He’s always been a bigger deal here in the Northeast, for obvious reasons related geography and ethnicity. it wouldn’t surprise me at all if large swaths of the country couldn’t give a fuck about him.

      Although his wife tries hard, nobody can compete with Puffy when it comes to exploiting the deceased.

  8. Chops&Thangs says:

    Great read. One question though, Capital Punishment or Jealous Ones Envy?

  9. Hamza 21 says:

    He is the only Puerto Rican emcee who is regularly mentioned as being among the greatest of all time.

    Not true! Many people mentioned Chino XL all the time when the topic of great emcees comes up. Chino XL is a beast of the mic. His style of clowning other emcees in many of his songs does get tiring but when he spits he can hold his own with the best of them.

    • Thun says:

      I really doubt Chino XL is mentioned anywhere nearly as frequently as Big Pun. Maybe among his core audience, whatever that is nowadays, but nowhere else.

  10. Versive says:

    I agree with 2 & 3, but I think you’re off-base on #1. While I agree that he doesn’t deserve to be mentioned ahead of Kool G Rap (don’t think this really happens that much outside of Boston where from my experience it happens all the time for whatever reason), I wouldn’t call Big Pun’s lyrics light on substance.

    G Rap has a way bigger discography to draw from of course, but as far as storytelling goes, there are times when Big Pun is just as if not more descriptive than G Rap – simply Because his rhymes were so densely backed with multis.

    I’d say that ranking Big Pun ahead of G Rap is just as off-base as ranking B.I.G. or Big L ahead of him. I guess that’s what happens when an artist dies after 2 great albums though.

    • Thun says:

      “G Rap has a way bigger discography to draw from of course, but as far as storytelling goes, there are times when Big Pun is just as if not more descriptive than G Rap”


      • versive says:

        You already stated the most obvious example with “dead in the middle…” Boomerang is another great one. In 2 verses he spits like an entire concept album worth of material.

        People don’t ususally consider Pun a storyteller because he didn’t do it in the usual sense, but what he did often do was get so vivid with it that it was like he was telling a whole story in 2-4 bars.

        Those who don’t rank Kool G Rap Top 5 are crazy and people who don’t acknowledge him at all shouldn’t be acknowledged at all.

        • Thun says:

          And those example are more vivid or filled with more interesting detail or better written than Kool G Rap … how?

          Can you please show me an example of a Pun story told in two bars?

    • Thun says:

      Also, I should have been more careful with my wording. What I meant was is in my experience, Pun is mentioned as being among the greats by people who don’t even rank or acknowledge Kool G Rap. Fuckery of the highest order.

      • done says:

        Iv noticed there seems to be this split in G Rap fans too a lot of times, one group lean towards his mid-nineties onwards output and the other prior, particularly his first two albums. I find it strange, hes never really had a high profile so i dont know why theres this selective digging, especially by younger fans.

        Im part of the first two albums-brigade but thats not due to lack of curiosity, just that any of his later work i heard bored the hell out of me and dissuaded me from continuing to check it out. Live and let Die and 4, 5, 6, had some good songs though. Nothing on the level of Poison but pretty great nonetheless.

        Both HHC & Fatlace did great articles about the downward trajectory/ critical overration his later work got actually.

        • Thun says:

          The first two are the best, and #3 and #4 have a lot of great moments, too.

          I’m not so mad at “4,5,6” for being coldly mechanical and militaristic and what not… that’s kind of the point. Whether or not the album’s intent is boring or not I guess depends on the listener, although now tatI think about I rarely play it all the way through.

  11. verge tibbs says:

    word, I agree with everything stated in this article. Nothing else to say, you already did. Good shit.

  12. philaflava says:

    Co-sizzle my man Thun 100% but I should add I am not Latino.

  13. versive says:

    cash pays and rules – the root of all evil
    shootin amigos for loot n perico polluting our people

    I said Pun was at times more or as descriptive, not that he was altogether. Kool G Rap is a better rappper, has a better catalogue (though it contains a greater amount of weak entries), and is an all around better writer. But if we’d had the chance to see Pun mature and develop further, who knows?

    • Thun says:

      I think that at his best, particularly on his first two albums, Kool G Rap demonstrated a much more acute sense of how to incorporate descriptive detail into his verses. He knew when not to pack details or words that didn’t add to the picture being painted or the concept being developed. He was adept at crafting seamless transitions between ideas or scenes when he wanted to jump from topic to topic, and was also able to keep a concept alive for long stretches while using “multis.”

      In Pun I hear a lot of tendencies that suggest a vastly inferior writer at work. Multi sequences that go on for way too long and quickly stop making sense, tendencies to switch between ideas in an awkwardly abrupt manner, and the incorporation of long words and humdrum details that detract from the overall picture. Not all the time, but in very many instances that are lauded as great verses by his most ardent fans.

      In the rappers that came after Pun I see a complete degeneration of style and execution, almost to the point that I swear that some rappers in NYC now are rhyming the exact same fucking word combinations that Pun used, removed even farther from any useful or imaginative context. Joell Ortiz and Saigon have entire songs that sound like unintentional parodies of Big Pun.

