Holy Hell! Life After Death Turns 20

Holy Hell! Life After Death Turns 20

The heart of Life After Death is Biggie’s storytelling.

Twenty years ago, Christopher Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G., was gunned down in a drive-by just sixteen days before the release of his portentously titled second and final studio album, Life After Death. Although many double albums tend to feel bloated, Biggie doesn’t waste a single bar, let alone a single song on Life After Death. Big’s buttery flow and the diversity of his star-studded collaborations bolstered his unique artistic identity, even as he experiments with different sounds. Ultimately, on Life After Death, Big offers a flow, style, swagger, and delivery unmatched in the hip-hop world twenty years later.

As his first posthumous release, Life After Death begins with a gunshot—not the one that left Biggie dead at the age of 24, but rather the one that the narrator of 1994’s Ready to Die self-inflicts. As sirens and medical monitors whir and blip, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs grieves for his dying friend. The effect is both heartrending and cinematic, characterizing the consequences of an era of hip-hop rivalries, paranoia and violence, and foreshadowing the double-disc album to follow.

Just like Ready to Die, the heart of Life After Death is Biggie’s storytelling. The album proper begins with “Somebody’s Gotta Die,” with Big somewhere in Ready To Die’s timeline, “sittin’ in the crib dreamin’ about Lear jets and coupes/ The way Salt shoops and how they sell records like Snoop.” When a fellow drug-dealer informs him that a friend of theirs had been shot for robbing a crack dealer, Big declares his revenge will be swift: “Is he in critical?/ Retaliation for this won’t be minimal/ Cause I’m a criminal way before the rap shit/ Bust the gat shit, Puff won’t even know what happened.” One verse into the album, we’re in bloody noir territory, filled out by well-rounded characters with clearly established motivation for murderous retaliation, resonating with real world events surrounding Biggie’s life and death, blending his narrative techniques with reality.

Big’s status as a raconteur boasting of violence continues on tracks like “Niggas Bleed” and “I Got a Story to Tell,” each song expanding, populating and finely detailing the world of the album. On “Niggas Bleed,” Big skulks with a New York City menace, layering a drug and crime narrative thick with deception, and taking his rap storytelling to another level by dedicating an entire verse to the back story of a murderous misfit. “I Got a Story to Tell” details sexual escapades with an NBA-player’s girlfriend that climaxes with physical assault and robbery.

Despite the grim and gritty realism of such tracks, Life After Death also offers a handful of smash hits that combine Big’s dark pulp with Combs’s pop predilections. The Herb Alpert-sampling “Hypnotize” was Big’s first number one hit. A slick and funky track full of boasts and pickup lines, “Hypnotize” features Big on “that Brooklyn shit,” bending syntax and rhyme with a masterful and unlabored flow to detail the sex and violence permeating his lifestyle: “At last, a nigga rappin’ bout blunts and broads/ tits and bras, ménage a trios, sex in expensive cars/ I’ll still leave you on the pavement.”

The crossover appeal of “Hypnotize” gets glammed up even further with the pop maximalism of “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.” Built on a sample of Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” and with an R&B refrain sung by Kelly Price, “Mo Money” exuberantly locates hip-hop’s roots in black dance music. Biggie, Mase and Puff Daddy split self-aggrandizing verses, with Mase vowing to not stop rapping until his name appears on a blimp, and Puff boasting that he’s “bigger than the city lights down in Times Square.” Biggie gets the last word on the track as he delivers his rags-to-riches journey, emphasizing his humble origins as a drug dealer to now being “on the cover of Fortune.”

In addition to Puffy and Mase, Big is continually joined throughout the album by an envoy of his closest friends in the industry. His collaborators include his childhood friend and soon-to-be hip-hop mogul Jay-Z on the string and synth-laced “I Love the Dough,” his girlfriend and protégé Lil’ Kim on the 80s-vibing “Another” and R&B singer R. Kelly on the boudoir ballad “Fucking You Tonight.” The best collaboration brought Midwest cult favorites Bone Thugs n Harmony to the album on “Notorious Thugs.” The hip-hop maestros flex their flows, delivering rapid-fire shots and rhymes with contorted acrobatics over a shimmering beat, before giving way to the rolling hook (“Let’s ride, let’s ride, let’s ride/ Get high.”

Because of his assassination mere weeks before the album’s release, “What’s Beef?” and the final three songs—“My Downfall,” “Long Kiss Goodnight” and “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)”—assume an added resonance. Big’s mafioso-style rap on “What’s Beef” fires a series of threats against his California rivals, which suggests perhaps that the lines between himself and his rap persona were nonexistent. Big continues launching disses on “My Downfall,” and the hook turns out to be eerily prescient: “MC’s have the gall/ To pray and pray for my downfall.” Like “My Downfall,” “Long Kiss Goodnight” and “You’re Nobody” sound like morbid war cries on behalf of the dead, as well as for those about to be caught in the crossfire of hip-hop and gang-related rivalries.

The afterlife of Life After Death extends to every reach of the hip-hop genre. Rappers from Lil’ Wayne to Kendrick Lamar cite Biggie as an integral influence. Big’s influence even reaches Broadway, with Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton bearing frequent references to songs off of Life After Death.

According to the logic of the title of the album’s last track, Biggie became a “somebody” when he was killed in a drive-by shooting. However, Life After Death proves that he was more than just a somebody. He was one of the best rappers to ever live. Had he lived longer, he undoubtedly would have continued to shape and push the boundaries of the rap game, but even in death, he continues to inspire new generations of hip-hop artists and fans.

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