The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Life After Death’ Is Still A Blueprint For Commercial Rap Success 20 Years Later
On the 20th anniversary of the Notorious B.I.G.’s (government name, Christopher Wallace) death a couple weeks ago, there was fittingly an outpour of love, reverence and nostalgia. Puff Daddy, in true Puff Daddy fashion, did the most. He eternalized B.I.G.’s legacy with a number 72 banner during “Biggie Night” at the Barclays Center in B.I.G.’s hometown of Brooklyn alongside his mother, Voletta Wallace; children, T’yanna and CJ; his ex-wife and fellow Bad Boy recording artist Faith Evans; other Bad Boy artists Lil’ Kim and Ma$e; and other family and friends. A night full of Biggie’s music (already in regular rotation at Nets games) played in-game was capped off by 10 seconds of raucous Brooklyn love at Puff’s behest during halftime and the rarity of the Nets having more points than the other team when the final buzzer blew.
Throughout the Bedford-Stuyvesant streets where Biggie grew up, candle-lit vigils flickered, freshly painted murals glistened on walls, Coogi sweaters were popping again, and his music wafted through the air as if a part of earth’s atmospheric makeup on his Fulton St. block. Pieces about the significance of his life, death, music and legacy popped up all over the interwebs from the same publications that covered him two decades ago and many more. Through gestures big and small, fans celebrated his legacy in any way they saw fit, even with something as simple as a T-shirt, and everything felt right, mostly.
— Sean Diddy Combs (@diddy) March 13, 2017
A particular T-shirt a fellow train passenger wore sparked more contemplation in me than any of the gestures I witnessed or described above. It read: “If Notorious B.I.G. was alive 90% of rappers today would be working at McDonalds.” After getting over the alarmingly reductive options that presents for young black wordsmiths, I wondered if it was true.
It’s easy to hypothesize about what kind of rapper Biggie would be today. Would he actually dead 90% of the rappers out now? Would he bless a certain few with features because he wanted them to receive the torch he passed? Would Junior M.A.F.I.A. had grown into a full-fledged imprint with B.I.G. making room for his label head hat next to the tilted crown on his head? Would he still have the crown? Would the crown matter more? Could he have surprised us and gone the mogul route, following in Puff’s footsteps? Would TIDAL be his? Would Kendrick have dared call himself the king of New York on his “Control” verse? B.I.G. was versatile enough to bend his flow toward the rapid-fire cadences of Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony on “Notorious Thugs,” would he try Migos’ triplet flow on for size? Did he have another platinum effort in him? Did he have more than one more in him? Would he and Pac have patched things up and did their own version of Watch the Throne? Lil’ Cease thinks so. Would he own part of the Brooklyn Nets instead of having his jersey in the rafters? Would he have started his own clothing line? Would he be on VH1 with the fam? Would he and Faith be on Love and Hip Hop? Would his Twitter be popping? Would he laugh at trigger-turned-Twitter fingers or be embroiled in Twitter feuds himself? Would he have something to say about Donald Trump? Would his music have become more political? The possibilities are seemingly endless, and not just because of the uncertainty death brings to all human existence, but because he was that nice with his.
So let’s look at what he did give us while he was alive: One of the best albums, and certainly illest debuts ever, in Ready to Die, and a rare double-disc classic in the unexpectedly posthumous Life After Death—two excellent albums by the age of 24. Ready To Die was already an early blueprint for commercial rap success in 1994, deftly mixing street lore with accessible, danceable beats while managing to not compromise his artistry. Life After Death built upon that successful formula and simultaneously contains lessons in rap radio single craft, what beef really is, rules for street-level drug moves, big man swag (and swag in general), genre blending with R&B, smart features, beat selection, black social mobility, capitalizing on the American penchant for tabloid culture, and of course rhyme and flow. The release of the album was overshadowed by his death and the infamous beef that it was attributed to, and as with any abrupt death of an artist with seemingly boundless potential like B.I.G.’s, the lauds it received were tinged with a little doubt from critics and the public alike. But two decades later, it stands tall as a behemoth rap classic.
B.I.G. and the bevy of legendary producers feeding him beats to devour created radio ready hits, tales of grimy street mythos, anthems of ascendant black affluence (ashy to classy if you will), and suave earworms for the ladies to groove to—all equally enthralling in their variance. With a tongue as skilled as his, Biggie could have stayed above the listener’s head for the entire album, wrapping similes, metaphors and multi-syllable rhymes around each other. Instead he sprinkled them throughout, slapping with reminders of the rhyme skills if you thought the hooks and glossy samples were too soft. The balance and symmetry of each disc is nothing short of marvelous.
