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On his 44th birthday, we look back at one of the Notorious B.I.G.’s more underrated and underscored verses, 1997’s “Keep Your Hands High”.

Though he drew breath for all of three months in 1997, the figure of Christopher Wallace still bears down upon hip-hop; Bad Boy Records and a generation of New York hip-hop in particular. Today, on what would have marked his 44th birthday, the genre he helped push into a more celebratory mixture of mafioso style alter-ego and elaborate wordplay celebrates him.

And also wonders just what his peak could have been.

If you’re counting the number of high profile Notorious B.I.G. verses from 1997, the bulk of them landed on his second album, the posthumously released Life After Death. The others were a few incomplete tracks and verses that wound up being big hits for label boss and friend Puff Daddy’s No Way Out album (“Young Gs”, “Victory”, “Mo Money, Mo Problems”). One in particular was a guest verse that landed on Philadelphia rapper Tracey Lee’s Many Faces debut disc.

“Keep Your Hands High” found second life as “Rap Phenomenon” with Method Man, Redman & DJ Premier (!) on the posthumously released Born Again in 1999 but by then, B.I.G. was gone. The track has been flipped into two major moments after Biggie’s death though. One for T.I. & the post-jail braggadocio of “Bring ‘Em Out” and the other belonging to “Young Gs” co-star Jay Z, who lifted B.I.G.’s “rings and things you sing about” line from “Keep Your Hands High” for “What More Can I Say”, MFSB sample and all.

So in pocket, Biggie naturally overshadowed Tracey Lee’s two verses on the track. He was in a celebratory mood then and even allowed himself to look backwards for a second (“B*tches get naked off Get Money / Playas Anthem
Don’t forget One More Chance and, my other hits
“). He was happy about the birth of his son with Faith Evans, CJ and still found time to joke about the minuscule effects of a weed roller’s dilemma (“I got a new mouth to feed, I’m due south with keys / Y’all pick seeds out y’all weed, I watch cowards bleed“). There was still humor logged in his mind and larynx (“Me and my n*gga Lance, took Kim and Cease’s advance /Bought ten bricks, four pounds of weed plants“).

“The thing about BIG that impressed me the most was what the normal MC could say in 10-20 words, he could say in 4,” Tracey Lee told The Urban Daily in 2012. “He maximized word usage and syllables more so than any other MC that I ever heard in my life.”

There’s nothing bleak about “Keep Your Hands High” from The Notorious B.I.G. There’s still the macabre nature of hitting a lick for fun and robbing the rich just to make himself richer. Two years prior, Reggie Miller was arguably the most hated man in New York. In one bar, Biggie compared himself to the Indiana sharpshooter while also laying down law as to who he was. Ready To Die Biggie was the dope dealer slash rapper. By ’97, The Notorious B.I.G. still rapped about big time dope, even if he found himself living far more lavish than Super Nintendo’s in a mansion by then.