Happy 20th Anniversary to Big Pun’s debut studio album Capital Punishment, originally released April 28, 1998.
“Every millennium a child is born that can perform, at a level beyond the expected four minute thirty second song.” – Big Pun, “Whatcha Gon Do?” from Terror Squad’s 1999 debut album Endangered Species
It’s always amazing to embark upon a journey with an artist that allows you to witness his early-career boast of being the best later come to fruition as his career evolves. Unfortunately, Christopher “Big Pun” Rios would leave us far too early, but not before cementing as strong of a legacy in hip-hop as any 20-year veteran and creating arguably one of the small handful of truly elite albums in the history of the genre with his 1998 debut Capital Punishment.
With the dynamic combination of top-notch rhyming skills, confidence in droves, and the magnitude of his microphone presence, Big Pun immediately captured audiences’ attention as a stand-out lyricist when his powerful vocals stood out amongst his mentor Fat Joe and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon on the mid-‘90s underground hit “Fire Water.” As Fat Joe’s fame rose after the release of his sophomore LP Jealous One’s Envy in 1995, his interest from a growing fanbase grew stronger, at least in part, because of his more frequent collaborations with fellow Latino and South Bronx native Big Punisher.
Pun’s rapid-fire, tongue-twisting delivery weaved together with New York Spanglish, solidified his status amongst the most anticipated emerging emcees in the class of 1998. This promising group of hungry rhymeslayers—which included DMX, Canibus, Nature, and Mos Def among others—presumably compelled Pun to dig deep and develop a versatile approach to his artistry en route to becoming the head of the class within a crowded and highly competitive landscape. Pun switched speeds from his more rugged raps used for promotion on the New York City mixtape circuit, to a smoothed out, playboy erotica, that worked an O’Jays’ sample of “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet, Tender, Love)” to perfection. Once cleaned up for radio, “I’m Not a Playa” found itself in heavy rotation nationwide, only increasing the widespread anticipation for the release of his first proper album Capital Punishment.
Showing signs that he was headed for a rare but successful transition from respected underground lyricist to major label hitmaker, the positive reception of “I’m Not a Playa” was eclipsed by its remix “Still Not a Playa” which featured R&B sensation Joe. As one of the top club-bangers of that year, “Still Not a Playa” made Pun a household name with the sexy sequel told in the tradition of Too $hort’s “Freaky Tales” released a decade earlier in 1988.
By the time fans could finally rush out to cop Capital Punishment on CD or cassette, and upon reading the track listing and liner notes, we were thrilled to observe that the LP offered something for nearly everyone. Reminiscent of another New York heavyweight named Christopher, Mr. Rios seemed to effortlessly master every lyrical skill he attempted, giving a performance that checked off every box on his quest for lyrical superiority.
For the rugged style that fans grew to love from the mixtapes, the LP had songs like “You Not a Killer” which was also featured on the Soul in the Hole soundtrack released in 1997, which doubles as a compilation of Loud Records’ powerhouse artist roster. If you had doubts that Big Pun wasn’t the most prominent new voice in hip-hop, these rhymes showed that he was skilled enough to transport you directly into the Soundview projects of the historic South Bronx and had a vocabulary and delivery similar to Kool G. Rap to navigate you through every dark corner: “I hate the fact that I'm the last edition / properly a stats magician / could've went to college and been a mathematician / bad decisions kept me out the game / now I'm strictly out for cream / doin' things to fiends I doubt you'll ever dream / my team's the meanest thing you ever seen / measured by the Heaven's kings / down to the Devil's mezzanine.”
“Super Lyrical” featuring Black Thought of the legendary Roots crew, which came as a welcomed surprise, was the LP’s actioned-packed pairing of lyrical titans, akin to the excitement generated by a Marvel Comics crossover of two popular superheroes. The chemistry between the two wordsmiths was unblemished as they traded bars with Pun leading off “Ayo, my murderous rap verbal attack is actual fact / tactical tracks match perfectly with graphical stats / Half of you lack the magical dap of tragical rap / that tackles your back and shackles and laughs at you / that's a mathematical madness I'm on, the savage, the strong / the marriage and bond of havoc and song.” Tagging in the Bad Lieutenant of Illadelph’s 5th Dynasty, Black Thought comes in strong with “Black Thought—the super lyricist, your arch-nemesis / still with the Punisher, that's my accomplice / stressing to emcees how they don't really want this / electrifying shit his excellency Thought spit.”
Pun’s reunion with his frequent partner Fat Joe for “Twinz (Deep Cover ’98)” created one of the most rewound and researched moments in hip-hop history, when in one breath Pun crammed together the now infamous line “dead in the middle of little Italy, little did we know that we riddled two middlemen who didn’t do diddily.” One of the most brilliant displays of an emcee’s mastery of the polysyllabic delivery, audiences were so awestruck that for years many overlooked the subsequent verse that may have been even better: “I rub your face off the Earth and curse your family children / like Amityville, I drill the nerves in your cavity fillin' / insanity's buildin' a pavilion in my civilian / the cannon be the anarchy that humanity's dealin' / a villain without remorse, who's willin' to out your boss / forever, and take all the cheddar like child support.”
For the third display of the LP’s well-roundedness, Pun teamed with N.O.R.E. to celebrate the success of his previous hit singles with “You Came Up.” N.O.R.E. offers his signature catch phrase for the hook, “Pun, you came up /What, what? Makin' it happen / From rappin' on the corner to possibly goin' platinum / But when we roll, are you still ready to ride? / Yo, I'll be ready to ride, and I'll be ready to die.” Pun then recognizes this as a moment of Latin Pride with the reflective lyrics, “'Cause everybody's checkin' for Pun, second to none / 'Cause Latins goin' platinum was destined to come / the inevitable, heavenly, better than whatever you do / we eligible, TS is incredibly credible / for the revenue, we gettin' you open with lyrical dope / and these breaths that are potent is like an injectional dose.”
Enduring as the major testament to one of hip-hop culture’s most celebrated artists, Capital Punishment gets just about everything right, which is a remarkable feat for an inaugural LP. It’s a star-studded affair, as Pun tapped his Loud Records labelmates’ Prodigy of Mobb Deep and Inspectah Deck of Wu-Tang Clan for the RZA produced “Tres Leches (Triboro Trilogy).” The LP also features Busta Rhymes for the album finale “Parental Discretion” and international megastar Wyclef Jean for “Caribbean Connection.” It’s cadre of producers is impressive as well, with Pun enlisting the studio prowess of Rockwilder, D.I.T.C.’s Showbiz, V.I.C, Domingo, Young Lord, Minnesota, and JuJu of the Beatnuts.
Even in its most light-hearted moments, the LP is memorable with funny skits like “Pakinamac Pt. 2,” which includes the unforgettable lines “packin-a-mack-in-the-back-of-an-Ac” which have resurfaced on songs and in battle raps almost two decades later.
Sadly, we lost Pun before he could amass an extensive catalog, but Capital Punishment is so strong his name is still mentioned amongst the all-time greats despite his ephemeral recording career. One would be hard-pressed to find ten albums in hip-hop’s history stronger than the LP that introduced the late great Christopher Rios Sr.
“It's hard to explain how my squad can harbor the strain / of being the largest name in rap, since the almighty Kane / acknowledge the fame / my call is to reign, was to run the streets from Harlem to Queens / back to the Bronx who fathered the dream / started this thing called rap, where I reign supreme.”