The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death
Released March 25th, 1997 on Bad Boy Records
Ready To Die was a massive album, the kind of once-in-a-generation record that changes the course of a genre. Sure, you can point to Pac and the Wu, but Biggie made a gigantic impact on subsequent MCs in terms of flow, beat choice, and lyrical subject matter. No one was as smooth or as coldly vicious as Biggie at his peak; no one’s beats landed quite like gunshots in a robbery gone wrong. Life After Death was thematically designed to be the logical sequel to that fabled album, and also to be a sort of “commercial introduction” of the rapper. While there were some undeniable hits that came off of Ready To Die, a lot of the album was too grim, too dark and real for mainstream radio to really mine it to death. Life After Death was a response to this; the beats here were pure radio circa 1997, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s very much a Bad Boy record, Puff Daddy and all, which means it’s slick and easy to bump in the whip; at the same time, a lot of the beats haven’t aged particularly well, using samples that just don’t create the same excitement in 2017 that they did twenty years prior. “I Love The Dough” is a good example of this; the electro-funk sample was two years out of date even then, and the hook is too bland to fit Biggie’s dark flow. Along the same lines, the length of the album is problematic as well; hip hop has always loved to throw as much material as possible onto a record, and the double-CD length of Life After Death makes it drag a bit near the end. None of the songs are weak, per se, but there is a sort of fatigue that sets in regardless of the quality.
Still, it’s Biggie, which means that whenever he appears on a song it immediately makes up for whatever dated samples or cheesy hooks are being used. Even at his most commercial no one could touch him, then or now, and his flow remains as vital as ever. The singles are all top-notch: put “Hypnotize”, “Mo Money Mo Problems”, or “Going Back To Cali” on anywhere and people will get into it. At it’s thuggiest, it’s equivalent to parts of Ready To Die: “Kick In The Door” and “What’s Beef” are chilling and violent, in the way that only Biggie could be, and “Ten Crack Commandments” remains a street anthem two decades after it’s release. He even gets downright filthy on “Fucking You Tonight” and “Nasty Boy”, an aspect of his personality that was largely absent on Ready To Die.
The man’s death sixteen days before the release of Life After Death tends to overshadow the actual music, of course. After presenting an award at the 1997 Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles, Biggie’s car got caught in post-show traffic at Wilshire and South Fairfax. An Impala pulled up beside his SUV, rolled down the window, and shot him four times. He died a half an hour later. The album is thus shrouded in symbolism, from it’s title to it’s album cover to it’s bookending tracks. It is, in essence, a posthumous bit of self-mythologizing, a meta-narrative that delves into everything that made up Christopher Wallace’s public persona. There’s brash posturing, there’s loving tenderness, there’s future-ready ambition, there’s chilling fragments of premonition. “What’s Beef?”, “Somebody’s Gotta Die”, and the goosebump-inducing closer “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” are bleak in retrospect, given the likelihood that Wallace was murdered as revenge for his alleged role in the death of Tupac Shakur six months earlier. In that sense, the album’s length can be forgiven, and even cherished; these are the last releases that Wallace meant to go public, and despite Bad Boy’s willingness to raid his vault forever thereafter, it is his last real album. Ready To Die may be the better album, but Life After Death is a fitting memorial to an enormous personality that still stands at an imposing height over an entire genre of music.