The Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Life After Death’ at 20: A Jubilant, Paranoid Ode to a Legendary MC

There is great beauty in tragedy, as Biggie’s second and final album proves twenty years on.

New York Daily News Archive

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more grandiose or ostentatious ‘90s hip-hop album than Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death. When it was released on March 25, 1997, the Notorious B.I.G.’s ambitious second album came with an elaborate CD booklet, and a laundry list of guest stars ranging from Jay Z to Angela Winbush to D.M.C. to 112 to Too $hort to the LOX. Hip-hop’s best producers handled tracks on Life After Death with Puff Daddy, DJ Premier, RZA, Kay Gee and mainstays like Easy Mo Bee giving Biggie the sonic backdrop to spin his dark street tales.

Of course, it’s virtually impossible not to view Life After Death as a sort of sister record (answer record?) to 2Pac’s equally gaudy All Eyez On Me. Pac’s double album hit stores a little more than a year before Biggie’s. But where that album served as a pronouncement of 2Pac as hip-hop’s most unapologetic instigator and the newest, most controversial star on Death Row Records’ roster, Life After Death inadvertently became a funereal and bittersweet tribute to the life and legacy of the Notorious B.I.G. There was never a chance to view Biggie’s album any other way: he was gunned down in Los Angeles just two weeks prior to Life After Death’s release. With artwork depicting the now-deceased rapper next to a hearse, and an opening skit featuring Sean “Puffy” Combs talking over Biggie as the rapper lies near death in an operating room, Life After Death is forever linked to the tragic circumstances that swirled around it’s release.

Biggie’s second album is obviously a glossier affair than his classic 1994 debut, Ready To Die. But, while the boom-bap of Easy Mo B. and DJ Premiere was pushed to the margins in favor of slicker fare from Puffy and his Hitmen, the two albums both share an undercurrent of grimness and anger. The self-loathing that was so prevalent on Ready To Die had morphed into intense paranoia on Life After Death, as Biggie had made high-profile enemies on his road to superstardom.

The first song picks up where the darkness of Ready To Die left off. “Somebody’s Got To Die” finds Biggie plotting on an enemy and features some of his most cinematic storytelling: the bloodthirsty rhymes about “filing my clip” as he hunts down a rival named Jason who’d murdered one of B.I.G.’s associates. As they find their target and begin shooting, Jason turns around, holding his infant daughter. It’s a harrowing opening that sets the stage for much of the album’s more chilling moments, as gunshots and a baby crying against the sounds of rainfall close the track and it segues into the pop effervescence of “Hypnotize.”

One of Biggie’s most popular hits, his lyrics jump from player lifestyle (“I put hoes in NY onto DKNY. Miami, D.C. prefer Versace”) to more murderous threats (“squeeze first, ask questions last”), all over a sample of Herb Alpert’s “Rise” with a Slick Rick-inspired hook. It’s one of the best radio tracks he ever released and turned out to be his last hit and last video he shot before his March 9th murder.

With his paranoia peaking, “Kick In the Door” is one of Biggie’s most aggressive tracks—and his rhymes are stellar throughout. Over a killer sample of “Screamin’” Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” Biggie drops some of his best bars: “You cursed it but rehearsed it / I drop unexpectedly like bird shit / You herbs get / Stuck quickly for royalties and show money.” The hook revisits a line from Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Get Money” (and was originally in reference to Biggie attacking a girlfriend) and is the closest to battle rapper wit and punchlines as Life After Death gets. The song’s unspecified targets would later be revealed as Nas and Raekwon, after B.I.G. felt he’d been dissed on Rae’s 1995 classic Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.

The R. Kelly-assisted “Fucking You Tonight” is a popular track that sometimes comes off as a bit rote for both artists. Biggie and R. Kelly had toured together prior to collaborating here, and the track is a smooth bit of R&B that hits all the right notes, even if it isn’t necessarily new territory for anyone involved. “Last Day” is a synth-driven bit of New York street rap, with a then-unknown LOX making their first appearance on a Bad Boy record.

