Before Biggie, nearly every rapper was a specialist. But Biggie was the complete package. Even Pharcyde’s Fatlip confessed that he felt inadequate next to Biggie’s overall excellence on record and in video. The fault of rappers in the post-Biggie era was thinking they could compete with him.
Puff Daddy maximized Biggie’s eclectic tastes on 1994’s Ready to Die: massive radio hits (“Juicy,” “Big Poppa,” “One More Chance”) coupled with murderously head-nodding odes to spitting on graves (“The What”), feeding artillery to canines (“Warning”), and the defining advantage of boxers over briefs (“Unbelievable”).
Whereas Hammer and Vanilla Ice mined the grooves of ’70s and ’80s rollerskating jams for massive sales at the beginning of the decade, Biggie sampled Mtume’s syrupy “Juicy Fruit” while sticking up Isuzu jeeps on “Gimmie the Loot.” Blunts were rolled next to bottles of Cristal, Army jackets were hung next to Coogi sweaters, and platinum plaques were offered up to Bed-Stuy.
But Life After Death upped the ante—Biggie had mastered every rap style under the sun by the tender age of 24. Never before had an MC owned the radio (“Hypnotize,” “Mo Money Mo Problems”), the mixtapes (“Kick in the Door”), the ’96 Knicks (“I Got a Story to Tell”), and every part of the map (“Going Back to Cali,” “Notorious Thugs”). Life After Death checked off every box over its two discs: storytelling, beefs, murder, mortality, paranoia, drugs, sex, and extravagance. To paraphrase Doug E. Fresh, any Biggie song you played, you’d immediately think to yourself, “Yo… Did that really happen?”
Biggie was one of the best rappers, but more crucially, he had one of the best ears. For Life After Death, he picked arguably the greatest collection of beats that had no place being together on any one album. RZA’s Stax Records obsession on “Long Kiss Goodnight” was pitted against Puffy’s Diana Ross jack move for “Mo Money Mo Problems”; DJ Premier’s whittling of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“Kick in the Door”) and Les McCann (“Ten Crack Commandments”) coexisted with Stevie J’s glossier crates—Barbara Mason (“Another”) and Liquid Liquid (“Nasty Boy”).
Biggie was right at home paying homage to Schoolly D, the dusted West Philly inventor of gangsta rap, and DMC, a graduate of St. John’s University. There was no sample source too funky (Zapp on “Going Back to Cali”) nor too melancholy (Al Green on “My Downfall”), and no beat presented any challenge.
Life After Death was released just two weeks after the unfortunate, premature death of this fearless rapper. For the 20th anniversary, it’s important to celebrate its greatest quality: Biggie’s otherworldly ability to make you like everything he liked.