An album is the greatest gift an artist can give the world. Singles come and go, and mixtapes – no matter how dope – just don’t capture the same essence. They say that an artist spends his/her whole life creating their first album. Unknowingly gathering information as they travel through life’s journeys, stashing it away for future use. Because of this, I often am a proponent that most artist release their best albums the first go around. Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Reasonable Doubt and illmatic all showcase young – minus Jigga – men coming out the struggle trying to GET IT. You could hear the struggle in 50’s voice when he says, “God gotta let me in Heaven, for goin’ through Hell,” or Jay’s future *legal* business savvy when he flows, “If every ni**a in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged/ no one will fall because we will all be each other’s crutches.” While all three artists went on to make classics after their debuts, in my opinion, none felt more authentic. That is not the case for Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. Although Ready To Die is a bonafide classic and showcased a hungry young Brooklyn emcee on the verge of super-stardom, Life After Death is by far Biggie’s most creative and thought provoking project. On the 20th Anniversary – if you want to call it that – of Biggie’s tragic passing, we review the immortal legend’s best album.
*If you’re reading this review, I assume that you already know the story behind Biggie and his rise to the top from the trenches of Flatbush, Brooklyn. I assume that you are also familiar with his death, so I will spare you the details – and sorrow — of a recap.*
By the time Biggie released his final album, he had passed away 16 days prior, though leaving us with a masterpiece. From the jump, the album picks up where Ready To Die left off, showing our narrator, Biggie, getting ready to blast himself in the head. Now, this wasn’t a surprise. Anybody who’s listened to a Biggie album knows that he’s been foreshadowing his death since the beginning of his career. Still, it’s chilling to think that 20 years ago, Biggie knew his path. He knew that eventually, his past karma would catch up. Pitchfork points out in their review of the album, “The blast comes courtesy of a large-bore cartridge from a high-powered revolver, while his best friend and confidante—played by label boss and possible Svengali—Sean “Puffy Combs”—listens in disbelief, possibly willing him back to life, possibly imagining an alternate reality where Christopher Wallace remains alive.” Wow… Really think about that for a second. Before any of the successes that this album brought, before Bad Boy established itself as a consistent power, signing acts like Mase & The Lox; Puffy was already mourning the loss of his friend and business partner. It as if he was already preparing for the inevitable, setting the table for the rest of the prophetic album.
Following the intro, the album turns to “Somebody’s Gotta Die” an ode to revenge, before providing the first single on the album, “Hypnotize”. Personally, “Hypnotize” is toward the bottom of my favorite BIG songs – though that may be a compliment considering his discography – so the album starts off a bit shallow to me. But one thing the first two songs highlight, that was a calling card for Puffy and BIG, was the contrast between pouring out his feelings, and pumping out hit records. Throughout this album, and others, it seems as if every time BIG gives you an insightful piece of his heart, soul and mind, he follows it up with a bangin’ hit. If you really consider the formula and ponder on it, it’s genius. Make them think, then make them dance. It’s a simple idea on the surface, but simplicity was always BIG’s strong point – other than entendres. Then the album cuts into, “Kick in the Door”, a scathing track where even 20 years later, we still ponder over just exactly who he was talking about. The King responded to reported jabs from Nas, Raekwon, and even the track’s producer DJ Premier. “Son, I’m surprised you run with them/I think they got cum in them, ’cause they nothin’ but dicks,” rhymes BIG on the second verse, referring to Premier’s business relationship with Jeru The Damaja, somebody who repeatedly took jabs at Puff and BIG. The influence from this track is heavy and can still be felt even today. Plenty of rappers have not only bit this cadence, but also the “Wavin’ the 44” line, which is almost as iconic as this album.
Kick in the door, wavin the four-four/ All you heard was Poppa don’t hit me no more
One of the more underrated tracks on the album has to be the next track, “Fucking You Tonight” a bouncy, sexually driven track that en-captures the essence of the 90s in one song. Meshing skewed up synths with wild wordplay and crazy harmonization from R. Kelly, this is the track that I still play the most to this day. I remember hearing this track for the first time at 5-years-old – 3 years after its original release — and falling in love at first listen. I had no idea what they were talking about when BIG said, “Some say the ex makes the sex spectacular” and I probably shouldn’t have been listening to it, but I was and it shaped me. I’m not sure why you played this track around your 5-year-old son, but dad, thank you. 17 years later, you, Biggie, Kellz and this track created a monster.
The album then transitions into “Last Day” with The Lox, “What’s Beef” an step-by-step manual on how to come at somebody’s neck, and “I Love The Dough” a flashy, catchy joint, turning an Angela Winbush sample into a prognostic song. “And the watches be all types and shapes of stones/ Being broke is childish and I’m quite grown” showcases Jay’s inevitable transition from Mafeso rap to boasting his riches. But it’s the line in Jay’s first verse that honestly sticks out to me more than any other lyric on the album. “You cats is home, screaming the fight’s on/ I’m in the fifteen hundred seats, watching Ty-son/Same night, same fight/But one of us cats ain’t playing right, I let you tell it,” now I’m not mind reader and I damn sure wasn’t old enough to be in the know when this song came out, but that’s a jab to the recently deceased Tupac Shakur, a man who came at Jigga continuously. Considering this interview from Dame Dash where he says Jay recorded a diss track post-death, which of course never saw the light of day, thanks to Dame. It seems as if the West Coast General got under Hov’s skin more than previously advertised.