The lone Jay Z appearance on a Biggie album is the baller anthem “I Love the Dough.” Everything about the song screams 1997 hip-hop: a slick interpolation of an ‘80s R&B hit (Rene & Angela’s 1981 single “I Love You More”), a sing-a-long hook provided by Angela Winbush herself, and rhymes dedicated to the joy of conspicuous consumption, with Jay rapping: “We push the hottest V’s, peel fast / Through the city / play Monopoly with real cash / Me and Biggie / and the models be / shaking they sadiddy ass / And Prada be, somethin' you cats got to see…” The grimy “What’s Beef” features an ingenious sample of Richard Evans’ “Close To You,” and is one of Biggie’s darkest and most infamous tracks. Reminding unnamed enemies that real beef is much more dangerous than diss tracks (“Beef is when your mom ain’t safe to cross the street”), it’s one of the songs on Life After Death that many listeners in 1997 assumed were directed at 2Pac.

B.I.G. throws a nod to Schoolly D’s classic “P.S.K. (What Does It Mean)” on the brief “B.I.G.” [Interlude]” before launching into another one of the album’s biggest radio hits. “Mo Money Mo Problems” became a hallmark single and video of the “Shiny Suit Era.” By the time the single hit airwaves that July, Biggie had been dead four months and Puffy’s hit album No Way Out was out and also dominating the charts with countless hits. So with Puffy and Ma$e prominently featured on the track and in the video, it became closely associated with a period and an image that was more Puff than B.I.G.

The first disc of Life After Death closes with a pair of very different songs that both highlight the lyrical genius of the Notorious B.I.G. “Niggas Bleed” is a chilling crime story, told with an attention to character and detail that would make Scorsese proud. Biggie recounts a failed robbery plotted out and executed by a small crew of criminals. We hear the background and planning as “Frank” (B.I.G.) gets hired to pull a job, who recruits “my nigga Arizona Ron, from Tucson” who sounds like a borderline psychopath (“Nothing to lose tattooed around his gun wounds, everything to gain—embedded in his brain”); and they accidentally tip off Gloria From Astoria, the manager, who assumes they’re coming for the safe. The two robbers set a fire, and start shooting as their targets attempt to escape. In graphic detail, Biggie describes the violence and Ron’s glee at shooting a woman in the head. The song ends in bizarrely lighthearted fashion, as they escape with a briefcase full of money only to realize their targets’ car was towed because they “double-parked by a hydrant.”

The violence of “Niggas Bleed” gives way to “I Got A Story To Tell.” It’s one of Biggie’s most comical story raps, as he recounts a late-night rendezvous with a woman who was involved “with a player from the New York Knicks.” While he’s smoking a blunt with her post-coitus, of course, her boyfriend shows up. “This cat getting’ closer / Gettin’ hot like a toaster,” B.I.G. raps as he grabs his gun but “I don’t wanna blast her man.” In another example of Biggie’s penchant for dark humor, he decides to bound and gag the woman in order to make it seem like he’s there to rob the house. The Knicks’ star is stunned when Biggie shows him his weapon. “Flashed the heat on 'em, he stood emotionless / Dropped the glass screamin, ‘Don't blast / Here's the stash / A hundred cash—just don't shoot my ass, please!’” The song closes with Biggie telling his friends about the night (hence the title). Darkly funny, it’s one of the most celebrated songs for good reason. Last year, both Fat Joe and Puffy claimed that the song was about late Knicks’ star Anthony Mason, though the details were most assuredly exaggerated.

