Black Rob, the rugged and gritty lyricist who helped carry Bad Boy Records into the new millennium, died on Saturday at age 52. He passed away reportedly due to kidney failure, encouraging his friends and fans to share two GoFundMe pages to raise money for his funeral and medical expenses. (You can donate to them here and here.)
Black Rob was recognized in the mainstream as the rapper behind “Whoa!” but he was so much more than that. Signed to Bad Boy in the mid-’90s, he started as a songwriter on the label, penning lyrics for his label boss Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs—Biggie shouts him out on “Victory”: “Black Rob joined the Mob, it ain’t no replacin’ him.” His appearances as a featured artist started with on Bad Boy remixes by 112, Total, and Faith Evans. Even if he didn’t get as famous as other Bad Boy artists, he remains a legend in Harlem and a respected name that deserves his flowers.
Here are 10 essential songs you need to hear from Black Rob, a sampling of his greatness and why he was loved by many.
Mase, “24 Hrs. to Live” feat. The Lox, Black Rob, and DMX (1998)
Puff Daddy asks Mase, Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, Styles P, DMX, and Black Rob to contemplate what they would do on their final day. This was the posse cut of all posse cuts. Black Rob comes in after Jadakiss, hoping to get with a “bare Spanish mami” before taking out some people that wronged him and attempting one more robbery on some rich folks. With DMX and Black Rob no longer with us, the song is a time capsule of Black Rob standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of the best.
Black Rob had the clubs jumping when “Whoa!” first played in New York City. The initial reaction to the single signaled a turn of good fortune for Bad Boy after struggling with album sales and the loss of their marquee artists: Biggie, who passed away, and Mase, who announced his retirement. “Whoa!” is the biggest single of Rob’s career. Produced by Buckwild of Diggin’ in the Crates Crew, the song appeared on his debut album Life Story and peaked at No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2000. To this day, “Whoa!” is talked about as a defining song of New York rap, a certified Tunnel banger.
“Can I Live” feat. The Lox (2000)
During the Fabolous vs. Jadakiss Verzuz, Jada revealed that “Can I Live”’ was originally a Lox record. When the group went to Ruff Ryders after Bad Boy, Puff kept the song for Black Rob. “Can I Live” became an album cut on Rob’s Life Story. Label politics aside, the song remains a motivational anthem about surviving and thriving by any means necessary. B.R. handles hook duty and the last verse, holding his own among one of the most elite groups the genre has seen.
“I Love You Baby” feat. Puff Daddy (2000)
Black Rob was a vivid storyteller. In another standout from Life Story, he is joined by Puff on “I Love You Baby.” It maintains a dark tone with orchestral strings and steady drums as Rob paints a story about revenge. “I met her Uptown on Dyckman, aight then/Talkin that, how she only dealt with businessmen,” he begins. It goes deeper into the narrative as the woman recognizes some guys spying on him from across the street. They try to murder him, and Rob seeks revenge on the woman who possibly set him up.
“I Dare You” feat. Joe Hooker (2000)
Black Rob fans hoped to get more songs with Joe Hooker, the artist name of Bad Boy president, Harve Pierre. But out of the two that appear on Life Story, “I Dare You” captures their full potential. The song, which was on the 1998 soundtrack to Marc Levin’s Slam,closes out the album, bringing you into the Harlem underworld one last time. The video, directed by Director X, sees Black Rob successfully completing his isolated “rap star” training before being deployed back into the New York City streets.
Labba, Illacoin, Black Rob, “By a Stranger” (2001)
As one decorated hip-hop journalist puts it, “By a Stranger” is insanely good. You have all the right elements working in unison: the soulful production of Ayatollah, the sample of Donna Summer’s “Sweet Romance,” and storytelling rhymes. It appeared in Grand Theft Auto III, playing on the underground hip-hop station Game Radio hosted by Stretch Armstrong and Lord Sear. Black Rob delivers an emotional verse about confronting an unfaithful woman—his pain is palpable: “All I wanna know is why, I wasn’t even tryin’ to spy/Come home dice from Bed-Stuy all inside/Shoulda known, all you did was was pull me down/I shoulda grown, canceled the mortgage on the home.”
G. Dep, “Let’s Get It” feat. P. Diddy and Black Rob (2001)
Shortly after Black Rob signed to Bad Boy, G. Dep joined the ranks in 1998. Black and Dep share a connection in that they are both from Harlem. They would appear on each other’s albums frequently, teaming up here on “Let’s Get It,” one of the most enduring and seminal Bad Boy cuts. Rob always made his guest appearances count. Never one to get outshined by Dep, he gets in the zone on this fast money anthem: “I be the Eastside Soprano, Rob Marciano/Flow in every channel with the Iverson handle.”
“Permanent Scars / Live from the Eastside” (2004)
A blog post from 2011 broke down the origins of this Black Rob song that appeared on a DJ Kay Slay mixtape in 2004. While this song was never formally released on Rob’s second album, the beat was sold to Beanie Sigel and he made his classic track “Feel It in the Air.” However, Banco Popular’s version is different enough: he raps from the Sugar Shack Lounge in Harlem, getting introspective about overcoming difficult times.
“Star in da Hood / Ready” (2005)
Rob spits like he never left the streets, detailing his visits in Harlem and what’s been changing around him. “Saw a lot of old dudes used to work my block/They on Lennox Av. now selling T-shirts and socks/Pushing everything they own in a shopping cart/So I threw ‘em something because deep down it hurt my heart,” he raps. In the second and third verses, he touches on his former life of crime and how he’s earned respect after returning to Harlem. The video splits into “Ready,” another gem from The Black Rob Report that exists solely to do the Harlem Shake.
“Showin Up” (2011)
Black Rob’s star was starting to fade after he served seven years in prison for grand larceny. When he was released in 2010, Rob left Bad Boy to ink an independent deal with Duck Down Music to work on his third album Game Tested, Streets Approved. On “Showin Up,” he examines his own pitfalls in the music industry, reflecting on what he’s learned about himself to send a message. “For years, I’ve been a slave to money, cars, and clothes/and man-made creations and incarceration/parole and probation/stipulations, violations/visitations and vindications,” he raps.”I had a conversation with God, two revelations/Told me I’d be good if I pray for some salvation.”