For every hit single, say “Hypnotize,” there’s a “What’s Beef?” For “Miss U,” there’s “N***as Bleed.” For every bit of grandiose luxury, playboy romps and braggadocios bars, there’s violence worthy of mob movies, introspection about the way of life he’s leaving, thoughts and worry about the same newly acquired fame and success he brags about. The mythical Notorious B.I.G., affable Biggie Smalls and Christopher Wallace the hopeful father all make appearances on the album, and the shifts between person and persona are seamless. All of the dimension of his prodigious personality held within that fittingly huge six-foot-two-inch, 395-pound frame came out on wax. That’s what made his death that much harder after hearing the album, so much life and potential abruptly, tragically snuffed out too soon.
An overlooked quality of the black Frank White is his beat selection, and that allowed for the many facets of his personality to shine the brightest during their moment in the spotlight. B.I.G.’s smooth flows seemingly fit anything, whether they were gliding over R&B leanings on “F**k You Tonight” and “Miss U”; rich classical flourishes on “What’s Beef” and “Somebody’s Gotta Die”; cinematic big-band sweeps on “I Love The Dough,” “Sky’s the Limit” and “Long Kiss Goodnight”; the throwback funk and soul samples from Zapp and The Delfonics on “Going Back to Cali” and “Playa Hater,” respectively; or the innovative boom bap of “Ten Crack Commandments” and “Kick In The Door.” As much as his command of flow over elements from multiple genres should be commended, his wherewithal and confidence in his beat choices should as well. Not every young artist comes in the game picking the best beats to rock over (ask Nas or Common), and though Biggie had the best producers in the game at his disposal like DJ Premier, RZA and solid in-house dudes like Stevie J, D-Dot and Easy Mo Bee, his ear for beats shouldn’t be glossed over.
With all of that clever album construction going on, B.I.G. also laced plenty of rhymes that possibly play into several feuds, taking advantage of the American tabloid obsession and taste for beef. He didn’t fan the flames of those beefs necessarily, but he still let people know that he was aware. He gave his stance on the beef with Pac on “Going Back to Cali,” choosing to show Cali love and promote the album there. Though it wasn’t the firmest position or the vicious “Hit ‘Em Up” response a lot of people wanted, he knew everyone would be listening, and wisely used it as a single. He could have possibly given Raekwon and Nas some bars on “Kick In the Door.” The coveted King of New York title held its most significance then with the East Coast/West Coast binary in full swing. B.I.G. was listening for challengers to his perceived throne, and may have taken offense to the Nas couplet “Yo, let me let y’all n***as know one thing/ There’s on life, one love, so there can only be one King” on “The Message” from 1996’s It Was Written. Biggie came back on “Kick in The Door” with the lines “Ain’t no other kings in this rap thing/They siblings, nothing but my chil’ren/ One shot, they disappearin’/ It’s ill when MC’s used to be on cruddy sh*t/ Took home Ready To Die, listened, studied sh*t/ Now they on some money sh*t, successful out the blue.” Though it adds to Nas’ mythos to do so, he acknowledged that some bars on “Kick In The Door” were meant for him on God’s Son’s “Last Real N***a Alive” in 2002: “Ya’ll don’t know about my Biggie wars/ Who you thought ‘Kick In The Door’ was for?” Rae also caught some diluted venom on “Kick In The Door” for his jab “That’s life, to top it all off, beef with White/ Pullin bleach out tryin to throw it in my eyesight” on 1995’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.” B.I.G. responded with “F**k that, why try, throw bleach in your eye” suggesting that The Chef wasn’t worth his time. There are also lines that could indirectly address Pac on “Long Kiss Goodnight”, particularly the “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” reference. Those closest to him while he was alive give different accounts of what his lyrics actually meant and listener’s interpretations can vary, but that is the art of the subliminal diss. An art that Jay Z, Drake and many spitters still dabble in today, and probably took notes from the deadliest, most high-profile rap beef ever to do so.
Biggie’s influence is still all over rap today, and both Ready To Die and Life After Death are rap constitutional documents to learn and steal from. Ask Jay Z. Want to know how to murder a debut? Take home Ready to Die, listen, study sh*t. Want to know how to avoid the sophomore slump and adapt to transitioning from the street life without going completely industry? Study Life After Death. Ultimately, “90% of rappers wouldn’t be where they are today if Biggie was alive” is a more accurate T-shirt slogan. Matter of fact, get Puff on the phone (Kendrick voice)! We have business to discuss.
R.I.P., B.I.G. homie.