Artist: Notorious B.I.G.
Album: Duets – The Final Chapter
Label: Bad Boy
Rating : 4.5 / 10
Reviewer: A to the L
There’s an old saying about never judging a book (or an album, for that matter) by its cover. One look at the packaging for the final Notorious BIG’ album “Duets” though, and you’ll be struggling not to – the front features a garish picture of the overweight B.I.G., while the back details an album similarly bloated, with 22 tracks of Biggie posthumously partnering some of the biggest commercial names in Hiphop. If this ain’t already screaming out ‘style over substance’ and ‘quantity over quality’, then you well be the very market that Puffy is aiming at with this release.
Lets get some things straight first though with regards to Puffy. On one hand, I think that compared with the Shakur camp, he has been extremely dignified with the handling of his main star and best friend’s material since Biggie passed in 1997 – we haven’t suffered the new-album-every-month syndrome that we’ve had to endure with 2Pac material. However I also think that much of this is simply due to the fact that Biggie didn’t leave the wealth of unreleased material that 2Pac did. Best believe that if Christopher Wallace had stacks of studio reels sitting in Diddy’s house, we’d be onto Big album 9 or 10 by now.
On one hand I think that he’s doing his best to satisfy the demand from many people (including myself) to hear anything that remotely resembles new Biggie material. On the other, I think he’s going about it in totally the wrong way – throwing today’s celebrity marks at a track with some Big vocals and seeing what sounds half decent is not the way to bring Biggie music to the public. Its already failed once, with the lukewarm “Born Again” struggling to make any real impact… so why would he adopt the same technique again?
From start to finish, the majority of this album just sounds ‘off’ in many ways. If its not because the backing tracks are not really something we could vision a still-alive Biggie spitting over, its because the artists chosen to support the Big vocals are often not ones we could vision a still-alive Biggie ever working with. Strangely, at times Big doesn’t even rap on some of these tracks – ‘It Has Been Said’ and ‘I’m With Whateva’ are devoid of his appearance on the mic, save for occasional pointless grunts. The former sees Eminem bringing more audio Nyquil to the boards, while sharing mictime with Diddy and Obie Trice – yes, we can all really see Big in the studio with Obie Trice at some point in his career had he lived, right? The latter track is a throwaway Cash Money / Dipset collaboration which features Lil Wayne trading verses with Juelz Santana and the horrific Jim Jones over the same ‘Halloween’ sample that Ice-T used on ‘The Tower’. Why is this even on here? ‘Hustler’s Story’ is another exercise in pointlessness combining an uninterested Scarface, the least memorable member of the Boyz N Da Hood clique (Big Gee) and the nasal whine of Akon; while later tracks featuring Missy Elliot and R Kelly also do little to hit the spot.
Other impotent outings include Jazze Pha lazily submitting a ONE YEAR OLD Angie Stone beat to turn ‘Nasty Boy’ into ‘Nasty Girl’ for Nelly, Diddy, and Jagged Edge to waffle over; the awkward ‘Breakin’ Old Habits’ where TI and Slim Thug phone it in over a generic Southern track; ‘Get Your Grind On’ which is more about putting Big and Pun on a track together just because technology allows it, and less about making a listenable track – Freeway’s forgettable appearance on the hook and Fat Joe’s rambling verse make this an instant skipper; Living The Life’ – a corpulent collaboration between Snoop, Ludacris, Faith Evans, Cheri Dennis and Bobby Valentino (and somewhere in there, the Notorious BIG); and ‘Beef’ which barely changes much from the original ‘What’s Beef’ save for adding on some Mobb Deep verses and some extra knob-twiddling from Havoc. The less said about Diddy allowing fucking Korn to appear on this album with guitars (y’all know my deal with that shit, bitches) the better.
At times, things do work out well. ‘Whatchu Want’ reassembles the Commission for one last outing, with an old Biggie freestyle laid over a superb Danja beat and a brand new verse from the Jiggaman serving to illustrate exactly what we did miss out on due to the sad events of March 9th, 1997. ‘1970 Somethin’ also impresses, with The Game delivering an eye-opening verse between two verses from Big that originally featured on ‘Respect’. The production from Andre Harris and Vidal Davis matches the vibe of the track perfectly, with Faith’s throaty hook floating over the melancholic pianos as Big goes biographic. Later, everyone’s favorite VA drug dealers, the Clipse, pop up to share mic time with the Notorious one on ‘Just A Memory’ and definitely hold their own over the dark Scram Jones backing track.
Elsewhere, Just Blaze’s production resume continues to impress – this time he chops up a Lamont Dozier track with superb effect to lay a morose beat that features Big linking up with Nas and 2Pac and Mary J Blige crooning the chorus. Although the track is audio gold, there’s still that odd feeling, as with the Pun track earlier, that Pac’s appearance here is simply because its technologically possible to do so. There’s a similar vibe exhibited on ‘Spit Your Game’ which sees Swizz Beatz produce a superb backing track and drop Biggie’s verse from ‘Notorious Thugs’ on top – although technology allows Big’s vocals to sit on the track, they don’t totally disguise the amount of editing and cropping that has taken place to let them ride the beat correctly… editing which stands out even more when Twista appears to drop his guest verse.
Highlight of the album though is a track that matches Big up with another sadly missed music star. Unlike the other tracks here though, ‘Hold Ya Head’ does a fantastic job of producing chemistry on the track, with Clinton Sparks laying Big’s vocals from ‘Suicidal Thoughts’ over samples from Bob Marley’s ‘Johnny Was’ with poignant results. Its impossible to listen to this song and not feel empathy for Voletta Wallace here, or on the short final spoken word track which brings the album to a close, where she speaks from the heart about her feelings for her son.
Christopher Wallace’s legacy in Hiphop music is undeniable. His place among the legends in the game is already assured. Thankfully he wasn’t relying on this album to get there though – its overlong and overstuffed with too many people who really have no business being anywhere near it. I have no doubt that this will sell amazingly well, mainly to little kids who want to hear Big rhyming with Nelly and The Game, but there’s a distinct lack of tracks that hit the spot for the ‘more mature’ listeners – the ones who want to hear Big on some ‘Kick In The Door’ shit again. Heads in that camp may well prefer to ignore this and head for last year’s DJ Vlad “Rap Phenomenon” mixtape instead. Sadly, for them, this album is to be largely avoided.