On the Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death (Bad Boy/Arista), business as usual has never been so usual and unusual. When the star isn’t grabbing a gun or telling his posse that ”retaliation … won’t be minimal,” he’s grabbing the nearest bitch. Misogyny is as rampant as references to money and mobsters. There are moments of reflection, as when a friend is killed in the new-jack ballad ”Miss U” and the rapper wonders if he can ever look the victim’s family in the eye again. But eventually, everything returns to the real and imagined realities of the street, complete with gunshots and song titles like ”Somebody’s Gotta Die.”
Of course, the album isn’t standard gangsta fare, either. Completed just weeks before the March 9 drive-by shooting death of Christopher Wallace (otherwise known as the Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls), Life After Death is the eeriest disc yet in the unfortunately booming subgenre of posthumous rap records. Every other rhyme is spookily prophetic. ”You wanna see me locked up, shot up/Moms cracked up over the casket screaming,” Biggie tells his enemies in ”My Downfall.” Visiting L.A. in ”Going Back to Cali,” he sings, ”That don’t mean a nigger can’t rest in the West.” L.A., of course, is where the Brooklyn-based Biggie was killed, and such disturbing ironies abound. In ”Miss U,” an innocent victim is killed after a gunman ”squeezed all six shots in the passenger door.” (Smalls, 24, died after several shots were fired into the passenger side of a car.) ”Your destiny is something you can never figure out,” goes a line in ”Last Day,” yet throughout the album, Biggie either taunts fate or seems resigned to it.
Ready to Die, Smalls’ 1994 debut album, hardly changed the face of rap. But along with the rampaging Wu-Tang Clan projects, it contributed to the rebirth of East Coast hip-hop, and Smalls’ own rap sheet of crack-deal arrests lent his tales of ghetto survival an authenticity and bite many rappers only dream of. (His prior work history lingers on Life After Death with ”Ten Crack Commandments,” a dealer’s how-to list delivered with, alas, no irony or humor.) Plus, there was that voice — notoriously big and mushmouthed but undeniably distinctive and charismatic. On the new album, Biggie’s tone is mellower and less in-your-face. Whether rolling syllables to the Jeep beats in ”Hypnotize” or crooning on the sarcastic ”Playa Hater,” he had begun stretching out his ample vocal cords.
He also maintained New York rap’s history of inspired wordplay with a string of funny rhymes (”Biggie be richie like Lionel” or ”obese like DeLuise”) — when you can hear them, that is. The double disc is overrun with cameos, courtesy of rappers and producers from the East (Wu-Tang’s RZA), West (Too Short), and Midwest (Bone Thugs-N-Harmony) — not to mention Chicago’s R. Kelly, who commandeers the chorus of the generic slow jam ”#!*@ You Tonight.” That lineup is proof of the bicoastal respect Biggie was accorded in the hip-hop world. Unfortunately, such brotherhood also leads to padding — on some cuts, Biggie barely raps one verse. And despite the helping hands, many of the tracks feel plodding or too minimalist. Between all the guests and the funeral-procession beats — the spooky Tales From the Crypt-hop style of ’90s rap — the result is a double album that would have easily made a more effective single disc.
If that sounds like a clinical, detached way of assessing Biggie Smalls’ swan song, such is the sad, inevitable legacy of gangsta rap. The years of shootings and death — in song and in real life — have taken their toll on the genre’s potency and its value as a window into a world mainstream America never sees. Plowing through Life After Death, you digest the tough talk, tap your feet to even the weakest tracks, and relish the highlights – the jumping-bean disco groove of ”Mo Money Mo Problems” and the brooding intensity of what may be Biggie’s masterpiece, ”You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” But the cumulative effect is neither as sad nor as creepy as it should be — it’s simply deadening, just like the news of Biggie’s murder. With Life After Death, gangsta rap has become numbingly ineffectual, which is almost as disheartening as the needless death of yet another young black man. C+