The pulse monitor rhythmically sounds as Puffy can be heard over the breathing apparatus reflecting, “Damn, we was spose to rule the world baby, we was unstoppable.” Puffy’s soliloquy on the intro to Life After Death was a continuation of Suicidal Thoughts from Biggie’s Ready To Die debut. At the time few realised that it would reflect the eerily self-destructive prophecy that inevitably had only one outcome.
The date is March 9th, 1997. The victim is Christopher Wallace, known to his legions of followers as the Notorious BIG. The rapper died from a ballistic trauma following four gunshot wounds, as he sat in the passenger seat of his GMC Suburban, after leaving the Vibe magazine party in Los Angeles. Biggie’s posthumous album Life After Death that was slated to drop six months prior was eventually released through Bad Boy Records, 16 days after his demise. The highly anticipated sophomore effort had become a bittersweet ode to an artist who was on the cusp of changing the game. With art direction by Ebon Heath the timely album cover now served as a memorial. Had he not died it would’ve been considered to be a genius-marketing ploy.
“The highly anticipated sophomore effort had become a bittersweet ode to an artist who was on the cusp of changing the game.”
The hip-hop community was still trying to recover from the death of Tupac only six months previously. Biggie gave his thoughts on Pac in a rare 1996 interview: “When he died I was like whoa, even though we were going through our drama I would never wish death on nobody, cause there’s no coming back from that”. Though sympathetic, Biggie was defiant, always aware that retribution was a step away: ‘It’s crazy for me to even think that a rapper can’t get killed just because he raps. That s*** can happen. Even if you clean your life up, it comes back at you. What goes around comes around, ‘cause karma is a motherf****r”. This was even more evident with the bulletproof car that Biggie had ordered. It arrived at his home a few days after his funeral.
By now, the coastal feud was fundamentally embedded into the narrative of hip-hop culture leaving a blemish on its already troubled reputation. further enforcing the public stance that the infamous C. Delores Tucker had taken as to why gangsta rap was corrupting American youth.
Just before his death Biggie had notably applied some changes to the genre with the help of Puffy. Through the lens of acclaimed director Paul Hunter, he had ushered in the visual for the single Hypnotize moving away from the typical authentic street chronicle to a more movie-esque polished and heavily stunt-driven aesthetic, that in its infancy was to become synonymous with most Bad Boy promo. Yes, Puffy was predictably ‘all up in the video’ but the commercial push had helped to elevate its presence to the next level. Biggie had earned his title as wordsmith and storyteller. Similar to Slick Rick, he was the saviour to a generation that just scraped in with the millennials who are able to appreciate his significant influence on today’s hip-hop (let’s just forget Rich Homie Quan’s crucifixion of Biggie’s verse on Get Money).
Life After Death was an album that strategically covered all the bases. The commercial sound of Mo Money Mo Problems sampled Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out satisfying the pop junkies craving credibility, whilst Ten Crack Commandments continued where Ready To Die left off for the real hardcore hip-hop fanatics. Biggie’s verse on Notorious Thugs displayed his diversity, leaving little room to question his lyrical dexterity, as he was able to switch his usual flow to equally match the multisyllabic speed of his Bone, Thugs-n-Harmony collaborators.
There would be one more album released called Born Again through Bad Boy amid much criticism that Biggie’s artistry was being exploited. Puffy would go on to change his moniker multiple times, date Jennifer Lopez and become embroiled in further controversy following the 1999 club shooting involving up-and-coming rapper Shyne.
Biggie’s relatively small discography as an artist can in theory be added to the likes of Amy Winehouse and Aaliyah, short-lived but impactful in terms of musical legacy. Had he survived, in what direction would such a masterpiece as Life After Death have taken his career? It’s hard to tell, but his body of work has left an indelible mark on the world of hip-hop forever.