Ten years ago, on March 25, 1997, the Notorious B.I.G. released his epic double-LP, Life After Death. Probably the closest thing to listening to Biggie on the album is watching Kobe Bryant score 81 points against the Toronto Raptors. Biggie was effortless, flawless, inexorable.
For this writer, Life After Death holds a very special place: It’s simply the most irresistible thing I’ve ever heard, and it’s my personal my favorite hip-hop album ever — yes, ever! A debate at my desk between me and my colleague Sway over which Big album is better — 1994′s Ready to Die (another of my favorites) or Life After Death — actually led directly to the Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time” piece and its two sequels: “Greatest MCs” and “Greatest Groups.”
By the time Life After Death was finished, shortly before Biggie’s death on March 9 of that year, there was no doubt that he was the king and that the rest of the world was starting to get lapped. Nobody in rap was making more hits.
“It’s sort of like a dude coming from high school to the pros,” said Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, who was the head of Bad Boy A&R and captain of Puff Daddy’s production dream team, the Hitmen. Besides acting as the A&R rep for Life After Death, D-Dot’s chief contribution to the album was creating the track for its first single, “Hypnotize.”
“There wasn’t a lot of room to go back to the basics, we had to let him do him,” the legendary producer added. “Once he got in the studio and realized the art of making music, getting comfortable with his voice, he started slowing the vocals down a little bit [and] the melodies became a little more prevalent. He approached it a lot more creatively. [Biggie's 1994 LP] Ready to Die was his autobiography, and Life After Death was a observation of what Ready to Die was and what he was going to be. We took the approach like Life After Death was going to be a movie and it was going to look at [Biggie's] life.”
Life After Death was crafted by culling D-Dot and the Hitmen’s best beats, as well as those from some key outsiders Biggie was a heavy fan of — such as the RZA, Havoc from Mobb Deep and DJ Premier — and close friends from his camp, like Easy Mo Bee and DJ Clark Kent.
The first song recorded for the album is the first full one you hear on it, “Somebody’s Gotta Die.” Biggie already proved to be a master of storytelling on his Ready to Die debut, with records like “Everyday Struggle” and “Me and My B—h,” but “Somebody’s Gotta Die” — produced by Nashiem Myrick and Carlos Broady — was the next step in that evolutionary process. The dark, stirring song finds Biggie in the center of fictional tale of revenge and regret. His attention to detail was so remarkable, from the sound effects — a knock at a door, duct tape being unraveled — to him rapping over one of his own conversations, also about retaliation. Biggie’s voice was every bit as gripping as Orson Welles’ on his “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcasts — especially in the ill plot twist at the end, when Biggie shoots his foe, who’s holding a crying infant in his arms. “N—a turned around holding his daughter.”
And that’s just how Life After Death starts. Neither of the album’s two discs ever relents. Whether it’s the sheer merriment you feel when you listen to “Mo Money Mo Problems,” the unadulterated rough flow on “Long Kiss Goodnight,” the lyrical tutorial Biggie gives on “My Downfall” or the untainted brashness of “F— You Tonight,” no MC has been able make a double LP, let alone a single long player, that measures up to the standard Biggie set on this opus.
Each song became sort of like a scene to an Oscar-caliber movie musical. Another strength of Biggie’s was his ear for music: One of the reasons why some other MCs who were in close range to Biggie lyrically but fell short is because they didn’t have the right beats to accompany their words. That was never a problem with the Notorious one. Having the best producers at the time at your disposal is one thing, but knowing the right tracks to use from them is another. It was Biggie himself who chose the soundscape to the DJ Premier-produced “Ten Crack Commandments” — the rapper heard Jeru Da Damaja rapping over the beat on a radio commercial and convinced DJ Premo to let him get it for the album. It was also Biggie who turned a deaf ear to Diddy when the Bad Boy CEO shunned Premier’s “Kick in the Door” track, and recorded it anyway.
“The majority of the beats that was on Biggie’s album was a agreement type of thing,” D-Dot said. “He liked it, I liked it, Puff liked it. There were very few times when all of us didn’t like the same beat and that would be problems. But Biggie didn’t really like Puff to be in the studio when he was recording. I made most of the Life After Death album in the studio with Biggie and we let Puff approve what he liked and didn’t like.”
Needless to say, there was little left on the cutting-room floor. Like Kobe against the Raptors, Biggie was in the zone. The studio sessions at New York recording studio Daddy’s House became infamous, according to those working on the album. Women were flown in from all over the country and heavy partying stayed in rotation. The crew sometimes stopped sessions to go to the movies or the nightclubs and come back and record.
Biggie was coming off career highs — working with Michael Jackson and R. Kelly, killing the clubs and the charts with the Conspiracy album he’d just put out with his crew Junior M.A.F.I.A., seeing the group’s Lil’ Kim step out on her own and go platinum. All the while, Ready to Die was still a fan favorite, almost three years after its bow. Biggie had so much to say and apparently felt his skills were so advanced that he just kept recording — which led to Life After Death becoming a double LP.
“He was already talking about what his third album was going to sound like,” D-Dot said. “That’s why we named [the posthumous project] Born Again. That was his idea.
“I can’t tell you what his favorite song from Life After Death was,” D-Dot continued, “but I know he loved ‘Going Back to Cali,’ I know he loved ‘You’re Nobody (‘Til Somebody Kills You).’ I know he loved the joint he was singing on, ‘Playa Hater,’ because he loved singing. He loved ‘Ten Crack Commandments’ because he knew that was hip-hop classic. When he finished that, he said, ‘This is going to be a classic for n—as.’ I think he knew that if he was around to support it, it could be possibly the biggest-selling album, close to Thriller sales. It still sold 10 million [copies,] and he was dead when it came out. Imagine if he was alive to support it and do the tours and movies that was set up for him. He never even got a chance to perform any songs on the album.
“He was a student of hip-hop, and he really just wanted to be the best MC ever. That’s really the legacy of Biggie,” D-Dot concluded.
Check out the feature “Biggie: Excerpts From the Life” for a closer look at the legendary rapper in his words and those of his friends — and look for Biggie in the “Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time” and “Greatest MCs of All Time” features.