The Notorious B.I.G. was a local hero for a global music scene, holding down a hiphop empire from Brooklyn, N.Y. Since the undisputed King of New York passed in March of 1997, the residents of B.I.G.’s Apple have found themselves without a sovereign. There is no shortage of microphone mercenaries desperate to claim Biggie’s throne, but recent developments in hiphop have raised the stakes of stardom. A rapper just has to rap, but today’s rap star needs the right combination of exposure, credibility, political savvy, talent, and substance to secure a spot among royalty—criteria that severely cut the list of contenders and put B.I.G.’s scepter even farther out of reach.

Among potential successors, Jay-Z is the most eager, as well as one of the most clever lyricists now signed. Props aside, his polished, player image lacks the rough edges on which New Yorkers pride themselves. The always-outlandish Busta Rhymes is a media favorite, but his weightless, party-favor rhymes and flamboyant behavior place him more in the position of court jester than king. Many purists awaited the second coming of late-’80s pioneer and legendary wordsmith Rakim, whose brief, Merlin-like reappearance served only as a reminder of what rap used to be. Finally, underground heads continue to shout, “Wu-Tang Forever!” as if the hot seat could really be split nine ways among the Clan. Conditions are perfect for an ambitious underdog to stage a palace coup.

Big Punisher, better known as Big Pun, now stands outside the gates like an immense Puerto Rican guard. The startlingly obese Bronx native began to establish his reputation in 1996 on street-level cuts like Fat Joe’s “Fire Water” with Raekwon and “Wishful Thinking” on Funkmaster Flex’s The Mix Tape Vol. I. Soon after, he teamed up with the Beatnuts on their posse cut, “Off the Books.” The song blew up on that level right between the underground and mainstream, combining the single greatest head-banging loop in years with Pun’s ferocious lead verse. Not content just to make the “kids run” with hardcore lyrics, Big Pun set out to make the “chicks come” with “I’m Not a Player (I Just Fuck a Lot),” the universally popular first single off of his own album. Pretty soon, even women were singing the humorously vulgar lyrics, and thanks to the radio-friendly version, the overweight lover had created an absurdly ironic household phrase, “crush a lot.” With his second single in heavy rotation, the nauseatingly commercial sing-along, “Still Not a Player” featuring R&B soloist Joe, Pun achieved the kind of celebrity status most rap artists merely rap about.

Bent upon capturing the crown, the Punisher understands that two hit tunes do not constitute a glorious reign. Rather than let his huge frame fade into obscurity like so many other MC upstarts who could not manage more than one hit, Pun has released his monumental solo album, Capital Punishment. As a first opus, Punishment is pretty damn phat (pun intended). The first cut, “Beware,” a menacing warning of what will follow, features a brief, angry outro by mentor Fat Joe and more help on the production from grimy track masters the Beatnuts. As staples of the East Coast underground scene, Latin homeboys Fat Joe, Ju-Ju, and Psycho Les lend grass-roots authenticity to Pun’s aristocracy. His marketability benefits greatly from the appearance of radio personalities Funkmaster Flex and Miss Jones of culture-devouring Hot 97, the “station where hiphop lives.” Additional cameos demonstrate the fat man’s ability to make powerful allies. Part-time Bob Marley impersonator and full-time Fugee Wyclef adds island flavor to “Caribbean Connection.” Flip Mode yell-leader Busta Rhymes contributes a colorful chorus to “Parental Discretion.” Even Philly’s finest, Black Thought, plants roots on “Super Lyrical.” Finally, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy and Wu-Tang’s Inspectah Deck give Pun the nod for Queens and Staten Island on “Tres Leches (Triboro Trilogy).”

But MCs, fortunately, are not judged solely by the company they keep—which raises the inevitable question: Does Big Pun have skills? Punishment hurls hollow-tip answers to that question at your skull in the form of wicked wordplay like, “Dead in the middle of Little Italy/Little did we know that we riddled some middleman who didn’t do diddley” from “Twinz.” The day that this mix tape-caliber “Deep Cover” cover hit the Internet, I was getting astounded e-mail from across the country. DJs and aspiring MCs nationwide were impressed with the brother’s complexity and awed by his breath control.

Big Pun’s genius lies in his meticulously crafted rhyme patterns. His rugged, rapid-fire delivery is intricate while remaining extremely forceful. While many MCs operate on the “it’s mostly the voice” principle and concentrate on their vocal quality, Big Pun also spends mucho time in the lab concocting tongue-twisting verses, which, amazingly, he spits out like an automatic weapon. Nevertheless, his endless, violent gun-talk would be tiresome if it were not tempered with an earthy humor and intelligence. On “The Dream Shatterer,” Pun threatens, “Head-to-head in the street, I’ll leave you dead on your feet/Settlin’ beef, I’ll even let you rhyme to the Benjamin’s beat,” alluding to everyone’s favorite Bad Boy break and showing a full understanding of battle-rhyming culture.

There is more than enough on this album to keep most beat-junkies bouncing in their bodegas, but Pun possesses a political agenda other than verbally pounding the opposition. His intention is to motivate more than rump-shake, with brilliant gems like: “They’re scared of us, rather beware than dare to trust/Throw us in jail, million dollar bail, left there to rust/Let’s call an order, give ourselves the chance to enhance broader/Advance to where the minorities are the majority vote.” Pun occasionally positions himself as pundit rather than player and ventures where most thugs fear to tread, the world of “conscious rap.” Even on the album’s most saccharine lady-killer, “Punish Me,” his lyrics divert from the usual ghetto heartbreak tale to the importance of both parents in a child’s life. When Pun suggests to his baby-momma, “Maybe we can make amends, be friends/We’re only hurting all of us for certain by forsaking him,” it gives the listener a much-needed rest from an album’s worth of self-destructive macho posing. More important, it is with insightful moments like these that the Punisher reveals the conscience buried beneath his “all-about-the-Benjamins” mind-set and distinguishes himself in some small way from many of his one-dimensional colleagues.

Capital Punishment, much like B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, entails more unsubstantiated stories of criminal exploits than wise words, but the artist makes his overwhelmingly illegal imagination palatable with a dash of Robin Hood-like nobility. And though it may be occasionally misguided and limited, Pun’s propaganda illustrates a greater awareness of the unifying possibilities of rap music. In “You Came Up,” he commands “Five boroughs thoroughly reppin’/Let’s unite the city and step to the world as a weapon.” With his aggressive approach and incredibly intimidating physical form, Big Pun seems poised to seize the throne by force and cast his ominous shadow over all five boroughs. Elaborate lyrics infused with ghetto wisdom indicate that the new King of New York may have even more depth than width. CP