it's hard to listen to Notorious B.I.G.'s new two-disc set, "Life After Death," without getting the creeps: The album dropped only two weeks after the rapper, born Chris Wallace, a k a Biggie Smalls, was killed in Los Angeles at the age of 24, and during the introduction to the opening track, a friend pleads with a presumably near-death Big to hang on, while a heart monitor beeps in the background. "This shit can't be over. You got too much livin' to do," the friend murmurs. Then the monitor sounds one long, telltale "beeeeeep."
But oohing and ahhing over Big's supposed prescience is silly: Facing down death has become de rigueur in gangsta rap, in no small part because of the success of Big's first hit album, "Ready to Die." On "Life After Death," Big was just doing what he does best -- describing how thugs live, and the constant threat of death is just one part of that depiction. Unlike so many of his peers, Big had a singular ability to dramatize that unfortunate life rather than glorify it. Though punctuated with braggadocio and sexual hilarity, "Ready to Die" was largely heartbreaking.
"Life After Death" similarly reflects the despair of the 'hood. Even when he says, "somebody's gotta die," he says it matter-of-factly, with an I-didn't-make-the-rules attitude. He talks movingly about a friend who was killed, and in "Ten Crack Commandments," he gives drug-selling pointers like "never get high on your own supply." The reason these rhymes don't come off as exploitative or fake is not because of his drug-dealing past, it's a function of good writing.
Big was certainly given to bragging, however, and since his life had changed considerably since "Ready To Die," on "Life After Death" he's talking about publishing rights and no car payments. Even at his raunchiest -- like when he talks about "blunts and broads and m*nage trois" on the album's first single, "Hypnotize" -- his cleverness and wit prevail. Big's cadence and fat-man voice are among the most distinctive and compelling in rap, and on this album he even ventures to sing in a goofy and (we hope) self-consciously off-key voice. On "Notorious Thugs," a track featuring Bone Thugs (R. Kelly, Lil Kim, Too Short, Feat and Jay-Z also guest), he easily emulates their weird, rapid-fire rapping.
Since it's commonly assumed that Big's death was a hit resulting from the notorious East Coast-West Coast rap feud, "Going Back To Cali" is sure to be the subject of close scrutiny. But Big played his cards close to the vest in both interviews and rhymes. On this track he gives L.A. "props" and says, "I only got beef with those who violate me." He doesn't call out Tupac or Death Row, whereas Tupac once frankly announced, "I fucked your bitch" on a record (an allusion to an alleged affair with Big's wife, R&B singer Faith Evans). But wry as ever, Big played off Tupac's "California Love," employing the same voice-box style.
"Life After Death" closes with a cut called "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Kills You." But Biggie was most definitely somebody before his death, and it's likely this album would have been just as big without his passing.