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Classic Albums: 'Life After Death' by The Notorious B.I.G.

Classic Albums: 'Life After Death' by The Notorious B.I.G.

“That was the first time I really looked into his face. I looked into his eyes and I was like, 'Yo, this nigga is really buggin’ the fuck out.'”

That was The Notorious B.I.G. in the infamous 1996 VIBE interview in which he discussed seeing friend-turned-rival 2Pac backstage at the Soul Train Awards that year. The history of these two iconic artists has been absorbed by even the most casual rap fan. 2Pac would escalate his feud with Biggie over the next couple of months, dropping the scathing diss track "Hit 'Em Up" just weeks after that infamous VIBE interview. Tupac Shakur would be fatally shot in September of 1996, casting a dark cloud over Hip-Hop and leaving things unfinished in terms of his fractured relationship with B.I.G.

Biggie had become one of the biggest artists in Hip-Hop since the release of his 1994 debut album Ready To Die.

But fame is a famously double-edged sword, and the man born Christopher Wallace found himself thrust into feuds with musical rivals; while also juggling dysfunctional personal relationships (his marriage to R&B singer Faith Evans was deteriorating) and physical ailments after a car accident left him using a cane for six months. Biggie wasn't in the right head space to create, but it had been over two years since he'd released an album. His proteges Junior M.A.F.I.A. had gone platinum with their album Conspiracy in 1995, which was penned almost entirely by B.I.G. And his one-time girlfriend Lil Kim was now a star in her own right, having also achieved a platinum plaque for her solo debut Hard Core in 1996. Even with all of the drama of Pac's murder and the bad blood that lingered, Biggie had to get back to work. So he got back to work and got into the studio. His friend and Bad Boy labelhead Sean "Puffy" Combs, was pushing him.

“I had to wake him up…it was time to get back into the game,” Puff recalled in 2017.

After putting the final touches on his new album, the rejuvenated Notorious B.I.G. would make a fateful trip to Cali, looking to promote his forthcoming double LP and diffuse any rumors that he was nervous about the West Coast. The energy was askew; he'd done an interview in San Francisco and revealed he'd hired extra security, and he heard a few boos at the Soul Train Awards when he appeared as a presenter. Things took a famously tragic turn in Los Angeles after a Soul Train afterparty in the early hours of March 9, when his car was riddled with bullets at the intersection of Fairfax and Wilshire. Christopher Wallace would be pronounced dead at 24 years old.

Hip-Hop fans were still reeling from the murder when Life After Death arrived on March 25, 1997.

The sophomore album from the Notorious B.I.G. is ambitiously broad, as if the legendary emcee somehow knew he was on borrowed time and sought to showcase everything in his lyrical and conceptual arsenal. Of course, the reality is much more tragic; Christopher Wallace didn't expect this to be his final statement. It just turned out that way.

The album's darker themes of paranoia and resentment have always seemed to reflect the climate swirling around Biggie, Bad Boy Records and so much of mainstream Hip-Hop at the time. After all, Biggie's post-Ready To Die success had spawned more than it's fair share of haters. He was now one of the biggest artists in the world, and he opens his second album with the sound of a resuscitated heartbeat. It was meant to evoke a reprisal following "Suicidal Thoughts," the grim close of Ready To Die; but with fans hearing it for the first time just weeks after his murder, it opens Life After Death on a decidedly eerie note. And from there, B.I.G. lurches into "Somebody's Gotta Die," a harrowing story rap about vengeance murder.

The clouds seem to part on "Hypnotize," the album's uber-infectious first single. The song became one of Biggie's biggest hits, but its slick hook belies the darkness in the lyrics.

"Another posthumous rap single, another batch of chillingly ironic rhymes," wrote Entertainment Weekly's David Browne at the time. "The late Biggie disses the braggadocio of gangsta rappers (”gonna blast three first/ask questions last”) and adds, ”I just speak my peace/Keep my peace.” Compounding the ironies, the creamy backup vocals and the spectral, pared-down beats (as tubby as Smalls’ own charmingly pudgy voice) make for one of his most compelling singles."

