When Harlem rhyme animal Big L was murdered in 1999, he left behind a legacy of lyrical acumen and morbidly irreverent swagger fortified by a bounty of freestyles and massacred mixtape appearances. But, though his 1995 debut Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous was solid and has aged surprisingly well, L had yet to deliver a certified classic like his fellow fallen “Bigs,” Notorious and Pun. So, while all posthumous hip-hop releases tend to come with an air of grandeur up to which they almost never live, Big L’s Return of the Devil’s Son seems to labor with the additional heft of trying to craft a legend out of an artist who passed as a virtuosic up and comer. Though the album itself ultimately buckles under the weight of a bloated 21 tracks, some recycled and others incomplete, Big L’s MC prowess still manages to shine through like high beams in a winter blizzard.
“Principal of the New School,” is a fascinating and neck snapping look at the genesis of a microphone master, as a very young, unpolished Big L delivers a Big Daddy Kane inspired burst of braggadocio over a bare bones beat. While L’s macabre wit runs wild on the murderous (and borderline blasphemous) “Devil’s Son,” his rarely seen playful side turns the bouncy “School Days” into an instant standout. The anthemic “Right to the Top” allows L to floss with the legendary Kool G. rap, underlining once again the heavy Juice Crew influence on L’s style. Perhaps most poignant, “I Won’t” shows off a mature introspection rarely seen on the rugged street screeds on which Big L earned his stripes. Had he lived long enough to more fully explore this dimension of his lyricism, it very well might have rounded him out to the level of the twin titans of his era, Nas and Biggie Smalls.
There are enough moments of magic here for a solid ten track homage. Yet, the powers behind the project seem intent on belaboring the point. The mixtape freestyles that are interspersed throughout are probably all too familiar to most Big L fans, and mainly serve to disrupt the flow of the album. “Zone of Danger” and “M.C.’s What’s Going On” are really just glorified remixes of Lifestylez’s “Danger Zone” and “I Don’t Understand It” that pale in comparison to the originals. “Yes You Can” is clearly an out-take that should have stayed out.
Even twelve year’s after he spit his last rhyme, Big L’s mic moxie is rivaled by few. Yet, Return of the Devil’s Son will probably only garner repeated spins from the most diehard of fans. Casual listeners would be better served by digging out that dusty Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous tape.