As I leave my competition, respirator style
Climb the ladder to success, escalator style
Hold y’all breath, I told y’all — death
Controls y’all, Big don’t fold y’all
I spit phrases that’ll thrill you
You’re nobody til somebody kills you
(“You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)”)
Two weekends ago marked the 20th anniversary(!) of Life After Death, the posthumous second album from late, great Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, NYC hip hop heavyweight (literally!), The Notorious B.I.G. (affectionately known by everyone as Biggie Smalls); the album was completed shortly before Biggie’s tragic shooting death in Los Angeles as he was leaving a Soul Train Music Awards after-party and released a couple weeks after. The album title, cover and some of the lyrical content are particularly haunting in that regard, especially on the intro and the poignant album closer “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)”. Life After Death is also one of a very select handful of hip hop albums to be certified diamond (with over 10 million copies sold!). The double-disc set has held up incredibly well over the years, and most hip hop heads hail it as a classic. I’ll admit that while I don’t particularly care for a couple songs here and there, the amount of quality material on here is impressive for an album of this size and I’ve even come to appreciate the lesser tracks over time to some degree.
This joint fits quite well in the Mafioso rap subgenre, and Biggie (as always) is a versatile lyrical master of storytelling, concepts, humor and charisma. A great amount of his best recordings from his already small (no pun intended, I swear!) catalog of work can be found here, including the huge platinum-certified #1 singles “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems” (featuring guest verses from Puff Daddy and Ma$e), the inspiring gold-selling third single “Sky’s The Limit” (featuring 112 on the chorus) and “Going Back To Cali” (laced by Easy Mo Bee, who produced a number of tracks on Biggie’s classic 1994 debut album, Ready To Die); the latter, which flips a neck-snapping sample of Zapp’s breakbeat/dance floor staple “More Bounce To The Ounce”, is also notable for showing love to the West Coast during the height of the infamous East/West rivalry that ultimately claimed the life of onetime friend and West Coast rap icon Tupac Shakur as well as his own. Biggie’s cinematic vision of organized crime tales play out beautifully on tracks like “What’s Beef?”, “Niggas Bleed” and the opening song “Somebody’s Gotta Die”. Life After Death is also home to the timeless DJ Premier-producer bangers “Kick In The Door” and “Ten Crack Commandments”; the latter is a brilliantly concise instruction manual for selling crack cocaine delivered over one of Premo’s more abstract beats and is my personal favorite Biggie song of all time.
Furthermore, Biggie’s storytelling skills are exercised in a more lighthearted manner on the humorous Buckwild-produced “I Got A Story To Tell”, while additional high-profile guest shots from Jay-Z and Angela Winbush (on the infectious should-have-been-a-single “I Love The Dough”, which borrows elements from René & Angela’s classic old school jam “I Love You More”) R. Kelly (on the steamy bedroom joint “Fuck You Tonight”), Lil’ Kim (on the adversarial duet/lyrical domestic dispute “Another”), The Lox (on the often forgotten street gem “Last Day”) and old school rap legends DMC (of pioneering hip hop group Run-DMC) and Too $hort (on “My Downfall” and “The World Is Filled…”, respectively), as well as further musical contributions from Bad Boy Entertainment’s in-house production team The Hitmen, RZA (Wu-Tang Clan), Havoc (Mobb Deep), Kay Gee (Naughty By Nature) and more round out this cinematic milestone release.
I’d also like to point out for collectors that the rare second pressing of Life After Death that I own contains a bonus 12-minute interview (one of Biggie’s last interviews, if not THE last), where Big discusses his plans for the future as well his thoughts on friend-turned-rival Tupac’s recent death and the whole “East Coast Vs. West Coast” fiasco, among other things. I still can’t believe how long it’s been since both Biggie and Pac were murdered, and how powerful this album remains to this day after so many years. As long as current and future generations continue to study, absorb and appreciate Biggie’s genius, he will truly always have life after death.
R.I.P. Christopher George Latore “Biggie Smalls” Wallace a/k/a The Notorious B.I.G. (1972-1997)