Click here to read Dana Stevens' review of the new Notorious B.I.G. biopic, Notorious.
The Notorious B.I.G. loved to talk about his own untimely demise. On his 1994 debut Ready To Die, the Brooklyn rapper insisted in song after song that his days were numbered: "I don't wanna live no more/ Sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door." In "Respect," B.I.G. flashed back to a brush with death at the moment of his birth ("Umbilical chord's wrapped around my neck/ I'm seeing my death, and I ain't even took my first step"). The album concluded with a soap-opera suicide: The rapper phones a friend, threatening to kill himself; a gunshot blast is heard, followed by the sound of a heartbeat petering out.
And the mortal peril didn't end there. In the opening moments of his second CD, Life After Death, Biggie flat-lines but is revived by the wheedling words of his producer and record-label head, Puff Daddy ("I know you can hear me, nigga … You got too much livin' to do, too much unfinished business"). He promptly rises from his hospital bed to rap more death-haunted songs: "Long Kiss Goodnight," "My Downfall," "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)," and so on.
In real life, of course, there was no miracle recovery. Christopher Wallace was killed on March 9, 1997, two months before his 25th birthday and two weeks before the release of Life After Death. * Biggie's murder made his songs seem like premonitions and launched a hagiography industry that peaks with Friday's release of the biopic Notorious.
But the mystification is misplaced. B.I.G. was the most earthbound and unpretentious of great rappers. He was a formalist, obsessed with rhyme schemes and punch lines and narrative details—the intimations of death in his raps weren't prophecies, they were plot points. Like many gangsta rappers, he reveled in hard-boiled sentimentality, but the melodrama was usually undercut by jokes. "Suicidal Thoughts" begins with what sounds like standard-issue gangsta self-loathing: "When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell/ 'Cause I'm a piece of shit, it ain't hard to fuckin' tell." But these maudlin lines are just a set-up for a gag:
It don't make sense, going to heaven with the goodie-goodies
Dressed in white
I like black Tims and black hoodies
God will probably have me on some real strict shit
No sleeping all day, no getting my dick licked
In death, the Notorious B.I.G. became an instant divinity, one half of hip-hop's holy diumvirate alongside his friend-turned-rival Tupac Shakur. The role suits Tupac, a middling rapper with a gigantic martyr complex. Biggie, though, was a blue-collar everyman, a bootstrapper caught in the "everyday struggle"—the gangsta next door. He was a tragicomic character: fat, ugly, and "stressed," spooked by the squad car on the corner and by fellow hustlers waiting to ambush him in his kitchen.
The agita was a birthright—B.I.G. was a thugged-out version of the classic New York neurotic. He was as New York-to-the-bone as Woody Allen, and in the early 1990s, NYC hip-hop was in need of a local hero. Rap's center of gravity had shifted to Southern California; on The Chronic (1992), Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg turned songs about gunplay and sex into plush, chart-topping party music. Biggie reclaimed the zeitgeist for New York by merging gangsta rap's lurid subject matter with his hometown's hip-hop traditionalism: rugged beats, witty rhymes, an earthy street-corner worldview. In "Ten Crack Commandments" (1997), he offered a "step-by-step booklet" for fledgling drug dealers: "Number six: that goddamn credit/ Dead it/ You think a crackhead payin' you back?/ Shit, forget it."
Biggie wasn't the lone leader of New York's mid-'90s rap revival. But the other breakouts, the Wu-Tang Clan and Nas, were boutique acts. The Notorious B.I.G. was a pop star. With Puff Daddy helming the production, B.I.G.'s records had no artsy pretensions; although the beats were hard, the hooks were pure pop, powered by shamelessly obvious funk and soul samples. Biggie wasn't coy about his designs on Dre-and-Snoop-caliber stardom—the East Coast-West Coast beef that would eventually turn deadly began as a friendly rivalry over market share. Life After Death kicked off with "Somebody's Gotta Die," a statement of purpose: "I'm sittin' in the crib, dreamin' about Lear jets and coupes/ The way Salt shoops/ And how to sell records like Snoop."
B.I.G. never quite equaled Snoop's sales figures. But his dreams of Lear jets and coupes transformed hip-hop. Upward mobility was Biggie's great theme. "Juicy" (1994), his first Top 40 hit and perhaps most beloved song, was an anthem of nouveau-riche arrival:
Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis
When I was dead broke, man, I couldn't picture this
Fifty-inch screen, money-green leather sofa
Got two rides, a limousine with a chauffeur
Phone bill about two G's flat
No need to worry, my accountant handles that
And my whole crew is loungin'
Celebratin' every day, no more public housing
The vision of high-class in "Juicy"—boasts about video games, "lunches, brunches," and "condos in Queens"—is charmingly low-rent. By the time Biggie recorded Life After Death, his lyrics were full of caviar and Rolexes and Versace, and a new, unhurried swagger had crept into his flow and backing tracks. "At last, a nigga rappin' 'bout blunts and broads/ Tits and bras/ Ménage à trois/ Sex in expensive cars," he crowed in "Hypnotize." That song, and the hit records Biggie made with his protégés Junior M.A.F.I.A., are some of the most influential in the genre's history, the model for pop-rap to this day. The Notorious B.I.G. didn't live long enough to party with Puffy in the Hamptons and St. Tropez. But more than anyone else, he gave hip-hop its bling.
That's a dubious legacy, but B.I.G. can't be blamed for the witlessness of his followers. He left behind a small body of recordings—two albums, a bunch of guest appearances, some legendary freestyles—and there isn't a dull moment on any of them. Biggie may or may not be the greatest rapper of all time, as many claim. His voice was a big, battering instrument; his flow wasn't as lithe or musical as Rakim's or Snoop's or Jay-Z's. But he was the best battle-rhymer ever, and, punchline to punchline, no MC was funnier ("I get more butt than ashtrays," "I'm dropping shit like a pigeon," "I've got the cleanest, meanest penis/ You've never seen this/ Stroke of genius," etc.). His preferred poetic form was the epic catalog; he strung together list after list, cramming in more detail than any other rapper, starting with the opening bars of his 1993 debut song, "Party and Bullshit": "I was a terror since the public school era/ Bathroom passes/ Cutting classes/ Squeezing asses." The Notorious B.I.G. kept it real in the literal sense: He was a dedicated chronicler of everyday stuff, and the world as he observed it survives, vividly, in his songs. That's about as much life after death as anyone could hope for.
Slate V: What the critics think of Notorious