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UNBELIEVABLE: The Notorious B.I.G. 'Spinning In Grace'

SPINNING IN THE GRACE

Posthumous record releases from The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur give rise to ethical questions

The Notorious B.I.G.’s last album was titled Life After Death (Bad Boy, 1997), but one has to wonder whether the late rap star would’ve really wanted to be reincarnated in the form of a collection of outtakes, demos, and collaborations pasted together without his consent.  Would Tupac have wanted all eyes on him if it meant the release of music he may have intended to keep private? On the other hand, don’t fans fiendin’ for these late greats deserve every sonic scrap track their idols laid a verse on?

            Welcome to the rap game’s latest controversy: the posthumous release. The matter is more pertinent than ever thanks to Biggie’s latest album, Born Again (Bad Boy, 1999), and the new Still I Rise (Interscope) from Tupac and the Outlawz. The issuing of unreleased material after an artist dies—and the alteration of that material in the process—isn’t just a hip hop phenomenon, though, and neither is the debate that ensues.

            On the rock tip, Jimi Hendrix has “released” more albums since he passed then he did when he was alive. And according to 1979’s The Rolling Stone Record Guide, “The bulk of [Hendrix’s] remaining releases [consist of] vapid studio outtakes and concert performances of varying quality…slovenly assembled, falling deaf upon the ears of even the most ardent Hendrix idolater.”

            In the literary world, the recent publication of heavily edited, unfinished novels by deceased authors Ralph Ellison and Ernest Hemingway has caused an uproar. “you care about the ‘ands’ and the ‘buts’ or you don’t and Hemingway did,” wrote Joan Didion in a scathing New Yorker essay about Hemingway’s posthumous 1999 book, True at First Light (Scribner). “You think something is in shape to be published, or you don’t, and Hemingway didn’t…The systematic creation of a marketable product [results in] a discrete body of work different in kind from and, in fact, tending to obscure the body of work published by Hemingway in his lifetime.”

            With artists of such magnitude, however, any morsel of extant work holds great value. Fans are often willing to buy any “previously unavailable” product from the stars they miss so much. Born Again debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart upon its release in December, selling 485,000 copies its first week out. Three weeks later, Still I Rise sold 408,000. According to one of Born Again’s associate executive producers, Harve “Joe Hooker” Pierre, though, Biggie’s posthumous project wasn’t all about Benjamins. “We never talked about how we’re going to make a lot of money off this album,” he says. “It’s basically just to give the fans more of his music, to help the family and the Christopher Wallace Memorial Foundation, and to keep his name living on.”

            “Whenever my son’s name is mentioned, everyone sees a dollar sign,” says Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, who’s listed on the album credits alongside her daughter-in-law, Faith Evans, and Bad Boy CEO Sean “Puffy” Combs as an executive producer. “But this was a labor of love, not a money thing. I negotiated a lot of the deals with the [contributing] artists, and they understood. Method Man did the most wonderful thing. He said he didn’t want any money [for his appearance on ‘Rap Phenomenon.’] He said we should give it all to [Biggie’s son] CJ.”

            Meanwhile, many musicologists argue that examining unreleased material provides insight into artistic evolution. “The early material is important for tracing Biggie’s growth as an MC,” says dream hampton, a frequent VIBE contributor and a friend of B.I.G’s. “On older songs like ‘Come On’ with Sadat X and ‘Let Me Get Down’ with Craig Mack, he rhymes more forcefully. A couple of years later, he had a more conversational flow. Puffy encouraged him to rhyme slower, because Biggie didn’t have to yell to be convincing.”

            Still, even for those involved, it’s clear that such diggin’ in the crates can never completely reflect an artist’s vision. On posthumous albums such as Born Again and Tupac’s quadruple-platinum R U Still Down? (Remember Me? (Jive, 1997), new music and guest appearances were added to vocal performances recorded years ago. “The songs on Born Again are basically leftover [verses],” says Pierre. “And the original music was dated, so we had to change that and get it to fit with his lyrics.”

            Pierre’s co-associate executive producer, Mark Pitts, compares the album’s production process to “building Frankenstein.” “It’s a hot album,” says Pitts, who was Biggie’s onetime manager. “[But] I couldn’t see Big doing it this way—if he was alive he wouldn’t put it out like that. The only thing that bothered me was the [guest artists] on the album. He would’ve respected them all, but he wouldn’t have worked with them all. Just because they’re hot doesn’t mean they mesh.”