One of the album’s most lauded tracks is the DJ U-Neek-produced Bone Thugs-N-Harmony collaboration “Notorious Thugs.” Unimaginative title notwithstanding, it’s a spectacularly out-of-character performance from Biggie, as he switches up his flow to match the Midwestern speed-rap superstars’ style without exactly mimicking it: “Armed and dangerous, ain't too many can bang with us / Straight-up weed no angel dust, label us Notorious / Thug ass niggas that love to bust, it's strange to us / Y’all niggas be scramblin’, gamblin’ / Up in restaurants with mandolins, and violins / We just sittin' here tryin’ to win, tryin’ not to sin / High off weed and lots of gin.” It’s a showcase for the Brooklyn rapper’s versatility as a lyricist and emcee.

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Biggie takes a moment to pay tribute to fallen friends with “Miss U.” Kay Gee of Naughty By Nature handles the track (an interpolation of Diana Ross’ hit single “Missing You”) and it’s another one of the album’s more radio-friendly and sentimental moments, with a winning guest appearance from 112. “Another” features Lil Kim in her sole appearance on Life After Death and the song is full of the expected misogyny, but the track itself doesn’t quite come off. Had B.I.G. lived, it seems a surefire pick for a single, but would have likely benefited from a more inspired remix. “Going Back To Cali” is as bittersweet now as it was in 1997, with Biggie paying tribute and showing love to the West Coast in an effort to squelch any lingering animosity from the East/West feuding that had dominated headlines for the previous two years. Biggie’s troubles with California weren’t just 2Pac and Death Row-based; he’d drawn a backlash in 1995 after he dismissed Bay Area legend E-40.

“When he came to Northern California, some of my folks was highly upset that he had did an article—I was upset that he did an article in a Canadian magazine,” 40 recalled in 2013. “They asked him from a scale to one to 10 what do you feel about these artists. So, he would say Spice 1. I don’t know if it was a three, a four, or a two. Ice Cube, I don’t know what he gave him, but I know he gave me a zero. Right? And I’m a fixture out there on my soil, right? West Coast, and they fuck with me in New York at the time too, as well. So, I was like ‘okay.’ Of course I was upset about that. My dudes seen that. Everybody was upset about that.”

The diss led to a confrontation between Biggie’s entourage and associates of E-40 when Biggie came to do a show in Sacramento, but 40 never wanted to publicize the incident. “So [Biggie’s people] hit me, we pow-wowed, got him back safe and that was that, man…you know that I’m so real that I never even spoke on it,” he said. “His folks spoke on that, I never brought it up.” Biggie would give E-40 a salute in the Life After Death liner notes.

“Ten Crack Commandments” has become a popular hip-hop track to reference, as B.I.G. breaks down ten rules for street hustlers in the drug trade. Over a sample of Chuck D’s famous countdown from Public Enemy’s hit “Shut ‘Em Down,” Biggie offers tips on do’s and don’ts for would-be kingpins. “Playa Hater” is a goofball entry; Biggie as an off-key crooner, reimagining the Delfonics’ “Hey Love” as yet another threat of violence aimed at his enemies. It’s lighthearted, despite the reliably dark subject matter centered on robbery, intended to show B.I.G.’s tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. “Nasty Boy” is one of the album’s lesser moments, another track that’s not remarkable enough to be a major radio hit and not evocative enough to be a standout album cut.

The first album’s final single, “Sky’s the Limit,” is the most optimistic moment on either half of the double disc. With another 112-sung hook and a sample of Bobby Caldwell’s “Flame,” it’s a more introspective sequel to Biggie’s breakout hit “Juicy.” Whereas that song reveled in the rapper’s newly-realized aspirations, “Sky’s the Limit” is a bit more motivational, as he realizes how far he’s come and embraces the idea that he has no idea how far he could go. The song’s video memorably featured kids dressed as Biggie and other Bad Boy stars, a great fit for the song’s “You can have what you want / be what you want” ethos. It’s another bittersweet moment considering audiences heard it just weeks after B.I.G. was gunned down.

“The World Is Filled…” features an appearance from West Coast superstar Too $hort. It suggests another attempt at healing East/West wounds, but doesn’t feel contrived. With Puffy riding shotgun, the three rappers deliver pretty standard woman-bashing over a sample of “Space Talk” by Indian singer Asha Puthili.

