I came to hip hop late. I was one of those ?I like everything except country and rap? kids. But thankfully, I opened up, and hey, both have some good stuff. OK, the latter much more so, but you get the point. In my reeducation, I had to go back to basics. While The Notorious B.I.G. came some time after the basics basics, his place in the West Coast-East Coast feud is well documented. Even though I was born in California, I?m mostly an East Coast dude when we?re talking about that era of hip hop, so yes, I?m a Biggie over 2Pac guy (although how relevant they/their peers are to kids of today has become a point of controversy on Twitter a few times). While Biggie Smalls? legacy looms large, only one album was released during his lifetime; his second, LIFE AFTER DEATH, was released just about two weeks after he was killed in a drive-by shooting in L.A. And like his rival Tupac Shakur, Christopher Wallace was taken advantage of in death, although to a slightly lesser extent. While six wholly posthumous albums were released under the former?s name (who was also famously hologram-ized at Coachella 2012), only three came out under the Notorious B.I.G. branding. That makes five albums, minus Junior M.A.F.I.A.?s CONSPIRACY (1995), which features production, songwriting, and verses from Biggie. Those five I?ll write about here.
#5 ? THE KING & I (2017)
Favorite track: ?NYC?
THE KING & I is the perfect encapsulation of what people hate about posthumous albums. Biggie was married to singer Faith Evans from 1994 until his death in 1997, and 20 years after his death she released this ?collaboration? album under his name. It?s pretty awful, featuring cheesy meditations on Evans? relationship with Wallace and bizarre vocal interludes from Biggie?s mom (a fixture on his posthumous records). Old verses and samples of Biggie are sprinkled throughout the loose, bland R&B songs; ?Ten Wife Commandments,? for example, is obviously and strangely sourced from ?Ten Crack Commandments.? I don?t actually know if there?s anything new from the unreleased archives on the whole album, so there?s really not even that reason to listen to the album if you?re a Biggie fan. ?NYC? as my ?favorite? track is kind of the result of a war of attrition. Evans? chorus is the ?best? on the album, and Jadakiss? verses are alright.
#4 ? DUETS: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2005)
Favorite track: ?Whatchu Want?
DUETS: THE FINAL CHAPTER has a similar energy. The crucial, fucked up point about posthumous albums, especially in the world of hip hop, is the forced collaboration and very noticeable absence of the artist the records are ostensibly ?by.? It has been observed that calling the album DUETS is pretty laughable, since The Notorious B.I.G. is barely on the album, and as Method Man pointed out, there are a number of artists that Biggie probably wouldn?t have worked with; or at least, we don?t know if he would want to. That didn?t stop Method Man from working on the first Notorious B.I.G. posthumous record, BORN AGAIN (he was on READY TO DIE, though), but the point still stands. I?m not precious about ?honoring the dead,? really, and as an atheist, I don?t think there?s anything beyond and so it?s impossible to do something that could upset spirits or whatever. But an album like DUETS serves to cheapen the brilliance of Biggie?s own work, in this case with some cheap pop hip hop removed from the movement he refined. A few songs succeed in their production, such as ?Whatchu Want,? which features Biggie most extensively and a decent Jay-Z performance. There?s no justifying the record?s existence, though, for the most part.
#3 ? BORN AGAIN (1999)
Favorite track: ?Tonight?
The same could mostly be said for BORN AGAIN, the first posthumous album, which was released just two years after Wallace?s death. But there?s more to appreciate on the record, if you can, then on DUETS or THE KING & I. First of all, it?s less reliant on reconstructed versions of his verses from READY TO DIE or LIFE AFTER DEATH. But the songwriting, beats, and production are just better than those on the following records, if you divorce them from the ethical dilemma of the posthumous album. And while Biggie is still noticeably excluded from his own album, at least he appears on it more often than he did on DUETS and THE KING & I. ?Tonight? has a soaring chorus and good delivery from Mobb Deep, and Biggie?s early verse is strong enough. It?s just still bizarre that this is where hip hop went with its icons who died young. I think releases like Prince?s ORIGINALS (2019), which collected his previously unreleased demos of songs he wrote for other artists, can be justified a bit more because of their historical significance. BORN AGAIN doesn?t really have any of Biggie?s intent on it, though.
#2 ? READY TO DIE (1994)
Favorite track: ?Everyday Struggle?
Thankfully, though, I?m not really a person who feels the old work is ruined by the new, bad work. I can enjoy the two true Notorious B.I.G. albums just the same. And I sure do enjoy READY TO DIE, Biggie?s debut that instantly cemented him in hip hop history. Often named as one of the best hip hop albums of all time, even one of the best records period, it?s just as often described as a concept album. READY TO DIE essentially chronicles Christopher Wallace?s life up until that point in his life, ending with his fictional suicide on ?Suicidal Thoughts.? I think part of Biggie?s brilliance is, for all the gangster rap posturing, he really imparts his deep insecurities, augmented by a genuine, dark humor. ?Everyday Struggle,? for example, is The Notorious B.I.G. at his most meditative, with chill, stripped down beats. READY TO DIE is interesting as a fusion of his early sensibilities and later commercial awareness, since its recording was interrupted by producer Diddy?s (then Sean ?Puffy? Combs?) drop by Uptown Records. But on Bad Boy Records, Biggie?s flow was smoothed out, although not lacking any of his menace, humor, or sadness. That the album ranges from ?Machine Gun Funk? to ?Warning? to ?Juicy? is indicative of READY TO DIE?s effective inconsistencies.
#1 ? LIFE AFTER DEATH (1997)
Favorite track: ?Hypnotize?
I feel like READY TO DIE is believed to be the crowning achievement of The Notorious B.I.G., that it never got better than that, but I think the still beloved LIFE AFTER DEATH is the more cohesive record. It?s a double album, and I should mention here that as a short album lover, it?s my minor gripe that hip hop records are often so long, and Biggie?s releases are no exception. In any event, while LIFE AFTER DEATH doesn?t tell a full story quite like READY TO DIE, its musical consistency actually serves it well. It?s not that there aren?t singular experiences to be found throughout its 25 tracks, quite the opposite; there?s minimal filler on the record and simply a greater number of standout songs. I have to imagine LIFE AFTER DEATH was given its title before Biggie?s death, which only strengthens its crunchy, dark sound and inevitable march towards violence. While some of the chinks in Biggie?s armor seem to be covered up following his fictionalized, failed suicide attempt (addressed in the first track), the stronger commitment to ?mafioso rap? as some call it (made emblematic by Biggie?s outfit on the cover) makes the emotional core of his previous album all the more tragic. But LIFE AFTER DEATH is also strangely more catchy, best represented by ?Hypnotize.? I don?t necessarily think The Notorious B.I.G. was a singles rapper, although there are clearly a number of strong ones from the two albums he personally completed. But a record like LIFE AFTER DEATH, in addition to READY TO DIE, illustrates Biggie?s ability to craft a dark lyrical narrative linked to an appealing musical sensibility.