            Even former Biggie paramour Lil’ Kim—who performs on three Born Again tracks—doesn’t mince words on the subject. “I really didn’t agree with putting out another album” Kim told New York’s Daily News. “If Biggie were here today, he’d be at such another, advanced level. He’d be rhyming in a different way.”

            Voletta Wallace admits, “If Christopher was here, this wouldn’t be the album,” but adds, “Lil’ Kim said that we were disrespecting Christopher’s memory. My response is, If I didn’t bring this out, I’d be disrespecting his memory. I’m not here to exploit my son.

            Leave it to a dead man to have the last word on posthumous releases. Discussing a novel published under his contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald’s name after Fitzgerald’s death, Ernest Hemingway himself dropped the heaviest science on the subject: “I supposed the worms won’t mind.” –Matt Diehl

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Emerald Marie, a reporter from Where Is The Buzz TV, was one just two black journalists who were sent to the premiere of John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum. Emerald recalled being excited to interview the Oscar winner, but was quickly cut off by the actress' publicist. Instead of walking away, however, Berry made the decision to turn around and speak with Emerald and the other black male journalist, Lamar Dawson.

“I can't skip my brother and sister,"  Berry said, according to Marie.

The latest incident is unfortunately common for black journalists and media companies. "Oftentimes, black reporters and black outlets are pushed to the end and unable to get the proper interview that they need,” Marie explained. Because of Berry's generosity, Marie said she has a "newfound respect" for the actress.

Dawson also released a statement to VIBE about his interaction with Berry. "Emerald and I were standing next to each other on the carpet and were discussing how too often Black reporters are skipped at these events--and then it nearly happened to us. It's a big issue that needs to be addressed. Our stories deserve to be told, too," he said. "When Halle came back, I was able to talk to her quickly about her show 'Boomerang' and how important it is for the show to feature Black, LGBTQ storylines--an interview question the mainstream outlets aren't going to ask thus underscoring the importance of diversity in newsrooms and the importance of outlets that seek to give a voice to marginalized people. I'm grateful for Halle for seeing us out there."

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum starring Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry hit theaters today (May 17). Check out Emerald Marie and Lamar Dawson's full recaps from the red carpet below.

 

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I wanted to share this story because so often we hear people say “support black business” We all know it’s hard being the Minortity in many industries! For Halle Berry to make a conscious effort to turn back around and make sure the only two black faces we recognized & allocated the time to get our coverage is just another reason why she is a Leader & Queen 👑 @halleberry ❤️‼️🎤 #blackbrandsmatter #johnwick3 #blackreporters thank you @whereisthebuzz for this platform

A post shared by @ emerald.marie.tv on May 15, 2019 at 6:34pm PDT

 

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Last week, I shared a story about how too often Black journalists are often skipped on red carpets, but at the “John Wick 3” premiere I was covering, Halle Berry came back to talk to me and the only other Black reporter, @emerald.marie.tv. The story has been getting traction and Halle was asked about it today at another premiere by @hay_itslay and I am deeply moved by her response and the response from many of you. I hope it sparks much needed change in the industry. ✊🏾

A post shared by LAMAR DAWSON (@dirrtykingofpop) on May 16, 2019 at 2:35pm PDT

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The Orange Is the New Black actress reportedly verified the reports on Twitter on Tuesday (May 14). The series will follow the backlash surrounding the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), THR reports. Aduba joins Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, and other all-star actresses.

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Dahvi Waller wrote the nine-episode series and will also serve as the show's executive producer. Mrs. America is set to premiere on FX in 2020.

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Solvan "Slick" Naim will reportedly direct from a script he wrote with Dave Broome. Latifah will produce the musical through her Flavor Unit Entertainment banner. Smith will act as an executive producer under his Overbrook Entertainment, with James Lassiter and Caleeb Pinkett.

Hip-hop and Shakespeare might sound like they don't miss, but you probably forgot that Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Romeo + Juliet. The film, which starred a young Leonardo DiCaprio, also took a more urban, hip-hop approach.

It's unclear when the upcoming musical will hit Netflix at this time.

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