Life After Death ...

With Eminem, Li'l Kim, Black Rob and others.

The long-promised Born Again is, at least in theory, the hip-hop

equivalent of "Weekend At Bernie's": it contains the late Notorious B.I.G.'s

demos, B-sides, spare verses and other detritus, cut with new production and

guest verses in the same sense that street heroin is cut with baby laxative.

The idea is to boost his posthumous rep as "the greatest rapper of all time"

— the phrase that appears at the end of the "Dead Wrong" video. Biggie

was a tremendous rapper, an unchained id with an unmistakable drawl and an

ear for the perfectly nasty detail. But he's not the greatest on the

strength of the two albums he completed before he was murdered at 25, and

he's got a lot of people propping him up here.

Of this disc's 18 tracks, 14 are brought up to regulation length by

"featured" guests, and that's not counting the opener (a bit of conversation

about what Biggie hoped to be doing in 10 years) or the

closer (a well-intentioned speech by his mom that fades out while she's

still talking). The extant fragments of B.I.G. are solid performances,

but sometimes very slim: "If I Should Die Before I Wake" is built out

of roughly 20 seconds' worth of Biggie tape, plus guest shots by newcomers

Black Rob and Beanie Sigel and a sleepwalking Ice Cube. If "I Really Want to

Show You" seems familiar, that's because it was called "Everyday Struggle"

when it was on Ready to Die, before K-Ci and Jo-Jo warbled all over

it and Nas swapped in a verse of his own. And the grave-robbing is only

beginning: about half of the tracks mentioned in The Source a few

months ago appear to have been held back for another album.

Improbably, Born Again is really fun. The mood is of a wake rather

than a funeral, and a rambunctious one: the legions of guests keep it packed

and varied, and an awful lot of them rise to the occasion. Eminem tears into

his verse of "Dead Wrong" (RealAudio

excerpt) like it's his one chance to prove himself, and knocks

it out of the park; "Notorious B.I.G." (RealAudio

excerpt), featuring the cheerfully nasty Li'l Kim, the cheerfully

bland Puff Daddy and a cheerfully inevitable sample of Duran Duran's

"Notorious," is a much better idea than it sounds like. Nobody wants to

waste a second of Biggie tape, so the production frames his lyrics like

jewels of wisdom, even when his gruesome misogyny and paeans to the casual

bloodshed that killed him are overpowering. The tracks bounce and snap

— special credit goes to the minimal plink of "Dangerous MCs"

(RealAudio

excerpt) which sounds equally spiffy under B.I.G.'s slurred threats

and Busta Rhymes' sugar-frenzy exhortations. The MCs sound like they're

thrilled to be in the studio with Biggie and generally talk about him in

the present tense. And why shouldn't they? His career's just kicking into

high gear.