“You walk down the street, you get shot.” Donald Trump’s one-sentence summation of America’s inner cities, derived from equal parts of heartless manipulation and baleful ignorance, was a well-known refrain from 2016’s soul-killing presidential race. Yet the cheapening of public discourse through self-centered exaggeration is hardly the domain of one man. Republicans have pedaled racial animosity and anti-altruism while soft-soaping lower-income whites with the everybody-can-be-a-billionaire canard to justify massive tax cuts for the few who actually are. The last thing I would think they needed was help from the same people they are targeting.
But that’s what came to mind recently when I became re-acquainted with rapper Notorious B.I.G’s double-album Life After Death, when I chose it for my latest entry in this ongoing series on pop music’s most notable double albums. It was released in 1997, just two weeks after he was killed in a Los Angeles drive-by shooting, a still-unsolved homicide that took place in the midst of the infamous East Coast-West Coast hip hop feud. In the aftermath of this tragedy, his sophomore effort became an instant milestone of rap and sold nearly 700,000 copies in the first week it was out. The title always seemed less tragically ironic and more like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that seems a little harsh, it also seems self-evident on an even casual listening.
A haunting outtake from photographer Michael Lavine’s night shoot for the album cover, taken at Brooklyn’s Cypress Hill Cemetery
The Brooklyn-raised Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls but born Christopher Wallace) is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee this year. He was a foremost proponent of smooth-flow East Coast style that was rife with lyrics depicting gang violence both real and imagined. For Biggie, who may have never outgrown his earlier days as a drug dealer, this world was more real than it was for others and was not overcome easily and only seemed to get more dangerous once he started selling boatloads of records (Biggie’s first CD, Ready to Die, was already double platinum by the time he was working on this follow-up). Paranoia, retribution and excessive braggadocio mixed with fatalism dominate these 24 tracks and despite the talent and ambition behind it my one big takeaway from Life After Death was, “You walk down the street you get shot.”
You know what you’re in for right from the front-cover photo of the unsmiling and physically imposing Biggie leaning against a hearse. Like many sweeping double albums before it, Life After Death begins with a prologue. It’s like a movie that shows a bit of the final scene before jumping back to the chronological start: our protagonist is in an emergency room, an EKG machine ominously beeping, as a friend encourages him to try and pull through. You hardly have time to ponder the disheartening real-life parallels before you’re right in the thick of it as the first song has him typically declaring “If I gotta die, you gotta die.” Things lighten up a bit with the hit single “Hypnotize” with its playful girl-group refrain. And you got to give props to his randy duet with R. Kelly. It features the Notorious chorus “I’m f#$%ing you tonight,” which finally just comes out and says what thousands of pop songs through the decades have only broadly hinted at.
Beyond that, it’s mostly “American Carnage” time (if I may borrow a charming catchphrase from Trump’s Nazi-lite inauguration speech), with endless recriminations followed by gun violence. The mayhem, to my ears anyway, is redundant and dulling when it’s supposed to be visceral and shocking. Over the album’s two hours there are more dead bodies left in its wake than a spaghetti western. But after all the implied castrations, anal rapes and murdering people in front of their screaming children, the fundamental disconnect of Life After Death is this: the complete and utter vacuum that exists in this world between poverty and excess.
It’s easy to fall under the sway of Biggie’s dexterous rhymes and silky rhythms. “Miss U” sounds like a classic soul jam from the 70s (elsewhere he name-checks the O’Jays and Stylistics) except for the part where a half-dozen bullets rip thru the side of his car, killing his (hopefully) fictional girlfriend. Still, it shows a more humane approach on an album often lacking in basic empathy.
In Biggie’s worldview, going from the mean streets of Brooklyn to a self-defined state of materialistic supremacy is the only thing that matters: there’s nothing between that Point A and B, least of all an African-American middle class. This observation may seem too trite, too white and altogether immaterial to his biggest fans, but any other mention of it might be helpful. Instead, this album has received almost unanimous, reflexive praise across the spectrum of the music press—look up the “Professional Ratings” on its Wikipedia page. I would hate to sound like the type of “Playa Hater” so disparaged in the lyrics. But Biggie’s perpetuation of lose-lose income disparity, between hopeless poverty and perilous success, ill-serves his target demographic in the worst way, even if it’s subliminal. Words matter, and these are not the “best words.” The overweening cartoon consumerism is seen by Biggie himself as its own ball-and-chain (see: “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems”), creating a bunker mentality caused by jealous enemies. It’s a dangerous game that is a literal dead end (“You’re Nobody Til Somebody Kills You”).
Of course, not every rap act is required to mine the social consciousness that informs the work of, say, Public Enemy or Wu Tang Clan. As with rock music, for every thoughtful performer like Bruce Springsteen there’s a bunch of nitwits like Motley Crue. Except Christopher Wallace was no dummy, and was in fact an English prodigy in his schoolboy days. This makes his constant victimizer/victim spiral so confounding and depressing. Christopher Wallace, the real man behind this persona, must have been smart enough to realize that the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats is the one true way out of this fatal game that he witnessed from both ends of the ladder. It would have been interesting to see how he would have evolved as an artist—hopefully moving way beyond the woeful narcissism and dangerous rhetoric our current president will drag with him into his own grave. Hopefully, I said, because there’s precious little hope to be found on this record.