The first disk of the album then closes with an interlude, and the lyrically dense, “I’ve Got a Story to Tell”, otherwise known as – thanks Fat Joe – “The Anthony Mason Song”, where BIG details having to check “One of them six-five ni**as” after deflowering his chick. BIG was a cold piece, man.
Then I heard her moan, honey I’m home
Yep, tote chrome for situations like this
I’m up in his broad I know he won’t like this
Now I’m like b**ch you better talk to him
Before this fist put a spark to him
F**k around shit get dark to him, put a part through him
Lose a major part to him, arm, leg.
The second disk, which is more down-tempo production wise, is buoyed by fan favorites such as “Ten Crack Commandments”, a how-to handbook on the do’s and don’ts of the drug game; “Sky is The Limit”, a freakishly underrated 112-assisted track that often gets lost in the shuffle of the more self-reflecting, depressive tracks from BIG; and “Nasty Boy” which eventually received a star-studded remix in 2005. But, it’s the trio of “Player Hater”, “The World is Filled…” and “Going Back to Cali” that to me, embody the spirit and soul of The Notorious. On “Player Hater” we see BIG and Puff let their guard down a bit and instead, highlight their humor with this hilariously dedication to the art of robbing somebody. “Playa hater, turn your head round/ lay on the ground, you’ve been roooooobbed/ wake up, take off them jewels, you fu**in fool, you’ve been roooooobbed,” croons Big on the chorus, highlighting a humorous side of him that many close to him say, the world unfortunately never got to know.
On, “The World is Filled…” we get another life lesson from BIG, Too Short, Puffy and future Bad Boy stud Carl Thomas. If nothing else, this song should be remembered for Puffy’s best verse of his life – yes, better than the “Hate Me Now” verse. I’m not sure what kind of weed BIG was smoking the night he wrote Puff’s verse but man, that dude dropped some gems. I’m just going to spew off some of my favorites: “Now first come the cash, then comes the ass/ then comes big blunts with big chunks of hash”, “Won’t you admit it, I ain’t gotta talk it cause I live it/ any chick fu**in’ with me, believe me that’s a privilege” and my absolute favorite, “And we only give our number to selective few, so it’s best that you never knew/ what good head will do turn a freak to a bisexual, and if she’s flexible f**k the n*gga next to you”. Again, I found this song at 5 through my father and again, thanks dad. Though lyrics like, “Street life, pimp sh*t/ make the hoe respect the game, you bought her diamonds and cars, trick that’s a shame” probably aren’t traditionally appropriate for a 5-year-old, I haven’t bought a female diamonds to this day. I think it’s safe to say, the monster is alive and well.
Bet you fell in love with her man!
You can’t turn a hoe into a housewife fool
Everytime you turn your back that bi**h is fu**in with dem gangstas
Eastside Westside these are my potnahs
– Too Short
The case of “Going Back to Cali” has been debated back and forth between my friends and I for years. I, for one, am a huge proponent that had he never released that song, or subsequently made the trip, he’d still be here today, or at the very least, had a chance to be. I won’t say much on this as it’s a sensitive subject to many and again, I was two when Biggie died, so my perspective is a bit different. But let me just say this, lyrics like “If I got to choose a coast I got to choose the East/ I live out there, so don’t go there/ But that don’t mean a ni**a can’t rest in the West/ See some nice breasts in the West/ Smoke some nice sess in the West, y’all ni**as is a mess” seemingly cause nothing but trouble when EVERYBODY in the state at the time thinks you had something to do with killing their hero. Though BIG followed up these lyrics with, “Thinkin I’m gon stop, givin L.A. props/ All I got is beef with those that violate me,” it seems as if The Notorious didn’t take into account The Sunshine State’s beef with him.
The album then closes off with “Long Kiss Goodnight” and “You’re Nobody (Till’ Somebody Kills You)”, two tracks that embody BIG’s obvious morbid mentality. Lyrics like, “Here’s a tissue, stop your blood clot crying/The kids the dog, everybody dying — no lying” and Blood rushing, concussions, ain’t nothing/ Catch cases, come out fronting/ Smoking something,” highlight BIG’s clear lack of empathy for death, while just the sheer title of “You’re Nobody (Till’ Somebody Kills You)” indicates how BIG foresaw his career direction. The saddest part about all of this, he was right on the money. Though BIG was more universally celebrated during his time on Earth than Tupac – it’s rumored he died with no more than 200k to his name — the icon had nowhere near reached the martyr status that he claims today. Looking back on this album 20-years-later as a 22-year-old obsessive Hip-Hop head, I geek out over the God-like lyrical ability of Biggie and his collaborators, but I also get extremely sad when thinking about just how right he was. If you want me to be honest, considering the nature of the album and how the tracks are listed, those were the exact emotions the legend was trying to extract.
If you’ve never truly listened to the album, take today to do so and buy the album. I promise your life with be the same.