Playing God
The Notorious B.I.G.: Life After Death

there has never been a great hip-hop double album. Wu-Tang Forever was awful, All Eyez On Me highly convoluted and overrated, and Speakerboxx/The Love Below doesn’t qualify, since it’s a double solo album and whatever Andre is doing, he ain’t much rapping. We won’t even comment on efforts by Bone Thugs N Harmony, Jay-Z (who did his very own Playing God in releasing the one-disc-but-still-bad Blueprint 2.1!), and, um, Afroman, to crack the 2-disc dilemma.

But, of course, I’m dancing over the real subject of this piece, which is not how to make the great hip-hop double album, but rather, how badly Life After Death, The Notorious B.I.G.’s final album (Born Again never happened, you hear me?), needs to be condensed. Perhaps in part because of the timing of the album, though—we all know what happened just before its release to make the title (and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You”) especially eerie—Life After Death received the then-meaningful 5 mic rating from The Source, then-relevant, and glowing press all around. How could it not? No one gives two stars to a dead man.

Life After Death is a good record—I wouldn’t bother to operate on Wu-Tang Forever—but aside from the multiple guest appearances, the star producers whose songs don’t always mesh well and a bad song idea or two, the record is structurally problematic: the best songs are on Disc One, even though the overly lengthy Disc Two is the better album. At the top of his game, no one was going to tell Biggie he had enough songs, or didn’t really need production by The RZA. The results are what you expect of such indulgence: absolutely all over the place. Biggie’s untimely death makes almost every one of these songs something worth treasuring, but putting everything on this record, besides having a sardine-pineapple-pepperoni pizza effect, also left a dearth of unreleased material after his death. Thus, Born Again, posthumous atrocity of unfinished tracks plus guest verses (including one by Will Smith), the worst collaboration between the dead and living since Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable.

The only way to put Life After Death back into heavy rotation—face it, Ready To Die remains 5,000 times more likely to be bumping out of a car rolling through any city’s streets—is to finally, pardon the pun, trim the fat. There’s an excellent, dark, yet single-loaded single album lost in the two discs you rarely spin. Here it is:

1. Kick In The Door
Fuck an intro: bust through the living room. Cut the “Mad Rapper” sketch that originally led into this song and go right to an angry B.I.G. making even the silliest lines (“your reign on the top was short like leprechauns”) a threat, over DJ Premier’s banging take on Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You.” “Kick In The Door” opened countless mixtapes; why shouldn’t it open the album from which it came?

2. Hypnotize
A song this hot had no need for a multi-million dollar video featuring chases on land and sea, but this was the jiggy era, that magic time when even sex was materialistic, an activity only done “on rugs that’s Persian”. One of hip-hop’s most memorable bass lines + Slick Rick-cribbed hook + slicker-than-your-average lyrics = hotness.

3. I Got A Story To Tell
As this isn’t a Basement Jaxx album, we were gonna have to cool down the ridiculous momentum eventually, so I chose the “Hypnotize” b-side: a simple, acoustic-guitar riff and a simple story of fucking-another-man’s-woman-then-robbing-that-man. A funny story, by the way. Now that this song no longer closes Disc One, by the way, I’m taking out about a minute of the overlong fade-out.

4. Going Back To Cali
LL Cool J’s “Goin’ Back To Cali” is untouchable, but BIG’s more-bounce-to-the-ounce sequel is a close second. Biggie’s love of California breasts and cess seems genuine, and the Zapp-ed out track definitely is meant to emulate “California Love”, but just when you think he’s giving unqualified props, out comes that great last line: “Cali, great place to visit.” But if BIG can joke about the West Coast feud beef, though, what is beef to him?

5. What’s Beef?
Your requested definition, sir.

6. Notorious Thugs (featuring Bone Thugs N Harmony)
It’s Bone and Biggie, Biggie, and damn if it doesn’t work. Biggie speeds up his flow, still coming in about 50 mph slower than Cleveland’s finest sing-song spitters, while the track bangs on. It goes on, in fact, for over 6 minutes with no real chorus. Like Nutella on an onion bagel, this is just one of those combinations you never thought would be this good.

7. Somebody’s Got To Die
One version of Life After Death I put together tacked about 8 incredibly bleak songs together at the very end. We can’t do that, so “Somebody’s Got To Die”, more musically interesting if still just as melodramatically-stuffed with fake strings as its cut cousin “Niggas Bleed”, has got to go here.

8. Mo Money, Mo Problems (featuring, sigh, Puff Daddy and Mase)
The one song I always skip on this album, and the de facto changing of the Bad Boy guard: exit Biggie, enter Puff and Mase. No, I couldn’t cut it, but it needs to be around midway into the album if we’re going to get the key 11-15-year-old demographic to ever hear the whole thing. Track 8, after some hardcore shit, seemed about right.

9. Miss U
I didn’t expect to leave this sweet, but not extremely memorable, bit of mourning on the final mix, but even though Kay Gee’s track reaches for the heartstrings in an obvious fashion and would be second-rate even on a Naughty By Nature album like Poverty’s Paradise, Biggie’s verses on fallen friends are heartfelt and provide a regret otherwise missing in the album’s recurring hustler laments.

10. Sky’s The Limit (featuring 112)
From bleak to optimistic? Not exactly. Don’t be deceived by 112’s angelic chorus or the cute Spike Jonze video, there’s dark shit draped in the R&B; sunshine, a coming-of-age tale of finding yourself through robbing other kids in grade school. If I’m not sure the effect is intentional, it’s still as close as hip-hop has come to having a Steely Dan effect, and pairs nicely as the “how I got there” to the next track’s “how I stayed there.”

11. Ten Crack Commandments
Quite possibly the least “positive” hip-hop song ever, Biggie’s hustling guide is a sort of apex in drug-trade rap. And yes, that is Chuck D’s voice doing the count-off of these ten rules, another classic scratched DJ Premier hook. Did Public Enemy authorize that?

12. My Downfall (featuring DMC)
From rise to fall in just three songs. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what comes next.

13. You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)
It would have been a creepy track no matter what; combined with the bullets that took Christopher Wallace, this is damn near impossible to listen to at night. One thing the double-album Life After Death got right was using this and “My Downfall” as the closing acts. No need to fiddle with this.

By: Josh Drimmer
Published on: 2004-10-26
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