Big Pimpin is a rap song about impulsive living. Jay Z was, by then, a certified star. UGK, while heralded in rap, was still largely unknown outside of their core fan base. Their pairing here, and the success that came from it, helped rearticulate the northern and southern rap conversation.
The very first thing we see in the video for “Big Pimpin’” is a very big yacht, and all through the video the party that happens on it and away from it is a very big spectacle, and the very last thing we see in the video for “Big Pimpin’” is the very big yacht, and that was all a deliberate move to relay the following:
Jay wrote “Big Pimpin’” shortly after he’d been charged with assault for stabbing record producer Lance Rivera in the stomach during an altercation at a nightclub. Had he been convicted, he might have seen upward of fifteen years in prison. That possible reality served as the impetus for the world he built in “Big Pimpin’”: “The contrast between the million-dollar extravagance of the ‘Big Pimpin’’ video and the potential of being behind bars for years behind a mindless assault wasn’t lost on me.
Both were about losing control.” Jay Z wrote that in his 2010 book, Decoded. He further explained: “It’s a song that seems to be about the purity of the hustler’s thrill —pleasure cooked down to a crystal.” And even further: “If the price is life, then you better get what you paid for. There’s an equal and opposite relationship between balling and falling.” He anticipated a catastrophic fall, so he balled stratospherically. His pimpin’ was the biggest it ever was, and ever got, really.
When the actual trial date neared, though, Jay hedged his bet. Nervous he’d catch the violent reflex of a justice system that’d attempted and failed to lock up Puff Daddy the winter before for a shootout he was involved in at a separate New York nightclub, Jay settled (“No way was I going to allow myself to be a sideshow for the state”). He pled guilty to the charge and received three years probation, and that is 100 percent a fair trade.
It’s a weird thing to be thankful that someone was stabbed, but I am grateful to Rivera for taking that L, as we all should be. Without that happening, (maybe) Jay isn’t motivated to live through the “most paranoid and hedonistic” period of his life, and so we (maybe) don’t get “Big Pimpin’.” That would’ve been a real tragedy. He should’ve stabbed five or six more people. He might’ve written the most transcendent rap album of all.
Jay Z had twenty career singles before “Big Pimpin’.” Of those, only three were RIAA certified gold (“Dead Presidents,” “Can I Get a . . . ,” and “Hard Knock Life”). “Big Pimpin’” was his first platinum single. “Big Pimpin’” was also UGK’s first career platinum single. The song was produced by Timbaland (a true hero), and the video, which became the first rap video featured on MTV’s Making the Video, which carries with it its own knot of supplemental offshoots, was directed by Hype Williams (also a true hero).
The song was included in Rolling Stone’s countdown of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (number 467) as well as their countdown of the 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs of All Time (number 16). It was nominated for a Grammy (Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group) and an MTV VMA (Best Rap Video). In totality, it was the most successful pairing of a rapper from the North with rappers from the South that had occurred up to that moment, and its brilliance lent itself as inspiration for others to try, even if they never could quite match the glow.
Jay Z avoiding a fifteen-year prison sentence is a monumental What if…moment in rap. SO MUCH stuff would’ve been different. It’s a string of possibilities superseded by only two other potentialities:
What if Tupac had not been murdered in 1996?
What if Biggie had not been murdered in 1997?
Others on the What if . . . list that fall somewhere below those top three:
What if the Hot Boys never disbanded? What if DMX favored cats instead of dogs? What if BET: Uncut never existed? What if Patrick Ewing didn’t miss that finger roll? What if Lauryn Hill didn’t go crazy? What if Chris Tucker made Friday 2? What if Plies used his government name? What if Suge Knight was two feet shorter? What if Dr. Dre was Mr. Dre? What if Halloween didn’t fall on that weekend? What if Kanye never had his heartbroken? What if the Fresh Prince’s dad hadn’t abandoned him? What if Lil Wayne was from, say, Rhode Island? What if Snoop didn’t beat his murder charge? What if Soulja Boy never Supermanned any hoes? What if Lil’ Kim didn’t do that to her face? What if Master P’s tank was just a normal-ass tank?
But to the original point: Originally, Pimp C didn’t want to record for “Big Pimpin’.” It wasn’t in line with the sound he and Bun B had built for UGK. “We put the [‘Big Pimpin’ ’]reel on and we hear these flutes and this happy music . . . and I’m like, maaan. I’m not doing it. I called [Jay Z] and said, ‘Hey, man, are you trying to sabotage me?’ He said, ‘Look, fam, it’s gonna be the biggest record of your career.” Eventually, he was convinced to do it. Bun B was glad. “It was probably the biggest chance that we took in our career, but it ended up being the biggest payoff as well.”
So, what if UGK passes again on Jay’s invite to be on one of his songs? They never do “Big Pimpin’” together. What happens? Does Jay Z just keep it moving and do it with Three 6 Mafia instead? Or maybe Jay takes offense at having been turned away twice.
And maybe Jay, already short-tempered from having Nas gnawing at him, attempting to goad him into war—maybe Jay snipes at Pimp C and Bun B in a song instead of how he went for Nas’s neck. And so then instead of getting the historic “Takeover” vs. “Ether” 2001 battle we get a true North vs. South rap war, because there is a zero percent chance that if Jay says Pimp C’s name in a song, Pimp doesn’t spend a planet’s worth of energy attempting to unravel Jay Z’s career. How does that play out?
Is it Biggie and Tupac again—an uncontrollable firestorm that ends in tragedy? Or does the fight stay on tape like how the Jay Z vs. Nas feud did? And if Jay never calls out Nas by name on “Takeover” then Nas never records “Ether,” right? And if he doesn’t record “Ether,” then which direction does his legacy point? Because “Ether” is for sure a critical part of the Nas legend. And how does he use his extra time? Do we get to Nas’s reggae period ten years earlier, and is rap even ready for that in 2000?
Or maybe Nas, having watched Bun and Pimp throw salt on Jay as two vs. one, teams up with Jay behind some home-team allusion? And so we get Jay Z and Nas vs. Bun B and Pimp C? When it’s over, do Nas and Jay Z release a duo album together? Is it any good? Or maybe the two couldn’t get their styles to congeal and it flops and so they both just sort of fizzle around in New York, local titans but that’s it?
Oh my god: WHO MARRIES BEYONCÉ IF SUCCESSFUL JAY Z ISN’T THERE? Is it Kanye? Or does Jay Z somehow still end up with Beyoncé except now it’s not really a power couple, it’s more of a Britney Spears and Kevin Federline couple? Does Beyoncé spiral into insanity? Does Britney Spears end up recording “Single Ladies”?
“Big Pimpin’” is the representation of a time in Jay Z’s life that almost wasn’t. But it’s also a linchpin in history, keeping the reality line from sprigging out into all sorts of weirdo directions.