Notorious B.I.G. - Life After Death
he Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. "The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions," Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists' careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can't Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
John Keats, near-death, body packed with tuberculosis, writing to family, claiming his place in the canon. Sylvia Plath, silently making her children their lunch, opening the oven and departing. Frank O’Hara, run over at dawn by a dune buggy.
Ten years ago, the Notorious B.I.G. was living, perpetually, in death’s shadow. His life had stopped being a life; it was a distant story already in motion. Tupac Shakur, a former friend, commercial and critical rival, had been dead barely six months, shot to death after a Mike Tyson match on the Las Vegas strip. He would walk with a cane for the rest of his life, the largest scar from a car crash in 1996, as he recorded the follow up to his debut, rap’s finest bildungsroman, 1994’s Ready To Die.
On wax he was already hibernating in a space between life and death. Ready To Die’s coda, “Suicidal Thoughts” had our protagonist shoot himself in a wave of paranoia and guilt, rapping out final verses to his best friend and business partner over the phone. Withered dope fiends, machine pistols and his mother’s voice coat the inside of his dreams. Biggie shoots himself not out of nihilism, but out of an insurrection of conscience; he deems himself guilty. What has he done to get to where he is?
His sweep of bloody, dehumanizing ambition from corner hustler to establishment kingpin, has made his own soul unrecognizable. His moral awakening comes at the moment of his death.
And after death: The artist descends into private chambers, in darkness, and his passions multiply with his fears. Wounds become trauma. Biggie lumbering through cold, dyspeptic studios in New York and New Jersey, leaning his now bulging three hundred pounds on an ornate cane. A beautiful, gaudy fedora and the sculpted hawk at the end of the cane. A cast shadow that envelopes light and sound.
Life After Death, Biggie’s second album, recorded in that liminal space of brutality and penance of 1996, is a grand exercise in personal mythology, narrative sweep, and truly diverse, universal pop excellence. As a double album it is the very definition of cinematic—it essentially perfected the concept and standard in hip-hop. The art itself and the moment of its birth are steeped in a confluence of biography, politics, economics, and extravagant aesthetics not seen in hip-hop before or since, its gestation essentially holy writ for fans.
His murder (on March 9, 1997) in the weeks before the album’s release (March 25) has little of the mystic conspiracy of Tupac’s final act—a death engulfed in the lights of casinos and cameras. Biggie’s casket was carried through throngs of mourners, family and observers at an austere Manhattan funeral home (the same funeral home, Frank E Campbell, that would host Aaliyah’s funeral in 2001) before given a final ride to his native Fort Greene, Brooklyn. There would be no resurrection: his corpse was in a cream white suit and hat.
First there is the narrative. A far cry from the dominant Dickensian realism of Ready To Die, Life After Death replaces the crack house, the block and the ratty tenement box with Caribbean yachts, first-class to LAX, and boardrooms where death warrants are dispensed to younger, greener, soldiers. The stories from his debut are now nostalgic sermons (“Ten Crack Commandments” “Niggaz Bleed”), glossier with memory and a clearer, more darkly crystalline production. It begins with Sean Combs pleading over the apparently comatose body of Big. It ends (“You’re Nobody Till Somebody Kills You”) with Biggie imaging his life in the third person (“remember him? He pushed the champagne range”) and grimly toasting time’s momentum: “death controls all.”
The space between those two points – points twenty four tracks apart – is a tour of violence and wealth and love and power so broadly memorable that it creates a narrative parallel to life, narratives drenched in American rise-to-power gangster cinema—Casino’s fascination with opulence, Scarface’s violent isolation—reflecting something, to borrow from Truffaut, preferable to life itself.
The album’s pop formula was juggernaut. The lead single “Hypnotize” is perhaps the best post-Golden Age single in rap: punctual, effortless linguistic pyrotechnics and braggadocio (“Lexus, LX, four-and-half / bulletproof glass tints if I want some ass”) over a unforgettable bass line (ripped from Herb Alpert) and the follow-up, “Mo Money Mo Problems,” is a pop landmark for its video’s shiny-suit commercialism as it is for Biggie’s incandescent third verse.