But ballerisms and positive thinking give way to Biggie’s ever-present anger on Life After Death’s final trifecta. As if determined to end the album on a dour and morbid note, Biggie opens “My Downfall” with an intense death threat by phone, before the beat comes thundering in and his raps reveal the depths of his contempt and paranoia as he ruminates on his own violent demise. “I was high when they hit me / took a few cats wit me / shit, I need the company / Apologies in order / To Teyanna, my daughter…” D.M.C. delivers the hook, originally from Run-D.M.C.’s “Together Forever.”

“When Biggie called for me to go put this hook on the record, I was souped,” D.M.C. told MTV back in 2010. “I got a call from Diddy, and Puff was like, ‘Yo, D, we wanna make that the chorus.’” D.M.C. felt his original line resonated because it was about the pain of being on top. “See, only kings can understand what that meant: Shut ‘em down, step back, because they pray for your downfall.”

The RZA-produced “Long Kiss Goodnight” put to rest some of the whispers of bad blood between Bad Boy Records and Wu-Tang Clan (though it should be pointed out that the animosity was mostly between Wu members Raekwon, Ghostface Killah and Biggie—not necessarily Wu-Tang Clan as a whole) and it’s one of the album’s best tracks. Biggie’s anger is once again directed at enemies and he even takes a shot at his longtime friend, Lil Cease: “I used to be as strong as ripple be / Til Lil Cease crippled me.” In 1996, Cease had been driving the car that Biggie was in that crashed and resulted in Biggie having to walk with a cane for several months. The song features Puffy’s screaming threats in the background, and is another moment that was widely assumed to be directed at 2Pac. But Puff “clarifies” near the end of the track that “we’re not talking about no other rappers—we’re talking about you.” Was the “you” Suge Knight? Jimmy “Henchman” Rosemond? We may never know for sure. But with its threats to “choke yo ass til your face blue,” it’s one of Biggie’s most confrontational tracks.

The album ends with “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” The song’s subject matter and title put a fine point on an album that seemed to reflect Biggie’s real-life demise in all-too eerie fashion, and no moment epitomizes the discomfort that underscored Life After Death like this ominously beautiful album closer. Amongst the always-present threats and boasts (“As I leave my competition respirator-style, I climb the ladder to success, escalator-style”) the recurring paranoia is always there. And a melancholy acknowledgment that he could be more notorious in death than he ever was in life.

To a certain degree, Life After Death now feels like the end of the 1990s. For a decade since Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, hip-hop had been steadily growing commercially and expanding creatively. Platinum albums became standard, as hip-hop was no longer easily defined and subgenres and splinter styles became akin to pop throughout the late 1980s. By the mid-1990s, rappers were becoming as visible and popular as the biggest pop and rock acts of the era, but the specter of violence that began to loom after 2Pac was shot in Manhattan in November 1994 threatened to undermine all that had been built. And when Pac was killed in September 1996, only to be followed by the Notorious B.I.G. in March 1997, it felt like hip-hop was suffocating under the weight of its own popularity and confrontational image. Biggie’s death and the release of Life After Death could be considered the bookend to Run-D.M.C.’s 1986 breakthrough, as hip-hop had to pause for a second and reassess itself in a way that it hadn’t before.

But regardless of backstory and historical significance, the second album from the Notorious B.I.G. remains a staggering testament to the rapper’s versatility, the ambitions of Sean “Diddy” Combs and creative possibilities during the CD era. Like All Eyez On Me, it has its share of filler; but also like that classic album, the indulgences don’t negate the consistent brilliance throughout the project. And the greatest joy of listening to Life After Death is hearing Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace at the height of his lyrical powers, more dramatic and vivid than he’d ever been, pondering what it meant to be the biggest rapper in the game—and occasionally sounding like he was actually having fun.