Released just 16 days after his March 9 death by drive-by shooting, there's an eerie prescience to the Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death. Several things — that title, the hearse-featuring album cover, the crushing closing track, "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)" — gave Life After Death a bizarre resonance. But this is much more than paperwork from the morgue. In fact, rap stardom gave The Notorious B.I.G. a new lease; he attacks with testosterone-filled… read more »
Released just 16 days after his March 9 death by drive-by shooting, there's an eerie prescience to the Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death. Several things — that title, the hearse-featuring album cover, the crushing closing track, "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)" — gave Life After Death a bizarre resonance. But this is much more than paperwork from the morgue. In fact, rap stardom gave The Notorious B.I.G. a new lease; he attacks with testosterone-filled glee. The album's title is about second chances at money, fame and sex after a tumultuous youth; a true second life. The result, worth every second of its expansive double-LP running time, is actually more about light and wealth than its predecessor, which was defined by a grim fatalism. The hits say as much. Consider that old speedboat-riding chestnut of hip-hop opulence, "Hypnotize" or the Diana Ross-lifting exuberance of "Mo Money Mo Problems." The giddy, quite funny "I Got A Story To Tell" finds Biggie creeping with the lady friend of a New York Knicks player and then retelling the tale to his boys, embellishing like a grandfather serenading some awestruck tots. Biggie's desire to croon — really, croon — crops up repeatedly here, as on the goofy extended "Playa Hater" or the thudding Miami bass of "Another." Even "Ten Crack Commandments," a steely DJ Premier production and drug-dealing manifesto has a delightful service-y quality — memorable and useful! So many of his lyrics became sampled and repeated hip-hop aphorisms — "If you don't know, now you know"; "It was all a dream…"; "Went from ashy to classy"; and so on. This is a crucial part of the Biggie mythology, the stickiness of his writing.
After the success of Ready To Die Biggie used his follow-up to indulge his fantasies. Working mostly with Puff Daddy's in-house production crew, The Hitmen (Carlos "July Six" Broady, Nashiem Myrick, Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, Stevie J, Ron "Amen-Ra" Lawrence), it's surprising how many of the songs here are about sexual conquest; at times you may yearn for his debut's brutality. But over time, Life After Death reveals itself as a sensual work — the lyrics to the R. Kelly-featuring "Fuck You Tonight" are specific, attentive, lascivious in ways that might make Luther Campbell blush. Biggie is less rapid-fire throughout, whether rapping or singing, letting that charismatic, jowly burr traipse into Isaac Hayes territory. His reach is longer, too, featuring paeans to his beloved '80s R&B, production from distinguished contemporaries like Mobb Deep's Havoc and Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, and guest shots from stars old (DMC, Too $hort) and new (onetime paramour and protégé Lil' Kim, a young friend named Jay-Z, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony).
That collaboration with Bone Thugs, the whirring "Notorious Thugs," forced a flood light on rap's ever-expanding regional purview. Exposing — and paying homage by emulating their distinctive half-sung double-time flow — to Cleveland's own was just one more example of Biggie's almost perverse palm-reading — he simply knew where the genre needed to go. The song's reference to "So-called beef with you know who" anchors the album's more serious undertones. Biggie, of course, was feuding with ex-friend 2Pac for some time as he began recording the album. Pac was gunned down in Las Vegas six months before its release, but that didn't stop Big from including "Going Back To Cali," a perhaps too-braggadocious act of defiance in the service of an insatiable ego.
The backend of the second disc is the most tremulous and grandiose. The underrated single "Sky's The Limit," a defiant turn on "My Downfall," and RZA's "Long Kiss Goodnight" are all mythmaking songs that ultimately sting in light of Big's fate. And the closing track, "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," is the hazy epilogue to a cinematic reconfiguration. That it all doesn't end in death is its own sort of optimism, tragically inaccurate though it was.