Life After Death
Bad Boy Records, 1997
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/14/1997
The ghost of Tupac Shakur haunts Christopher Wallace throughout his last album, Life After Death. His death haunts him. Tensions after Tupac's death forced Wallace to vaguely hint about his rivalry on Life After Death, a direct jab from the grave would have been a declaration of war against Death Row Records.
Tupac haunted Smalls in life. By releasing the first double rap album ever, All Eyez On Me, the ball was in Biggie's court. No matter how great his follow-up to Ready To Die could be, it wouldn't matter if it was a single album. Technically, Biggie Smalls had to release a double album to have a stake of the "hardest rapper" title. Indeed, 2Pac proved to be one of the most infuential artists of this decade by making the double album. This year, three rap artists have released double albums. Two artists had the skills to make a good effort:Wu-Tang Clan and the Notorious B.I.G. The other artist, Bone Thugs N' Harmony could have just released an EP, thank you very much.
That all said, Life After Death is a epic double album, filled with rolling party anthems, but more often, filled with tales of revenge and premonitions of The Notorious B.I.G.'s death. Indeed, the album is bookened with accounts of Biggie's death. The opening track of Life After Death starts off on a disappointing note, as the soundtrack of a bad melodrama plays in the background as Puff Daddy laments in a cheesy tone "We was supposed to rule the world." The album's final track is "You're Nobody (Til Someone Kills You)."
What's in the middle is a mix of both incrediable music production, gritty, unflinching storytelling and humorous storytelling. There's also a mix of glaring misogyny, repetative gangsta posturing and excessive bragging over material goods. In essence, Life After Death is a difficult journey, you're going to get an unpredictable mix of greatness ("Going Back to Cali", "Hypnotize", "My Downfall") and borderline silliness ("Playa Hater", "I Love The Dough", "Nasty Boy").
The production is first rate. Sean "Puffy" Combs and The Notorious B.I.G. deliver some of the most fluid and dense beats in rap this past decade, giving 2Pac a formidable answer to All Eyez on Me. "Hypnotize" is just as ferocious as "California Love". And Biggie's olive branch to the West, "Going Back to Cali" is one of the most funky, perfectly constructed rap songs ever made. Samples are used wisely throughout the album, one of the most striking use is the use of Chuck D's relentless countdown on "Shut 'em Down" on "Ten Crack Commandments". Savor the irony, one of the most militant, anti-drug groups of the 90s on a song on how to be a good crack dealer.
Lyric-wise, Life After Death is horribly inconsistant. Biggie Smalls lived much of the life he portrayed in Life After Death. His feelings of anguish of the gangsta life rings true in "Miss U" when he raps "I'm a thug but I swear for three days I cried/I look in the sky and ask God why/Can't look his baby girls in the eye/Damn I miss you". Other times, he's either posturing, like in "Notorious Thungs" when he boasts "Cash rule everything around me/shit lyrically niggaz can't see me/fuck it, buy the coke."
While Biggie Smalls has a good deal of female guests on Life After Death, his sexist remarks on the entire album are so bad, they're comedic. The entire album is filled with "bitches" and "hoes", even though he pauses to express his love for his daughter. Like 2Pac, Biggie made no bones about rapping in contradictions. Still, the song "Fuck You Tonight" has to be one of the most god awful experiences I endured this year(next to being dragged to see Batman and Robin). Guest vocalist R. Kelly swoons in cheesy porn style "I'm fuuuucking you tonight". Sorry, but Soundgarden said it better eight years ago and with a better sense of humor in "Big Dumb Sex".
Life After Death did not have to be a career ender for The Notorious B.I.G. No artist deserves to be murdered on the accounts of what they put on record. Biggie's last album represented one of the last forms of music that can still piss off the masses:gangsta rap. It also represented the limitations of the genre. True groundbreakers like DJ Shadow are creating beats that sometimes surpass the dense bass rumblings of most gangsta rap. And while "My Downfall" begins with a chilling phone call, artists like Tricky have proved to be more disturbing in some songs in "Maxiquae and Pre-Millenium Tension".
Finally, it comes down to the content of the album. While Life After Death is a one of those great guilty pleasure albums for a midwestern white boy, I do have to admit, two hours of tales of paybacks and boasting about how much dough and bitches the guy has grew tiresome. At least newer groups like The Fugees show that rap is capable of addressing other issues while still delivering the goods.
To quote Chuck D in the song "The Underdog", "I'm all time and I'm down for the ruffness/but what good is the rhyme without substance." It's too bad though that we are left with only interpretations on Life After Death. It's a tragedy that this album was clearly that of an artist still in the stages of developing a potentially great voice in the 90s.