Dateline: The Bronx. The fat man’s stomping grounds, the land where hiphop began and Amadou Diallo was ended. ‘Round these parts, Big Pun, the grand, obese, and lately deceased boriqua wordsmith, is being played like an ethnic hero in the tradition of Joe DiMaggio and Al Smith. The big man checked out on Feb. 7, apparently victimized by his own 700 or so pounds, just a scant few weeks before the release of his sophomore CD. And everywhere in the borough, from the head shops on White Plains and the caridad restaurants on Fordham to the beeper joint on Gun Hill and the shotgun bodegas down on Third Avenue, the question was the same: You heard Pun is dead, yo?

The Punisher’s star was in mid-ascent elsewhere in the world, but in the home field of the Boogie Down (aka the Bronx), the man had achieved demigod status. At the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the throngs hailed him as they would a dignitary. At the Apollo, he left the crowd chanting his cross-ethnic catch phrase: “boriqua, morena, boriqua, morena”—Puerto Rican, black—a reminder to all of hiphop’s Latin lineage.

Hiphop disavows the frailty of human existence on the nameless streets of urban America. Still, death permeates these corners—thus the attempts to immortalize oneself in song and story, to ensure that the tale of one’s exploits will pass through the mouths of the generations of hustlers yet unborn. Pun was a rapper cut from yards of the old fabric, a throwback to the era when MCs were battle-tested in the crucible of illegal schoolyard jams, when one’s rep was established by inflicting verbal humiliation on all comers, not by faxing a boldfaced press release. Big Pun and his Terror Squad brethren represented the best shot the Bronx had at recapturing a trace of its bygone glory as the birthplace of hiphop. And the untimely departure of the big-boned bard leaves the Squad minus its cleanup hitter, and the borough minus its street statesman.

Take a minute to listen to Yeeeah Baby and what comes across is how deeply schooled in the art of verbal ass-kicking the big man was, issuing threats to “run up in yo crib with the guns out/Spray up your peeps/Smack the baby teeth out your son mouth.” It’s the same blend of ribald scenario and offer-you-can’t-refuse overtures to the blistered hiphop wannabes that Pun brought to the table on Capital Punishment, but this release is edgier. Yeeeah Baby features two of the mellow, R&B-seasoned cuts that Pun rode to glory on the earlier release. On the keyboard-driven “It’s So Hard,” Pun divides the labor with LaFace Records crooner Donell Jones and turns in a track destined for heavy rotation among his avenue constituents.

But Yeeeah Baby is a project biased toward the testosterone phalanx. Having won over the women with his ear-friendly debut, the Punisher has come back with a little something for the brothers. And he comes off with it: Check him out, staying on top of the tracks, buzzing through hyperkinetic rhyme flows and never chasing his breath despite his sumo-sized physique. Next, the big man is claiming to have songs written by the devil with Jesus singing the chorus. For beats, an ad-hoc committee of producers turns in a collage of bells, whistles, chimes, and heavy-metal guitar; as is not the case on most multiproducer projects, the sounds on this one come together like pieces of a musical jigsaw puzzle. That said, it’s unspeakably eerie to hear the boasts of a dead man bellowing from a set of speakers, especially the ironic moment at the end of “It’s So Hard” when Pun brags, “I just lost a hundred pounds/I’m tryin’ to live/I ain’t goin’ nowhere/I’m stayin’ alive, baby/I wanna live.”

Big Pun did indeed live, and the proceeds of his debut turned him into a ghetto epicure and thickened his midsection. And this life of spoils and the jealousy it invites provided the theme for Yeeeah Baby. Early on, Pun warns that he’s “400 pounds, but I move fast,” and proceeds to tear through the heavy-metal-laced intro song, “Watch Those,” with enough lingual agility to leave an auctioneer envious. An uncommon density of internal rhymes defines the entire record: In one typically staggered, rapid-fire riff, Pun vows to leave his rivals “dead before your body falls/cause when my shotty roars/We ignore/Giuliani laws.” On the thick, menacing “We Don’t Care,” Pun trades verses with fellow Terror Squad initiate Cuban Link, and the duo put on an Ebonics poetry clinic. Backed by a hint of Spanish guitar, Pun pledges a “word to my junkie mama/I’ma keep it funky for homeys up in Elmira.” His partner in rhyme spins tales of the poor and unlawful, charging, “I’m nothin’ but a hustler/ Burning rubber with drugs stuffed up in the muffler/Shut the fuck up/Or bust a slug through the jugular.”

Except on the mindless juvenilia of songs like “My D**K,” Pun manages to successfully tap-dance on that thin line between commercially doomed underground classic and commercially driven ghetto hyperbole. On “Leather Face,” he returns to the heavy-metal-tinged sound of “Watch Those” but adds a whistling keyboard backdrop and percussive piano hits for a sinister horror-flick feel. A step later, Pun floats his verbals on the light, salsa-spiced “100%,” a bilingual cut turned in just in case you doubted his ability to flip it en espanol. With his own street cred solidified, he plays second string on “Ms. Martin,” allowing newcomer Remi Martin to run through a lyrical showcase that’ll leave her female contemps Eve and Lil’ Kim frantically leafing through the rhyme dictionary.

The tragedy underlying Yeeeah Baby is that the artist swerved around the pothole known as the sophomore jinx only to end up as the latest late rapper. Another visage thrown up on the barren walls near Westchester Avenue—right next to Biggie and Tupac. Another aerosol epitaph: The Punisher is gone, and there is no joy in the Bronx. CP