      • versive says:

        “tendencies to switch between ideas in an awkwardly abrupt manner”

        • Thun says:

          Don’t get me wrong, though, Pun makes it work to the best of his ability. I’m not trying to suggest that he’s some kind of failure. He was nice with his. It’s just that when you compare his work to the finest work of his main influence, there are shortcomings that are evident on a close listen. Can you enjoy Big Pun’s style without worrying about whether or not he improved upon Kool G Rap’s style? Sure, I do it all the time.

          The initial post is really just my plea for greater intellectual honesty in the ongoing discussion. I’m not shocked that anyone’s subjective opinion might sway them to prefer Pun’s music over G Rap’s. I don’t think it is sinful behavior to enjoy Pun’s music on its own terms, odd transitions and all. After all, he did a great job of blending into the music, he had the concept of polyrhythm down like a motherfucker, and this is possibly why he was able to get away with forced rhymes and poor transitions. He made inelegant writing sound like pure perfection when spoken aloud, and in a certain way, there’s something very impressive about it. From a personal standpoint, I tend to prefer the artist that can combine vocal prowess with content that is rich with meaning, but that’s not the only valid way to listen to rap music nor is it one that necessarily leads to G Rap being considered better. At some point, it gets subjective and we can’t help that no matter how hard we argue.

          Also, Pun’s keen sense of polyrhythm might be an issue in which his ethnic heritage is relevant, if he was familiar with the rhythms of Latin music and learned about it through his household. I feel like I remember reading an interview where he intimated as much. I love various forms of Latin music but I’m nowhere near an expert, so I can’t say for sure, but the idea isn’t far fetched to me. Anyone care to comment?

          I just want the people who proclaim him to be this super technician lyrical mastermind t acknowledge these nuances, and build a new, more insightful discussion around them, is all.

          • done says:

            I know nothing about latin music but id be curious how much his knowledge of spanish played a part in his flow. I wonder if theres certain patterns of speaking and ways of eccentuating sylablles you use when speaking it that could give you an advantage with the more technical aspects of rapping.

            A proper analysis of that would probably require someone who both knows a lot about rap & is a linguist, or is bilingual at least. Might even be why rap has caught on stronger in a country such as France as opposed to say, Germany, which has a more abrupt language with harsher sylabbles,

            Obviously Im way out of my depth here but its an interesting idea I think.

  14. Pun was a wife beater and wife beaters get no props. He was nice on the mic but a complete disaster as a human being.

    • Thun says:

      I’m not down with wife beating either, but if we were to evaluate art based entirely on the moral failings of artists we’d be left with very little to appreciate.

      • done says:

        I cant imagine Snoop’s pending murder trial wouldve stopped me copping Doggystyle on its release, had i been older then.

        I think its down to personal choice whether you can listen to someone whos done stuff you dont approve of but it definitly shouldnt play any part in criticising their music. Personally, I try and be objective and seperate the art from the person who made it but I have exeptions, R Kelly being the biggest one.

        I sometimes feel a little bad listening to Suga Free, but its rare and doesnt last. Kinda fucked up I should feel bad about someone pimping irl when I listen to music by people who are in jail for murder anyways.

      • done says:

        Seriously though, fuck R Kelly.

  15. Jasper says:

    Puns´biggest failure as a technical rapper was his super loud breathing. That´s the reason I could never appreciate his lyrically and flowwise dope part on the Full Scale EP.

  16. Jasper says:

    And concerning Dones´ Theory of the harsh language being the reason rap is not as big in Germany as in France, I think the reason for that is that there live way more people of african descent in France.

  17. Thun says:

    I’m not sure of Big Pun’s spanish proficiency, as a lot of second generation Puerto Ricans in NYC are not entirely fluent in spanish, but the spanish spoken in Latin America is a very mellifluous language, for certain.

  18. done says:

    Oh nah i wasnt makin the assumption he was fluent cos of his ethnicity id just heard him using some spanish in his rhymes so he must know some at least, I dont think he has a Tres Equis equivalent in his catalogue so far as i know.

    Jasper, that never occoured to me at all. England, another country that has a healthy rap scene, also has a high proportion of people of african descent especially from the carribean so there might be something in that. Dancehall and jamaican music in general defintely played a huge role in the development of the uk rap scene, which isnt all that dissimiilar to how american rap started actually, though american rap obviously had to start from scratch.

    He uses spanish here:
    for all the talk of punch-ins, he definitly had breath control earlier on at least, even if he does sound like hes struggling a bit. His weight gains probably responsible for him losing that later on.

    • Thun says:

      He uses some very commonly understood (in NYC anyway) spanish slang words but he doesn’t actually utter a spanish sentence.

      But yeah, he’s obviously familiar with the language, so it’s still quite possible that he based some of his cadences from the way that spanish structured and spoken, esp. in a colloquial context.

      • done says:

        Yeah im kinda showin my ignorance there, the only other language i understand is a near-dead one few people use anymore and im fairly rusty at that.