"Hypnotize" would shoot all the way to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100, giving Biggie the dubious distinction of being the first artist with a posthumous number one since John Lennon.

The song is prominently positioned near the beginning of Life After Death's first disc, but it's only representative of one facet of the album's approach. This is Biggie at his most polished, as the album boasts a bevy of the best producers in rap music circa 1997. And there's still no shortage of street rap; DJ Premier handles "Kick In the Door," a warned manifesto aimed at unnamed foes (who fans eventually determined to be musical rival Raekwon and the infamous Jimmy Henchman) over a killer sample of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The R&B-driven "Fuck You Tonight" features an awkward R. Kelly cameo; and Jay-Z shows up on the uber-slick, very 1997 "I Love the Dough," which flips Renee and Angela's "I Love You More" and features Angela Winbush herself.

"Mo' Money Mo' Problems" would become another monster hit from Life After Death, and the music video unofficially announced Puff's solo image and the much-maligned "Shiny Suit Era." With Puff and Ma$e suddenly moving from guest stars on the track to center stage in the wake of Biggie's sizable absence, Hype Williams gives the video an overabundance of vibrant color and fish-eyed brilliance. It would become one of the defining clips of the era.

The LOX make a high-profile early appearance on "Last Day." The Yonkers crew had appeared on releases by Main Source and DJ Clue, but a guest spot on the high-profile sophomore album from The Notorious B.I.G. raised the group's profile tremendously. Havoc of Mobb Deep produced the track, and in 2021 talked about how stressful the situation got when he lost the original beat.

"Puff hit me. He wanted a track for Big’s next LP and I gave him a track," Havoc recalled to RTB last December. "He loved it. When it was time to record the track, the fuckin' reel got lost for the original beat for 'Last Day.' Puff was steaming! He was hot. He was like ‘Where’s the beat I paid for?’ I had to make a different beat and made the beat over, that’s the beat that you hear now."

Disc One closes with two songs that arguably best illustrate B.I.G.'s gifts as a storyteller: the darkly unsettling violence of "NIggas Bleed" is positioned right next to the comedic classic "I Got A Story To Tell."

Both songs are among Biggie's most highly-regarded and it's easy to see why: On "Niggas Bleed," Biggie recounts a high-stakes robbery gone wrong in murderous fashion, presenting both his gift for detail and his penchant for dark humor. On "Story...," he pulls off the opposite track; still highlighting his ability to paint a vivid verbal picture, only this time he sneaks in the threat of violence into a story about a one night stand gone wrong.

The album's second disc is just as potent, even if it may have a bit more filler than Disc One. "Notorious Thugs" has become one of Biggie's most celebrated moments; as the Brooklyn lyricist pairs up with Midwest speed-rappers Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and holds his own over Stevie J's slinky production. Bad Boy's R&B quartet 112 provides the hook for "Miss U," interpolating "Missing You" by Diana Ross over Kay Gee's smooth production. The Lil Kim showcase "Another" feels rote, as B.I.G. and K.I.M.'s chemistry felt more in sync throughout her debut Hard Core, released just a few months prior. And "Goin' Back To Cali" evokes the LL COOL J classic in name only, while unintentionally serving as an ironically bitter testament to Biggie's final days.

Songs like "Nasty Boy" and "Player Hater" sound more like throwaways years later; evidence that the double album in the CD era was bound to have a few uninspired entries. But "Ten Crack Commandments" is quintessentially B.I.G.: as Chris Wallace breaks down the drug game via ten simple rules. The Preemo-produced song raised the ire of Chuck D (famously sampled on the intro via Public Enemy's 1991 classic "Shut 'Em Down") but Biggie's vision is masterful.

The jubilant "Sky's The Limit" is another one of the lighter moments on "Life After Death." The 112-assisted hook sets perfectly against Biggie's rags-to-riches lyrics. A spiritual sequel to "Juicy," the song is also memorable for it's music video, which featured kids dressed as pint-sized Bad Boy stars.

