The Unbearable Realness of Beanie Sigel

The rapper should be to Philly what Jay-Z is to New York, what Kanye is to Chicago. So where did he go wrong? We dig in to his history.

Original artwork by Michael Hague.

Original artwork by Michael Hague.

I like to think there’s a universe where Philadelphia got the Beanie Sigel who could have been: a world where B-Si is operating a media empire comparable to that of Jay-Z, where his talent carried him to the very top of the game and beyond. I like to think that someplace, Beans is talking Phillies’ baseman Maikel Franco into shacking up with his sports agency, and Rolling Stone reporters are crafting dispatches from the hull of his yacht. Somewhere, Beanie is to Philly what Kanye is to Chicago, 50 Cent is to New York, and Ludacris, Big Boi and CeeLo are to Atlanta.

But the city is without a glimmering sovereign, not counting the Fresh Prince, who is pretender to the crown, and The Roots, who are more like the House of Lords. Instead, Beanie Sigel is the uncrowned king, a polo-wearing, mustachioed prodigy who is too real to ascend to the throne: too true to be bowed by court business, too Philly to ever be L.A., too prototypical of the modern rap mogul to ever be the modern rap mogul.

The truth is that Beanie fits a precise model: the four­-tool player. You’ve probably heard it a thousand times before: the athletic ballplayer who can’t shoot; your brilliant writer friend who can’t sit down to write their novel; your own talented but lazy ass. Like them, Beans is short one ingredient. He has had his fingers in plenty of pies, and has even been kind of an innovator, but he’s never peaked. Fuck, I mean, the dude was in the movies.

Run it back to 2002. Moments before we got the modern/golden era of hip-­hop flicks (which, perhaps not so coincidentally, dovetailed with the era of watchable superhero movies, but I digress), Beanie starred in State Property, a movie named for his rap crew. For the uninitiated, State Property is a baffling, product­-of-­its-time street tale shot like the chintziest late-’90s hip-hop video you can find, possibly with the same filter as “Trapped in the Closet.” It features none other than fresh up-­and-­comer Jay-Z as the antagonist. I know it sounds like I’m describing a weird dream you had, but the movie is real, terrible and monolithically forward-thinking; it came just years before the era of genre-crossing hip-hop pseudo-­biopics, like Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 8 Mile, and, uh, Idlewild.

Then Beanie was in Paper Soldiers with a young Kevin Hart, and then he was pretty much out of filmmaking. Thing is, Beanie wasn’t too bad. Sure, State Property sucks, but he’s clearly putting everything he has in to it. Even a cursory cruise over his music videos reveals a guy who at least understands subtlety. Check out the “Feel it in the Air” video; you’ll get what I’m saying.

This is all nothing, though, without considering Beanie as musician. Beanie is no renaissance man — he never pushed the boundaries of hip-hop — and his output has been less than prolific. But he’s never been bad, and at his best he’s excellent. He can be a DMX­-level intimidator and a Black Thought-level lyricist; he can even write a hip-hop anthem or two when he wants. He’s got six solo albums, with at least one decade­-great piece of work in The B. Coming. On top of all that, he’s the favorite guest rapper of umpteen artists and one of Jay-Z’s favorite sidekicks. In short, he’s a hip-hop all­-star. He’s a generational talent, recognized within hip-hop circles as one of our greatest. He’s like the former Dodgers’ pitcher Sandy Koufax: meteoric talent, small resumé.

So why aren’t we listening to Drake’s guest spot on the 15th Beanie album? Why wasn’t Beans standing on stage during Jay-­Z’s Tidal announcement? Why didn’t Beanie play Biggie in Notorious? Why is there no independent Philly hip-hop empire, one not signed over to Warner Bros. or, uh, Jimmy Fallon?

Because the tool four­-tool-player Beanie Sigel is missing is good behavior. Because Beanie Sigel backs up his big talk. Beanie has been accused of attempted murder; Beanie led Philadelphia police on a high-speed chase through South Philly; Beanie has dodged child support; Beanie has been caught with drugs; Beanie has violated parole; Beanie has committed tax fraud. Beanie has done hard time. Beanie has mortgaged his future to satisfy a lust for realness unseen in today’s hip-hop superstars. Realest thing Puffy can do anymore is swing a kettlebell at his son’s USC coach. Realest thing Jay-Z can do is get slapped by Solange Knowles.

While the lack of realness among our hip-hop heroes may be pitiful, it’s not as sad as Beanie’s commitment to it. Philly could have had so much more from him, and maybe it still will, if he either turns things around or settles into a life as a rap elder statesman. But for now, let’s sit back and dream a dream about Beanie joining an ownership group seeking to buy the Philadelphia Union.

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