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 (2009-2014) [This article was first published in VIBE Magazine in 2013]
VIBE: What made Life After Death such a great musical work?
Erik Parker (Writer and producer of Time Is Illmatic): 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, The 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.
What 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.