posted January 16, 2009 09:41:08 AM CST | 95 comments

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The Notorious B.I.G. was one of the late 20th century’s brilliant musical minds. Don’t think there’s a cat reading this review who’ll debate that one. Of course, once the question moves to naming the best New York City rapper –Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas?- a consensus is harder to come by. Those same doubters are sometimes slow to realize that Christopher Wallace has been dead nearly 12 years and his classic “One More Chance” still gets more love in the club than their favorite rapper’s hottest song.

Capturing that kind of long-standing genius on the big screen is no small feat, yet director George Tillman, Jr.’s (Soul Food and Men of Honor) done it with the help of a screenplay that doesn’t feel like an episode of TV One’s Unsung and a cast that doesn’t flinch in front of the camera.

New jack Jamal Woolard is Biggie, and the kid’s got the thick tongue and penguin strut down so well Charli Baltimore would have to give a double take. But beyond the obvious nuances, Woolard does an admirable job of showcasing the famous Gemini’s many dualities. We all know Big loved his moms. But keeping it 100, Big didn’t mind sellin’ dope to expecting moms either. Not everybody, especially not a fresh actor, could have pulled the juggling act off. Jamal does.

’s mom (Angela Bassett, who could have used another scene or two), his love interests, Lil Kim (Naturi Naughton) and Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), and right-hand man, Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke, surprisingly enough, at his Harlem Shakin’ finest), are all cast wonderfully. Mister Cee, Lil Cease and even Craig Mack get the Hollywood treatment. But Naughton, in particular, does a slickest job of bringing the baddest bitch to life. A down-ass chick one minute and a scorned jump-off the next, Naturi steals damn near every raunchy scene she’s a part of.

The lone blemish in Notorious is Anthony Mackie, who just doesn’t captivate as Tupac. You won’t believe in him much physically or emotionally. Still, that’s a tiny issue in this Biggie biopic. This theatrical high note is all about Biggie Smalls’ journey from drug-dealing teen to Hip Hop god. B.I.G. fans will dig the film’s pace and rap along to the soundtrack. If you tear up during the funeral procession, don’t even sweat it. That only proves that Tillman’s "Ray in rhyme" did its job.   

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