You never knew what to expect when The Notorious B.I.G. stepped inside the recording booth. Engaging humorist. Underworld fabulist. Swaggering seducer. The overweight kid from Brooklyn was the Swiss Army knife of MCs, and Life After Death is a thorough exhibition of that versatility, as the maturing 24-year-old Bad Boy toned down Ready To Die’s blustering flows while broadening his perspective beyond Bed-Stuy’s blocks.
Unlike Nas’ Illmatic or D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, both efficient 10-track landmarks that relentlessly hone on their niche and perform flawlessly, Life After Death revealed Biggie as a master of every trade. Utilizing Puff Daddy’s polished ear, he parties (“Hypnotize”), slap-boxes with rival rappers (“Kick In The Door”), makes bad singing sound good (“Player Hater”), spins popcorn-worthy narratives (“Niggas Bleed”) and hosts one of R. Kelly’s most hilariously obnoxious hooks (“F#@$ You Tonight”). Biggie bucked mid-’90s hip-hop’s divisive nature, shedding frequent flyer miles for Too $hort and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony features. And while there are slight chinks (“Going Back To Cali” is symbolically significant, but sonically mediocre), Life After Death is a transformative album so diverse that its 25 songs play as fluidly as 13, setting a double-disc bar that’s tempted—yet evaded—G.O.A.T. candidates like Jay-Z and Nas.
So we’re championing Big Poppa’s sophomore LP as the greatest to drop since Clinton’s first term. And in honor of our own 20-year anniversary, we’ve rounded up Music Editors of VIBE’s past—Erik Parker (2003-2006) and Jon Caramanica (2006-2008)—to wax reflective on B.I.G.’s (second) classic. Consider this a Life After Death postmortem. —John Kennedy, Music Editor (2009-present)
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