        It would be interesting to see someone develop that idea further though, especially if it is like you said more of a colloquial/slang thing as opposed to book spanish.

  19. Brandan E. says:

    Big Pun is one the best of all-time that rarely gets mentioned. why? i dont know.
    u do bring up some great points tho. but i always thought that he came out at a time when other rappers was shinin also like jay, nas, x, ja, busta, and etc. just think he kinda got overshadowed a little bit cause other mc’s was doin their thing at that time also. the game had alot of talent at that time and everybody was kinda grouped in and only jay, nas & x was kinda separating themselves from the pack.

  20. qbd1 says:

    Yo Thun, you got it all wrong on this one son.

    I see Big Pun as a kind of Portorican Nas. But unlike Nas he has this old school showman thing which is some Latin swag or whatever you wanna call it. In other words, he’s not some frustrated hermit ghetto scribe. But he has that knowledge. If you listen to Capital Punishment, songs like Capital Punishment are a kind of “NY State of Mind”, “Beware” is sinister in the Mobb Deep sense and his QB connections run deep, w Nore featuring on the album and Prodigy’s voice sampled on at least 2 songs. Busta Rhymes is on the album too. I’m saying that we are talking world-class rappers here, with albums, and street/hiphop cred, ny-reality. Snoop strolled through for the “Twinz” video, Funkmaster Flex is on a skit, Miss Jones from AZ fame sings the hook on one song, Wyclef Jean who at that time was already multi-platinum-selling artist. And not even standing out but seamlessly blending in Black Thought of The Roots on a song titled “Super Lyrical” . Black Thought, as you probably agree, is one of the most underrated emcees ever.

    The way I see it, the system underlying his collaborations is already enough to reveal the “greatness” or “star power” of a truly gifted above-average and unique genius rapper.

    Back to your first argument: not changing, innovating, improving “rapping” style? I’m sure you would agree that it’s a difficult thing to measure. Songs like “Boomerang” and “Fast Money” are tight-knit fast-paced cinematic crime narratives exactly from the same imagination as G Rap. There is never any empty boasting in them, or anything usually associated with lackluster rappers. Pun sounds fierce, his storyline is straight, and everything sounds authentic…like real writers. We’re talking a storytelling understanding of writing, with accumulation of images, vivid metaphors, springing from an unified mind. Remember, this was the peak of the rapper-mafioso era and Big Pun helped define the standard. As if after the failure of The Firm album (Nas, Foxy, Az) we still craved thug/glamour/street NYC shit.

    About the multi-syllabical rhyming…Don’t be offensive and say that it hampered his skills? That makes no sense. Skills are defined by the synergy between the technique and the content. Wack multi-syllabical rappers are not bad because they use that technique. They are bad because they use the technique without having substance and content.

    Once again, how can you measure his “lyrical skills”? Capital Punishment is very substantial, with each song containing a “message” full in intent. “Dream Shatterer” is a cross between Biggie, Nas, Mobb Deep and Canibus, if you can understand that. “You Ain’t A Killer” is the type of street shit Jay-Z could have come up with for Reasonable Doubt. Overall, it’s obvious to me that he has that same mind of crime,rap,knowledge,hood life, that ALL THE BEST RAPPERS have. Same intent, same sensitivity, same outlet.

    “Like Jigga my game is mental” – Pun on “Parental Discretion” (feat. Busta Rhymes).

    Now, your third claim is bogus! Who cares if he’s Portorican. But to say that he “assists the erasure” of other talented portorican emcees, is totally unfounded and ridiculous! As if there was such a system in which Big Pun was “officially” considered above all else. You know that’s not real! And let me put it this way, this is what Pun raps on “Dream Shattered”

    I’m the first Latin rapper to baffle your skull
    Master the flow, niggaz be swearin’ I’m blacker than coal
    -Pun on “Dream Shatterer”

    That’s it.

    R.I.P. Big Pun

  21. nme says:

    being latino has a lot to do with his flow and the structure of pun’s rhymes in one respect pun has said some of the tightest versus I’ve ever heard, but as a whole not better than kool g, but pun did go platinum which speaks a lot. also kool g was already a household name when pun started rapin. with such a early death who know i guess its all about the style that you like but, imo pun was “that nice”

  22. Trey Tavon Foreman says:


  23. Trey Tavon Foreman says:

    Capital punishment is one of the GREAREST ALBUMS EVER MADE…ILL PLAY IT WITH ANY RAPPER..NOBIDY HAS PUNS LYRICS KOOL G RAP IS COOL but Pun was better in my eyes n its a FACT AT THAT..PUN GETS A 10..EVEN NAS SAID IT..IF YU DNT TIP UR HAT TO PUN OR RECOGNIZE HIS GREATNESS THEN KILL YOSELF..TOP 5 DEAD or ALIVE 1.Notorious Big 2.Big Punisher 3. NAS 4. Jay-z 5.The Lox..i kno they a group but i put the lox as a whole kuz jadakiss and Styles p both earned a top 5 spot #factz

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