Not many artists can say they have a song with both 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G in their repertoire. The legendary Method Man had the honor of dropping “The What” with Biggie off Ready To Die, as well as “Got My Mind Made Up” off 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me. Buju Banton provided vocals on one of Pac and Big’s rare collaborations “Runnin’ (From The Police). Yet for many hip-hop fans, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s respective sessions with Pac and Biggie led to two of the greatest collaborations the culture has ever seen: “Thug Luv” and “Notorious Thugs.”
2Pac and Bone’s “Thug Luv,” which was recorded prior to Pac’s passing in 1996, was released as part of the classic The Art Of War. Released on July 29th, 1997, Bone’s first double album became an instant commercial success; by the following year, it was already certified quadruple platinum — four million copies. Though the project houses many enduring records, “Thug Luv” stands out as a lightning rod, the quintessential blend between horrorcore and unflinching gangsta rap. Sparking off with an electrical hum evocative of Frankenstein’s laboratory, DJ U-Neek’s eerie instrumental is reminiscent of vintage horror flicks from the seventies and eighties. A tense synthesizer loop provides the basis, an ominous piano triplet alluding to the unknown. In the background, Bizzy Bone’s hellish chants of “POP POP run with us, Pac and Rip with Thug Luv” strike a disorienting chord, lost beneath the intensity of Pac’s brazen shit-talking; you can almost picture him in the booth with two shotguns drawn, the inspiration for the gunfire-based percussion.
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Though Bone and Pac seemed destined to clash over a misunderstanding gone awry, they eventually found mutual respect for one another upon crossing paths in Cleveland. Said respect eventually led to Pac and Bizzy Bone hitting the studio with LA rapper Sylk-E-Fyne, where they laid down an original version of “Thug Luv.” Interested parties can actually check out that version below, featuring a stripped-down version of the instrumental, an additional verse from Bizzy Bone, and Sylk-E-Fyne rapping in place of Krayzie, Layzie, and Wish. It’s not entirely clear as to why the group decided to replace Sylk and revisit the track for their sophomore release, but given “Thug Luv’s” undeniable quality it’s easy to formulate a theory.
In its current iteration, the one that served as track two of Art Of War’s second disc, U-Neek’s instrumental revisions enhance the preexisting sense of menace. Violence permeates “Thug Luv,” and Bizzy himself plays a pivotal role in magnifying the track’s unsettling qualities. His opening verse is frantic yet graceful in its delivery, his opening biblical imagery poetic in its juxtaposition against murderous threats. Perhaps emboldened by the 2Pac’s presence, Bizzy lets fly one of the best verses of his career — one that can stand alongside any rapper’s finest work. Everything from his chilling cadence to his impeccable melodic navigation serve in elevating “Thug Luv” from a thriller to a full-scale horror flick. And that’s all before Pac himself bursts in, his baritone threats clearing the room before any gun need be drawn.
Likely recorded around the time he was working on All Eyez On Me, Pac’s thug persona was at an all-time high. Musically, songs like “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” and “No More Pain” spoke to his gravitation toward the darkness; not to mention ongoing feuds with Biggie Smalls and nihilistic warnings like “Hail Mary” and “Troublesome 96” all but foretelling his tragic fate. On “Thug Luv,” all his sneering arrogance spilled into the mic, cementing him as hip-hop’s ground-level boogeyman figure; not only would he rain death upon his enemies but he would laugh while doing so. A stark contrast to Bizzy’s rapid-fire flow, Pac opts for a more methodical delivery, choosing his words carefully and letting the gravity behind them resonate. Pac’s cadential mastery comes alive as he stretches his syllables, drawing from personal experience as he pens reflections on crime and punishment. “I’ll probably be punished for hard living, blind to the facts, thugs is convicts in God’s prison, hands on the strap,” he raps, in his opening bars. “Praying so Father please forgive me, police be rushing when they see me, I flaunt it — America’s Most Wanted, live on T.V.”
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Where “Thug Luv” is the pre-war battlecry, “Notorious Thugs” is the post-massacre reflection. Dead bodies litter the floor as a grand piano is ushered in. Recorded at some point between 1995 and 1997, the Notorious B.I.G’s double album Life After Death saw Bone Thugs-N-Harmony once again setting disc-two ablaze. In many ways, the sprawling and dreamlike epic that is “Notorious Thugs” draws many parallels with its darker counterpart. Each song begins with a chant of sorts, both centering around the respective names of Pac and Biggie. Each song features the presence of piano, albeit used to different effects. Where “Thug Luv” utilized the keys to drive tension, “Notorious Thugs” uses them to soothe. It’s over a minute before Big actually starts rapping, giving the hypnotic refrain of “it’s Bone and Biggie Biggie” room to sink into your subconscious.
During the recording sessions for Art Of War, Puff Daddy reached out to Bone Thugs with an invitation to record — as specifically requested by Big himself. Honored by the request, Bone hit the studio only to find an assortment of various liquors and an abundance of marijuana. Before long, they succumbed to the sweet call of studio inebriation to the point where Big was left prodding their unconscious bodies. Luckily, the Thugs were able to rally and hit the booth as intended — you can actually hear Krayzie reflecting on the hilarious experience right here. He explains that Big wasn’t feeling laying a verse then and there, instead opting to bring the instrumental back to his pad and continue his writing there. When he returned to lay down his verse, “Notorious Thugs” transformed from a regal posse cut to a genre-defining anthem.
Serving as a snapshot on his career, Big’s reflection arrives by way of razor-focused flow. Allusions are made to his beef with “you know who,” to his relationships with several female artists. His complicated history with the Wu-Tang Clan is addressed by way of homage. Dominance is asserted through classic East Coast mafioso imagery. His inclination to share wisdom as famously seen on “Ten Crack Commandments” shines through as he warns of the perils of inexperience. For those who value technical prowess, look no further than Big’s transition from two different schemes, rapping “Then I blew like nigga move like Mike, shit, not to be fucked with, motherfucker better duck quick, cause me and my dogs love to buck shit, fuck the luck shit — strictly aim, No aspirations to quit the game.”
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Though Biggie’s verse remains the most impactful — fair, given that the song stemmed from his album — Bizzy, Krayzie, and Layzie kept pace with the late legend. With each member bringing their own unique personality into the fold, it’s hard to say which Bone Thug emerged with the standout verse. Bizzy’s frantic delivery brings no shortage of highlight quotables, while Krayzie’s restrained performance gives his harmonies room to land the most effectively. Tasked with closing the six-minute-plus epic on an elevated note, Layzie Bone opts to channel the macabre energy of one Stephen King, planting a melodic refrain Redrum on anyone looking to contest. Together they combined to live up to their namesake, and it’s no wonder an artist of the Notorious B.I.G’s caliber was eagerly seeking them out to collaborate.
Over twenty years removed from the release of “Thug Luv” and “Notorious Thugs,” they endure. Each member of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony should be proud of what they contributed to the game — not only as a collective, but as respected collaborators to a pair of hip-hop’s most celebrated figures. Only a handful can say they worked with both 2Pac and Biggie. Not only did Bone Thugs do exactly that, but they also happened to give us two of the hardest-hitting anthems of all time, keeping pace with artists often deemed GOAT-tier. And with that in mind, what does that say about Bone Thugs?