The Notorious B.I.G.
Life After Death
We know the B.I.G. story, so there's really no need to tread on some sort of a history lesson when leading into this review of Life After Death. What's more important is to recognize why this album was not as good as it was originally perceived as well as pointing out a few reasons why this could have been easily just as good, if not better, than Ready To Die. It could be argued that it was the best double CD ever created; but honestly, it doesn't mean a whole lot when placed up against a bunch of mediocre efforts by good artists (Jay-Z and Tupac easily come to mind). What you got from Biggie was some of his finest work crushed in between extremely painful formulaic moments. With a production conglomerate that featured the likes of the RZA, DJ Premier, Havoc, Easy Mo Bee, Clark Kent and others, the expectations were just that much higher for this album. But let's begin with what made Biggie recognized as the total package emcee we knew over a decade ago.
There were three things that made B.I.G. arguably the most colorful and larger than life emcee we have ever witnessed. When combined, he was simply the finest of his time. These were things that emcees simply do not possess at the same time but B.I.G. owned them and when put on full display, it was hard to deny him the title of G.O.A.T.
Intimidation: When it was meant for B.I.G. to drive the point home that he was the most intimidating lyricist, he stood tall on songs like "What's Beef ," where the intimidation level reached an all time high for all opposing emcees and enemies. When he spoke the words "Make my name taste like ass when you speak it" many could feel the metaphors purpose and understood why the throne of King of NY was given (not claimed) to Christopher Wallace. Some of his most phenomenal and intimidating work was captured with a DJ Premier backdrop. "Kick In The Door" still stands as possibly Primo's best display of chopping a song to bits (what in the world was Primo thinking when he decided to carve Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You" - we'll never know) and creating just a radiant piece of work. Big digests the track and spits out a robust amount of quotables ranging from sparkling wit ("Lyrically, I'm worshipped, don't front the word sick/You cursed it, but rehearsed it/I drop unexpectedly like bird shit") to nasty braggadocio ("Fuck that, why try?/throw bleach in your eye/Now ya braille'n it/ stash that light shit, or scalin it/Conscience of ya nonsense/in eighty-eight, sold more powder than Johnson and Johnson/Tote steel like Bronson..."). Seriously, how many emcees have ever taken a hell of a track and delivered a song that was bigger lyrically than the beat. Simply intimidating.
Humor: Humor was one of Biggie strongest points that made the monstrous emcee seem a touch of human. It was no secret that B.I.G. wasn't the most handsome dude spitting hot 16s but the way he toyed with people's perception of him was undoubtedly what made him one of the most well-rounded emcees ever. "I Got A Story To Tell" simply has to be the most diabolical laugh out loud narratives ever. He set the standard of being lyrically enticing when delivering an intriguing story. Each line is delivered as if Big was chillin on the stoop dropping jewels to his homies about a sexual endeavor gone wrong but flipped into a humorous robbery. It's just one of those stories that you can never, ever get tired of but only if Biggie tells it.
Honesty: While some argue that "Sky's The Limit" was a tad too soft, this critic begs to differ. It gave listeners a peephole into the development of Christopher Wallace the human being. It was dog shit of a life covered in an ice cream beat and a dreamy 112 hook. So it became easy to digest the long hard road to the top. Give these lyrics a darker backdrop and hook and you'd have a completely different song. But B.I.G. knew how to make a song. To this day, "10 Crack Commandments" stands as one of B.I.G.'s more brutally distinct, yet dreadfully the least positive Hip Hop song ever created, and proposed a distinct reflection of exactly where Biggie came from.
So what was wrong with Life After Death? Formula and filler - two things that set a unfortunate precedent for Hip Hop albums following this one. Not that any of these songs were unlistenable, but they were crafted to go after a particular listener. "Fucking You Tonight" was meant for the ladies and helped set off the whole "Thug Love" era. This was the moment that R. Kelly morphed into this explicit R&B singer we know today. "Goin Back To Cali" could easily be recognized as the song that was built to reach a new audience. Today we have everyone and their mother making a song just to touch another coast. It was dope and all, but its intentions were thinly veiled.
Some of this formula shit did get a helluva payoff though. The pairing with the speed rapping multiplatinum device known as Bone Thugs N Harmony was a head scratcher on paper until B.I.G. threw down his verse as if Bone was trying to fit into his style. Just another moment where B.I.G. proved he was the man. "Hypnotize" was the club banger. Catchy hook, smooth clubby baseline, big budget video...it was all there. It was the hot single done right. Too bad most others did it wrong. "Mo Money Mo Problems" was the "hey let's jack a popular sample and make a big ass radio hit" type of song (which was soon Diddy's forte). The song was more of a vehicle to make Puff and Mase stars shine bright than to work in favor of B.I.G. but whatever...it worked.
Filler was abound on this double album as well. "Nasty Boy" was just one of those songs that nobody would have ever missed as is the case with "Another." "I Love The Dough "is easily the most forgettable B.I.G. and Jay-Z collaborations. Never getting close to the magic that was created on "Brooklyn's Finest," it just felt too damn poppy for its own good.
When the album trudged to its final three songs: "My Downfall," "Long Kiss Goodnight" and "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," everyone felt how eerily prophetic and paranoid Biggie was. While each song was respectively torn to shreds by an introspective B.I.G., there was this air of art paralleling life just a bit too close for comfort. The skit that preceded "My Downfall" represented this paranoia that followed Big and "My Downfall" recognized the paranoia ("Before I go to sleep I check the beds and the closet so I can sleep safe/ not too many keep a mil' in the briefcase/Infrareds help me sleep safe, but wait...") as well as the envious individuals that hovered. It was Christopher Wallace acknowledging the gravity theory and thus understanding that his reign on top wouldn't last a extended lifetime. "Long Kiss Goodnight" was his last triumphant hoorah and "You're Nobody" was the final introspective look at a career that well was on its way to being chopped way too short.
Life After Death would go on to be emulated by every up and coming rapper because of the way B.I.G. made the allure of bitches, Bentleys and bank accounts seemingly the way to go in the music biz. For better or worse, he was right. Jay-Z is probably the only rapper who made these things work but he never forgot (as many rappers do) that it's the intangibles that made he and B.I.G. the monsters they came to be in the booth. The honesty, wit, sarcasm, introspection and swagger on the mic are things that could simply not be emulated in this industry. Many have tried to make their Life After Death and many have failed. As commercially acceptable as Life After Death was, it unfortunately became the blueprint for Hip Hop today for far less talented artists. Just as unfortunate is the notion that this could have been the perfect album if the filler and formula was condensed into one CD. Wonder how the industry would have reacted then?