Artist: Notorious BIG
Album: Life After Death
Label: Bad Boy
Rating: 7 / 10
Reviewer: Mr Bravo
B.I.G. Biggie Smalls. The Notorious One. The King OF New York. No matter what you called him, he was the one who would carry the streets into the arena of mainstream and commercial appeal. “Ready To Die”, his classic debut, came out in the period of the rebirth of East Coast Rap, complimenting the era along with classics by Nas, Jay-Z, and Wu-Tang, to name a few. His detail and careful handling of each track on his debut and the hits that arouse from it made him a definite force in the game.
During one of the most tumultuous in the history of rap, arguably for music, the passing of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace robbed generations of the wisdom, the narratives, and perhaps most importantly, the passion these men had for the art of rap. They didn’t simply rap, they let out their emotions, and they gave the songs meaning. The two men, although caught in the most documented beef in history, shared these common traits and illustrated it until their untimely deaths. The similarity and rivalry between the two brought tout the best and worst in hip-hop. Tupac released the 1st double disc rap album, then Big. The circumstances surrounding the two were remarkably similar. Big never got to complete his vision, like Tupac, nor his dreams, and thus we were left with his last album “Life After Death.”
“Life After Death” will always be seen on a different level, on a different spectrum. It’s hard to separate the album from the man’s passing, but in a sense that’s what makes this album even more cherished. You give a little more credit than perhaps is deserved, giving Big the benefit of the doubt. I admit, when I first got the album, I played it non-stop, claiming it was the best. Emotion often clouds judgment, and only time clears muddy waters, so I think it’s time for an objective view of his 2nd album.
“Life After Death” is, simply stated, an epic and remarkable mess. Songs such as ‘I Love The Doe’ are juxtaposed to ‘Last Days’, making the cohesiveness of the entire album a large issue. Variety is always welcomed, and this album has that, but unfortunately that’s because of the capacity of the album. The album is also filled with redundant topics. You would be hard pressed not to contain some different songs in there. The album’s major flaw is the whole direction of the album. It seems Bad Boy wanted to make the illusion of combing Big’s street cred with mainstream appeal. The album is a double disc, with the 1st disc is a little more livelier, not as grimy as the 2nd half, they both have well crafted tracks and tracks that just seem so out of place in what was supposed to be his opus, and later, his posthumous epic.
The intro served keeps the trilogy theme that was to be his 1st three albums. The ending track in his debut serves as the continuation, where BIG tired of everything. Doesn’t relate to the album, which is an important clue to the mood of the entire album. ‘Somebody’s Gotta Die’ is classic Big, using the words as imagery and detailing the plot of revenge that consumes anyone to do anything. The track is well suited for Big, where he’s able to relax his flow and captivate the listener with detail.
‘Hypnotize’ is a club banger, without a doubt a classic Bad Boy hi-jacking. A catchy interpolated chorus and the slick bass line fits nicely. The track was the lead off single, making sure everyone knew that loot was in the scheme of things. The album has an incredible 14 producers, which can be taken two ways. Either Big was so talented, he could assume the burden of adjusting his style to successfully match each track, or the producers tried to do their best in matching Big’s style. The album proves both to be true and false. ‘Kick in The Door’ is an example of when Big makes his voice and beat unify to make a nice track. After the horrible Mad Rapper commentary, the production is magic and laces Big with a bugged out track that captures the real gangster feel, circa 1930’s, not the 1990’s. Big did in fact make the formula others have tried to emulate, and he observes this:
“You wanna get on son, you need to ask me
Ain’t no other king in this rap thing
They siblings, nothing but my chil-ren
One shot they disappea-rin’
Its ill when, MC’s used to be on cruddy shit
Took home Ready to Die, listened and studied shit
On the other hand, ‘Fuckin You Tonight’ is an example of what doesn’t work. Big maintains his style of lyricism, but the whole premise of the song just sucks. The beat is a R Kelly reject, and the track itself serves no purpose. It’s not that Big can’t do this type of song, but he just shouldn’t. ‘Last Days’ puts a hungry, gritty Lox with Big on a gritty track, where they manage to outshine Big in a style which is their forte. Big holds it down, but lyrically comes out average for him.
‘I Love The Dough’ is standard club music, but with Jay -Z in the mix, they both elevate each other and produce a remarkably good track. Both emcees drop some nice lines, but the flow Big uses is very nice, while Jay-Z drops some nice lines and points, even taking a jab Tupac, he matches Big in delivery. Both talk about money and hoes, but they both do it in their trademark style. Arguably, this track serves as a foreshadowing of the flow the Jigga man and Biggie together would’ve catapulted. ‘What’s Beef’ seems as though Big had already recorded two tracks earlier that day and was already tired, his flow seems lazy, although his lyrics are somewhat up to par. The beat itself is alright, but seems to drag you down with his Big’s mood. After a somewhat ridiculous but funny ‘Big Interlude’, we get ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’. Say what you want to say, but this song was hot for the summer of 97. All the emcees on here drop very poor verses, but especially from Big considering his lyrical capabilities compared to Mase and Puff. However, it’s similar to a Playboy magazine, you could care less if the articles are hot, you know what you are getting with the product. Once again, the track seems misplaced, as if these type of songs on this double disc where seemingly thrown in the mix at random.
