What’s moment on Life After Death stands out most?
Erik Parker: “Notorious Thugs” speaks to the direction of the album. He co-opted Bone Thugz-N-Harmony’s style. I remember thinking, What the hell is this? Damn, this sounds pretty good. Why am I hating on it?
Jon Caramanica: At the beginning of “What’s Beef,” he’s like, “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha/check out this bizarre/rapping style used by me/the B.I.G.” It’s this self-aware moment: He’s rapping about how he’s rapping weird. He’s saying, Not only do I know I’m doing something strange, I’m talking about it in this strange style but it’s so seamless that it’s not going to register that it’s strange even though it’s emphatically strange and I’m telling you it’s strange.
Erik Parker: That was a Biz Markie rip, at that. Which is strange in itself.
Jon Caramanica: Absolutely. But it shows the depth of his skill.
Nas’ Illmatic is obviously another magnum rap opus from this period. How do those two albums compare?
Erik Parker: Nas is pretty one-note on Illmatic. He’s one aspect of what Life After Death is, that Biggie was never really able to capture in his records. He’s an observer. He’s above it all but he’s on the ground at the same time. Bird’s eye view and worm’s eye view. Biggie gives you so much more than that. Life After Death is one of the few albums that actually delivered on “I’ve got something for every fan.” Nas didn’t have something for everyone. If you care about the streets, poetry, East coast beats, then [Illmatic] has something for you. Then his conversation stops. Illmatic’s spectrum was smaller, but Nas mastered it. Biggie broadened his spectrum in such a way that he was able to dance around each color. Life After Death can be dark, happy; it can be many different things.
Jon Caramanica: You need Illmatic to get to Life After Death. The thing that Nas did so well on Illmatic was be this very clear-eyed storyteller, but subsequently [in his career] he didn’t imbue that with humor, musical variety or levity. That’s a sober motherfucker right there! [Laughs] It literally got harder to listen to Nas the better that Biggie [got]. It’s like falling in love with the hottest girl in some small town and going to the city like, Are you serious? How could I ever have been with the small town girl? That’s the difference between Illmatic and Life After Death.