That’s there’s something worth explicating in each song on the double is a testament to the album’s functionality. The guest appearances and production is by and large a time capsule of 1990’s excellence: DJ Premier, Jadakiss, RZA, DMC, Jay-Z, and R. Kelly to start.
Sequenced as an unpacking of sorts—the first disc becomes an closed, formal appraisal of East Coast rap and his own mythology, the second disc opening up into the flung regions of America, deeper voyages into Biggie’s own psychology—the album’s progression from song to song is an essay itself.
Highlights include “I Got A Story To Tell,” perhaps Biggie’s finest achievement in song structure, where he raps about robbing a New York Knick after he stumbles upon Biggie and his girl post-coital in a warm, lean narrative pace and then retells the story to his crew, answering questions, cracking jokes (“Which one? I don’t know, one of them six five niggaz!”). “I Love the Dough” where Big and Jay-Z turn their more than playful competition on “Brooklyn’s Finest,” the still steaming collaboration from Jay-Z’s sterling 1996’s debut, Reasonable Doubt, into an indulgent passing of the torch.
In his push against and acknowledgement of regionalism and rap’s widening geographic lens Biggie succeeds at Midwestern speed-rap with Bone-Thugz on the second disc opening “Notorious Thugz,” predicts the rise of Southern sex rap on “Nasty Boy” and gives California G-Funk a boisterous, sweat-drenched, if a bit unexpected, love letter on “Goin Back To Cali.” And perhaps most resonant is “Sky’s The Limit,” a impressionistic reminiscence tucked away at the end of the second disc, in which Biggie inverts the emotional palate, mourning youth’s hope and simplicity: “I mean loyalty, niggaz bought me milks at lunch / The milks was chocolate, the cookies, butter crunch / In gear: Oshkosh with blue and white ducks.”
And even when the songs are not perfect (“Another”), or perfectly self-contained, they at least dutifully check off a box on the score sheet, jump through another stylistic or regional hoop, all in the name of Life After Death’s attempt at exquisite hip-hop universality.
The Notorious B.I.G.’s poetics and technique here too deserve volumes. Simply put, this was the moment when the foremost gangster rapper was at the height of his linguistic command, treating polysyllabic monkey wrenches like “leprechaun” and strings of phonetic pearls (“buy the house on the beach / Supply the peeps with Jeeps, brick apiece, capiche?”) as everyday building blocks, constructing images around syntax and weaving kinetic verses. Narrative beauty and movement of the highest tier, vowel shifts liquid and effortless, the burly, loose lines of Ready To Die now enveloping characters (“That's when Ron vanished, came back, speakin’ Spanish / Lavish habits, two rings, twenty carats / Here's a criminal, nigga made America's Most / Killed his baby mother brother, slit his throat”) pitch perfect threats (“Why try? Throw bleach in your eye / now ya Braille-n’ it”) and of-the-moment references (“sold more powder than Johnson & Johnson / tote steel like Bronson”).
To then examine the album from afar gives Life After Death the look of not just a conclusion of a artist’s life, but of an epoch in an art. The album was a spectacular hit, selling three quarters of a million copies its first week in stores, spawning two consecutive number one singles (both “Mo Money” and “Hypnotize”) and satiating every audience possible. An epitaph and a magnum opus in the same moment.
Hip-hop itself turned on a new axis in that moment: it would become the economically and cultural dominant expression in American pop, reaching levels of money and geographic reach unthinkable years previous. There is a fissure in the life of the art: on one side of Life After Death there is Schooly D still underground in his prime, Chuck D sweltering through college in Long Island; and on the other there is Chingy selling three million copies of his debut, Master P mounting a golden tank.
Life After Death was certified diamond by the RIAA in 2000, just three years after its release and was the best selling rap album ever until OutKast’s conjoined twin Speakerboxxx/The Love Below overtook it in 2006. Today, the album’s tone of finality has intensified; the pursuit of perfection in its sequencing, linguistic luxury, narrative power and earned economic clout is inseparable from it’s courting of classic Romantic ideals of death. We all dig for the poet, and what this album offers is not him, merely a death mask, but one that speaks, and, if you listen close enough, breathes.