‘Niggas Bleed’ and ‘I Got a Story To Tell’ are classic Big, his ability to tell stories fluidly over the beats. Big is nearly undisputed when it came to his ability to paint pictures, and his vocal inflections serve the tracks well, making a dramatic approach on ‘Niggas Bleed’ work quite well and the comic tone on the latter serve nice.
The 2nd half of “Life After Death” sees Big continue his labor of adjusting to the tracks presented in front of him. Like I have mentioned earlier, after Big’s passing he was regarded highly more on emotion than anything else. ‘Notorious Thugs’ is a prime example, I remember hearing everyone praise Big on his vocal dexterity, but lets be honest: Bone has a style all its own, and to be able to match it, let alone master it, is demanding. Big does his best, but at the end falls short, even while making vague references to “you know who”. The track has a great beat, a nice set of keys and a haunting vibe. Bone does what they do best, with their melodic chants and sing song delivery. Unfortunately, this track serves as a prime example of what would be the future of guest appearances, with mismatches happening everywhere nowadays.
‘Miss U’ is the outline for what would become ‘I’ll Be Missing You’, detailing Big’s loss of friends, but in a much more poignant way. Once again, Big proves his imagery is king, laying out the circumstances of their deaths. Big is best when he means what he says, and this track is a good sign of Big’s capabilities. Although not as riveting as ‘All I Need’ or ‘Dear Mama’, Big does his with a more reserved tone.
‘Another’ is just ‘Fuckin You Tonight’ all over again, with R Kelly being replaced with Lil Kim, with the same results. The track is really bad, trying to recapture the feel of ‘Big Poppa’ and ‘One More Chance’, replacing the playfulness and street feel to each with blatant concept plagiarism. ‘Going Back To Cali’ brings a modest respect to the West, letting people know he got love for all. If one thing is apparent, it’s his very subliminal, even reserved, approach to addressing Tupac. Perhaps he changed some of the content out of respect, but more likely that was his way of dealing with it. The track rides a near copy of G Funk, and Big comes decent with the track.
One of the few concept songs on the album, ‘Ten Crack Commandments’ is Big doing his style once again, droppin some knowledge on the crack game. I really don’t know what they were thinking when they decided to make ‘Playa Hater’, the track is something you would do as a gag, so to put it on this album was insane; shit just doesn’t make sense. ‘Nasty Girl’ is another club jam, but a less enjoyable one. The beat is mediocre at best, but the lyrics Big spits are not that great. Big’s story telling skills don’t diminish, but they are merely put aside as Big tries to match the beat, which he succeeds most of the time.
‘Sky’s The Limit’ is another tender track Big laces with faithful lyrics to his rough upbringing.
“A nigga never been as broke as me, I like that
When I was young I had two pair of Lees, besides that
The pin stripes and the gray
The one I wore on Mondays and Wednesdays
While niggas flirt, I’m sewing tigers on my shirt and alligators
Ya wanna see the inside, huh, I see ya later.”
Big chronicles his journey from trying to fit to to making it hustling. Big drops some actual knowledge, and does so eloquently. Surprisingly, of all the guest appearances, 112 seem to be the only guests able to help Big shine above his standards.
Big’s final attempt to capitalize on his status as the “player President” is ‘The World Is Filled’ with Puff and Too Short. The trio actually do a decent job on the track, but Big is outshined by Too Short, who does these type of tracks for a living. Too Short drops his pimp shit once gain, and his taste is either loved or hated, no gray in between. In short, the track is a good pimp track and would have ever been as popular as his earlier works.
‘My Downfall’, ‘Long Kiss Goodnight’, ‘You’re Nobody (Till Somebody Kills You)’ are all Big at his best. Bar a few missteps here and there, these tracks illustrate the talents and aptitude Big truly had and was more than willing to display. Big peppers these tracks with classic lines, raising the stakes as he reaches the end. ‘You’re Nobody’ is Big’s final cut that illustrates his ability to make the lyrics take another form, instead of just hearing them.
Notorious B.I.G. had an endless amount of skill. His passing was a very untimely and sad loss to not only the hip hop community, but to the streets, to the crews, to the hustlers he repped. Although his blueprint has been the mechanism through which others have prevailed, “Life After Death” was far from completing his vision. Of course his passing played a huge role in many declaring this an instant classic, and many are right. The album really can be divided into two discs, and should’ve been. Although the man himself is a classic rapper who portrayed skillfully the many aspects of growing up in the projects, hustling, the player way, and dealing with life in general, the album he left us was indeed not a classic. Instead, it was a misguided effort to capture two worlds at the same time. One that he captured with his debut, and one that was entirely within grasp within this offering. As a friend Muz from alt.rap once said, “Half as long, twice as strong”. Gratefully, it was his memory that pushed rap into a new era, it was his mentality that pushed the bar up for other rappers, and his realistic approach that brought us closer. An average album, but a pinnacle narrator; and that is the way I remember Christopher Wallace.