Happy 20th Anniversary to The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, originally released March 25, 1997.
Sadly, life beyond the lyrics of hip-hop music is sometimes filled with as much tragedy as the vivid street stories its artists recount about the harshness of life inside our inner cities. The lines often blur on whether art imitates real life, or real life imitates art. Twenty years ago, the concepts of hip-hop fact versus fiction intersected like never before with the posthumous release of the Notorious B.I.G’s sophomore album, eerily titled Life After Death.
Only two weeks after receiving the news of Christopher Wallace’s death, grief now accompanied the anticipation for the long awaited follow-up to B.I.G.’s classic 1994 debut Ready to Die. With mixed emotions of enjoying B.I.G.’s signature lyricism and the expansive arrangement of the double LP, the experience of listening to the album was solemn, as the best moments solidified that we may have just lost the best to ever formulate rhyme schemes.
Heralded among the elite group of potential saviors of East Coast rap in the early ‘90s along with Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan, B.I.G.’s flow revealed not one flaw between his debut as Biggie Smalls back in 1992 and his untimely death in 1997. From proclaiming that he “was a terror since the public school era” over the Easy Mo Bee produced “Party & Bullshit” which opened the Who’s the Man soundtrack in 1993, he showed that his lyrical ability had already developed as an instrument capable of captivating audiences’ imaginations. His husky baritone transported you into his childhood classrooms and into the streets of Brooklyn for vivid episodes of his early mischief and delinquency.
Having sharpened his teeth alongside some of the ravenous rap dogs in the pits of the New York underground rhyme scene, Biggie made it obvious by the summer of 1994 on the star-studded remix of label mate Craig Mack’s hit “Flava in Your Ear” that he had every intention of securing the role of Bad Boy’s top shotta with well delivered punch lines like “you mad ‘cause my style you’re admiring, don’t be mad UPS is hiring.”
By the time Ready to Die hit, B.I.G. seemed to effortlessly connect with audiences by being relatable (“It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up! magazine”), inspirational (“I made the change from a common thief / to up close and personal with Robin Leach”), or charming (“However, living better now / Coogi sweater now / Drop top BM’s, I’m the man girlfriend”). Cocky enough to frequently reference his optical disadvantages, his lyrical ability alone helped his transition from Biggie Smalls to the Notorious B.I.G. to Big Poppa in his ascension to the top of the Billboard charts.
Even with an impressive succession of hit singles to accompany his acclaimed debut album, he reined undefeated in collaborations during a period that spanned arguably the most competitive period for true lyricism. Sparring with Wu-Tang swordsman Method Man on Ready to Die’s “The What,” Biggie declared, “Niggas, know they soft like a Twinkie filling / playing the villain, prepare for this rap killing.” Meth and B.I.G. created a memorable moment for the culture with the back-and-forth cadence of their contrasting rhyme styles.
Almost a year later, he summoned his own star power to introduce his Bed-Stuy neighbors and mentees with the line “I’m surrounded by criminals / heavy rollers, even them sheisty individuals” on Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s debut single “Player’s Anthem.”
B.I.G. traded Mafioso bars with Borough-mate Jay Z on Reasonable Doubt’s “Brooklyn’s Finest” at D&D studios, dropping gems like, “Who shot ya? Mob ties like Sinatra / Peruvians want to do me in, I ain’t paid them yet / Tryin’ to push 700’s they ain’t made them yet.”
Forced to delay his follow-up long player’s originally slated release date of Halloween 1996, B.I.G. made the most of his high demand as a collaborator, lending vocals to none other than the King of Pop’s single “This Time Around” and Shaquille O’Neal’s “You Can’t Stop the Reign.” Proving to be rap’s ultimate Renaissance man, his seemingly effortless flows sounded as impeccable over groovy R&B love tunes as they did set atop late-night mixtape murder bars.
