The genre of hip hop in the 1990s was all about storytelling. No one was better at that then Notorious B.I.G. With only two studio albums under his belt, Biggie Smalls is still considered to be one of the most influential rappers of all time. When his first project, Ready to Die came out in 1994, Biggie solidified himself as the central piece of the East Coast hip hop scene, pitted up against the very talented West Coast crew of Tupac and Snoop Dogg. Sadly, Biggie was involved in a drive-by shooting that would kill him in Los Angeles in March of 1997, immediately following the finishing of his second studio album, Life After Death. Sixteen days later, on March 25, 1997, the classic album was released, and hip hop changed forever.
What makes Life After Death so memorable in music history is the fact that Biggie can mix in so many different emotions. Not only do listeners laugh on this album, but there are themes on here that can be serious, realistic, and impactful. Biggie was always known as a storyteller, and this project was the perfect representation of that. Biggie’s unconventional lyrics and exceptional production from RZA, DJ Premier, Puff Daddy, and Havoc created for a timeless masterpiece.
The double disc track-list of 24 songs isn’t just an album, it’s a cinematic experience set in Brooklyn, New York during the mid-90s. Whether true or not, Biggie takes listeners down a dark road on the first official song on the album, “Somebody’s Gotta Die.” The track follows a drug dealer informing Biggie that one of their friends had gotten murdered for stealing from a crack dealer. He has lyrics in this song that describes his dealer lifestyle prior to rapping, which may help in his character’s current situation on the song. The dark production from this track leads into more of a club banger with “Hypnotize.” Commercially, one of his best songs of all-time, Biggie uses lyrics like, “Poppa been smooth since days of underoos,” and, “Dare I squeeze three at your cherry M-3, bang every MC easily,” to discuss the harshness of the streets with his clever lyrical ability.
We see some of that legendary production on “Kick in the Door,” where again Biggie shows off his ability to make people think while jamming. There is a skit in the beginning featuring D-Dot that could have erased though. Then, Biggie changes things up tonally with the song, “(Bleep) You Tonight,” featuring R. Kelly. His first official feature contains a verse from R. Kelly that brings a more sexual theme to the album. “Last Day” probably has the best artist feature on the entire album with The Lox. Havoc and Mobb Deep get their hands on this for the dreamy, hardcore production, and Biggie once again takes a darker route on this track.
Money becomes a major topic on the next three songs, “I Love the Dough,” What’s Beef?,” and “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” “I Love the Dough” has a killer feature from young Jay-Z, while What’s Beef?” has Biggie showing why he is the best poet out there. Any hesitance to not call him the king of hip hop is quickly shut down by him on this song. “Mo Money Mo Problems” is one of the most famous song titles of all-time. Oh yeah, it’s also a fantastic track as well. The starry production, and gorgeous sample from Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” makes for a perfect blend. Puff Daddy and Mase bring their own swagger as well to the song. The first part of this album ends with “I Got a Story to Tell.” It’s more of Biggie showing off his lyrical prowess once again over a beautiful piano riff and hardcore bass. The theme of the story includes an anecdote about Biggie’s experiences in New York City.
While the second part of this project doesn’t have the mainstream hits that the first portion did, Biggie still creates an impactful musical experience for hip hop fans everywhere. Bone Thugs n’ Harmony makes an appearance on “Notorious Thugs,” where Biggie raps the fastest he ever does on this album. In my opinion, this song has some of the best production on the entire project. Bone Thugs n- harmony harmonizes nicely (pun intended) with the dreamy piano riff that fades in and out. Biggie talks about is social life on “Miss U,” where he dedicates the track to one of his best friends who unexpectedly died. Another phenomenal performance.
In case you’ve already forgotten, Biggie likes to discuss drug dealing on many of his songs. Well, he finally explains what goes into the process of it on “Ten Crack Commandments.” A sample from Public Enemy ties the track nicely together for another classic. Probably the most cheesy and crynge-worthy song that Biggie has ever put out was, “Playa Hater.” I guess you can still be the king and have your weaknesses. Boy, he really couldn’t sing well. The whole track was a bad play-off of jazz production and R&B combined. Although the next song, “Nasty Boy” is not his most layered track, at least he was back to rapping.
His most upbeat song from this classic has to be, “Sky is the Limit.” A gorgeous hook from 112 mixed in with a colorful beat shows that Biggie can not only be dangerous, but inspirational. He again brings out the best of his features on “The World is Filled..” with Too Short and Puff Daddy. Eerily, Biggie closes out the album with the theme of death. Features from RZA and DMC help bring out the topic of acknowledging the fact that the lifestyle Biggie lives could lead to his demise. It’s crazy to think that he would die immediately following the end to the creation of this album.
One thing that stands out to me the most is, the impact the production of this album has on hip hop today. Rappers like Logic, Lil Wayne, and Jay-Z have sampled from Biggie lyrically and musically. Despite the revolution of trap rap, listeners still see the inspiration. Life After Death is the reason why Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was so highly praised. Storytelling in rap is something that Biggie jumpstarted, and his ability to do that will always be remembered.