The warm 'n fuzzy feelings of "...Limit" (and the ballerific pimpery of the Too $hort-featuring "The World Is Filled...") doesn't linger, however. Life After Death closes with a triptych of vengeance, paranoia and morbidity. For all of the broadening of Biggie's sonic and lyrical scope, for all of the success that he'd seen, and for all of the commentary that positions Life After Death as the sunnier sequel to its predecessor in his discography; this is an album that descends into full darkness in it's final act.

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"My Downfall" opens with an unnamed phone caller, breathing heavily and threatening to murder B.I.G. The song features D.M.C. on the hook, echoing his famous line from Run-D.M.C.'s "Here We Go," as Biggie rails against unnamed assailants, as he fantasizes about killing anyone threatening his life, his loves or his money. The Wu-Tang Clan's RZA helms "Long Kiss Goodnight," and it's one of The Abbot's fiercest soundscapes. Biggie is still clutching his weapon throughout this one, as well, warning that he'll rain hellfire down on those who weren't happy with peace. It's always been assumed that 2Pac is the focus of Biggie's ire, and B.I.G. associate Lil Cease confirmed in 2014 that his late friend had originally recorded much harsher lyrics.

"That was a one-nighter. That was about ’Pac," Cease said to XXL in 2014. "He had some shit at the beginning of that though, nobody heard it, on the reel. We had to change it. It was a little too much. I can’t remember what Big said about him, but it was terrible. It couldn’t make it. He didn’t want to do it. He had some fire. But he didn’t want to make it too much. He just wanted to address it and to let nigga know, ‘I know what’s going on, and I could get wreck if I want to.’ Like, ‘If I really wanted to get on ya niggas, I could.’"

Life After Death famously closes with the fatalistic "You're Nobody Til Somebody Kills You." It carries the same darkness as the two tracks that precede it, but here, B.I.G. sounds less rage-filled. He's almost resigned to death; whether it be the deaths of his adversaries or his own. The sentiment of the song, that death elevates an individual in the minds of his peers and community, is a bitter pill given the circumstances surrounding the album and the climate in Hip-Hop then and now. As we watch rappers' streams skyrocket and memes overpopulate social media as soon as a rapper dies, it's hard to be reminded of The Notorious B.I.G.'s words here.

quotes
Never seen Cristal pour faster, until those bastard knuckleheads squeezed lead..."

- "You're Nobody Til Somebody Kills You"

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The Washington Post headline read "Death Soars Up the Charts" in the week after Life After Death was released. 1997 would be Hip-Hop's biggest commercial year, and it happened just after two of its biggest stars were gunned down. It was the start of a morbid pattern for the Hip-Hop industry.

But the success of the album cemented The Notorious B.I.G.'s legacy.

Life After Death became one of the best-selling rap albums of all time. It moved 690,000 copies in its first week, but that paled in comparison to its overall success. The album crossed the diamond threshold three years after its release and currently stands at over 10 million albums sold. It's been listed amongst the Greatest Albums of All time by countless platforms and publications, and Biggie's artistic legacy was only enhanced by this ambitious, sprawling double album.

NOTORIOUS Movie Poster (C) Fox Searchlight Pictures

The influence of the Notorious B.I.G. on Hip-Hop and popular culture is tremendous. His life was immortalized in the 2009 biopic Notorious; there have been countless documentaries about his art and career. Life After Death has seen remixes and re-releases, it's songs have become constant references for other artists throughout Hip-Hop and its legacy is foundational to the radio dominance of Bad Boy Records. It's a feather in the cap for Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, and one could argue that Life... is the moment where Bad Boy fully overtook Death Row Records in their battle for urban music supremacy.

None of that will ever be adequate compensation for the tremendous loss of March 9th, 1997. But 25 years later, we can enjoy the artistry and the persona of Christopher Wallace. His second album is a towering testament to his talents; and it's a pillar in Hip-Hop's sacred canon of classics. We're forever grateful for the greatness. We only wish he'd been able to give us more.

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