Throughout Life After Death, his style never appeared out of place, whether over the spirited leadoff single “Hypnotize” or the album’s opening track “Somebody’s Gotta Die.” B.I.G. took what Slick Rick was credited for enhancing in the hip-hop art of storytelling into a different realm altogether with his vivid crime sagas “Niggas Bleed” and the Buckwild produced “I Got a Story to Tell”, where he grafted entertaining thrillers full of suspense, plot twists, and even comic relief.
His boast of being the best seemed completely believable, and reminded you of another Bed-Stuy native, Big Daddy Kane circa 1988, with the battle rap lyrics of DJ Premier’s “Kick in the Door” (“Ain’t no other kings in this rap thing / they siblings, nothing but my children / one shot they disappearin’”).
The impressive display of penmanship showcased Biggie’s mastery of almost every technique, and paid homage to the lineage of masterful lyricism before him. One can’t help but think of Ice Cube while listening to “10 Crack Commandments,” LL Cool J with “Going Back to Cali,” Kool G. Rap in “What’s Beef,” and Scarface in “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You),”
His run of hit singles in preparation for the follow-up did not deter him from jumping into the lion’s den with up-and-comers the Lox on “Last Day,” produced by Havoc of Mobb Deep. One of the first New York emcees to successfully embrace the style of other geographical regions, he convincingly tackled the tongue twisting techniques of the midwest when he rhymed alongside Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on “Notorious Thugs,” and slowed his cadence to trade bars with Bay Area legend Too $hort over “The World is Filled…”
He returned to his comfort zone of braggadocios sexcapades in “Nasty Girls” and with his protégé Lil’ Kim in “Another.” Under his alter ego of Frank White, Biggie pretty much left no lyrical feat unconquered in this all-out rap decathlon where he discounted his naysayers both through rhyming on “My Downfall” and with dismissive satire on the “Mad Rapper” skit, before adding insult to injury as his vocals playfully screeched over “Player Hater.”
The album’s final single “Sky’s the Limit” challenges “Juicy” as the official autobiography of Christopher Wallace in his more mature recollection of his Brooklyn childhood: “When I was young I had two pair of Lee’s, besides that / the pin stripes and the grey / the one I wore on Mondays and Wednesdays / While niggas flirt I’m sewing tigers on my shirt, and alligators / You wanna see the inside, I see ya later.”
On the epic psychological urban drama Ready to Die, Biggie creatively meshed celebratory hustler anthems into the saga of a street level drug dealer whose mental deterioration leads to depression, and finds him frequently contemplating and ultimately committing suicide at the culmination of the album. With Life After Death, he returned as the rap Alfred Hitchcock to give listeners a view of his rebirth and new experiences after gaining success. Life’s tragic twist of irony would see the 24 year-old rap Don’s life cut short before the release of his final display of brilliance.
Detractors that suggest the Notorious B.I.G. was not the greatest embodiment of talent hip-hop has ever produced base their sentiments on his lack of quantity due to his abbreviated recording career, oftentimes overlooking the sheer quality of work that he leaves behind as his legacy.
Entering its adulthood now, Life After Death stands parallel with—and perhaps even eclipses—Ready to Die as the greatest testament to B.I.G.’s unmatched rhyming ability. In addition to cementing his legacy, the album is a cultural milestone that saw the torch passed not only to Biggie’s main protégé Lil’ Kim, who went on to have her own solid career, but also to his Bad Boy understudy and "Mo Money Mo Problems" collaborator Ma$e, who would sell millions only months later. Not to mention the undeniable influence he had on his frequent partner Jay Z, who has created his own convincing argument as the greatest of all-time.
If you are old enough to have lived through Life After Death’s posthumous release date of March 25, 1997, your memories are surely bittersweet. But in remembering the anticipation, controversy, and impact of this album, you’ll also recall that it is one of the salient moments that marked a shift in hip-hop culture and at its core, raised the bar sky high for lyricism and creativity.