VIBE: What made Life After Death such a great musical work?
Erik Parker (Music News & Content Producer, CBS Radio): It was an adventure for an East Coast artist because this guy actually looked into different places and made an album that appeals to hip-hop fans across regions. It’s a major puzzle piece in the unification of hip-hop. That’s a starting point for why it was so impactful.
Jon Caramanica (Music critic, New York Times): This album is [made of] vibrant, deliberate statements about hip-hop in its fullness. Biggie is saying, I like Bone Thugz-N-Harmony, Miami bass, West coast music, so why should I not make a record that includes all of those things? Life after Death isn’t adversarial; it’s inclusive. Regionalism starts to die.
Erik Parker: When Jay-Z put UGK on [“Big Pimpin”], that wasn’t an obvious choice. But Biggie kicked in the door [first] and collaborated with different sounds. No one as prominent with New York roots made a record that didn’t feel so regional [before Life After Death].
Jon Caramanica: Right. This is something that made people uncomfortable. But it was also the most necessary thing at the time. So many times innovation comes from fringes, working toward the center. This record is saying the guy who’s in charge, the number one or two, can not just be a star, but also an innovator and push boundaries.
Life After Death certainly transcended N.Y. rap at the time, but it also catered to those roots, particularly with its storytelling.
Jon Caramanica: The thing about Big is he never sounds like he’s trying hard. There are records that are so coherent, so elegantly rendered, that you almost lose track of the fact that it’s an [actual] story. He did it so casually. There is no Kendrick Lamar without Biggie; his songs wouldn’t gain as much traction or historical weight if Biggie hadn’t done them so well.
Erik Parker: Prior to that, people heralded Slick Rick as the greatest storyteller in rap. But Biggie [made] Slick Rick’s stories seem outdated. Big’s are funny, street, hard, gangster. You can follow them cohesively, and they still speak in his voice. He elevated the storytelling game.
Jon Caramanica: Storytelling is super important—and he’s really good at it—but he’s also good at party records. He’s also funny. Listen to “Player Hater,”—that’s a hilarious fucking hook. “Hypnotize” is about as good an upbeat bragging record as you can get from that era. Basically, he’s disrupting the idea from the ’90s that to be a great rapper you need to tell stories. He’s saying, actually, you need to tell stories, make party records, be funny and be dark. That’s how you know I’m great, because I can do all of that and sound good.
Next: Life After Death vs. Illmatic >>>