Lasting legacy of a thug Review: That Biggie Smalls is gone too soon is no reason to buy the ugliness he left behind.

March 25, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Like many rap records these days, the new Notorious B.I.G. album, "Life After Death" (Bad Boy 73011, arriving in stores today), begins with a bit of theater. It's a variation on a scenario rap fans have heard many times before, with an increasingly agitated man trying to head off an altercation.

It ends, as these things invariably do, with the dull crack of gunfire. "Hey, yo, Big!" cries the rapper's anguished companion as ambulance sirens wail. Cut to an intensive-care unit, where Biggie's buddy pleads as a monitor beeps ominously. "You got too much livin' to do. Too much unfinished business," he says. "It ain't over." But as the monitor slows to flatline, we know that it is.

In truth, the life of Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G., has been over for two weeks now. He was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles on March 9, the second major rap star to have been gunned down in the last six months. Although Los Angeles police have so far made no arrests, they are reportedly investigating leads tying the shooting to a war between factions of two L.A. gangs, the Bloods and the Crips.

Talk about art imitating death.

"Life After Death" is so full of imminent death and dark coincidence that it's creepy. That we go, in 23 tracks spread across two CDs, from "Somebody's Gotta Die" to "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)," is already enough to make the album seem eerily premonitory; there are even subtler presagings to be found between the lines of such raps as "Miss U," "Going Back to Cali" and "My Downfall."

Nor has anything been altered to enhance that effect, for as a press release assures us, "Life After Death" was released "in its entirety as it was recorded and manufactured prior to March 9, 1997."

Not that it would have needed a push. Before the shooting, B.I.G.'s stature seemed to ensure that the album would sell well in its first week of release. Now, of course, it's virtually guaranteed to top the charts -- No. 1 with a bullet, in the most literal sense.

Don't expect the album to evoke much pity, though. There's too much cold criminality in these raps for that. Unlike Tupac Shakur, whose self-destructive violence was shot through with flashes of intelligence and warmth, Biggie Smalls comes across as a thug, pure and simple. There's nothing but gleeful vengeance in "Somebody's Gotta Die," selfishness and contempt in "[Expletive] You Tonight."

It's hard to like Biggie even when he's trying to be playful. "Another," a relentlessly obscene duet with Lil' Kim, is a case in point. Although the rap is meant to be an exercise in he said/she said -- an update on the sort of sparring Otis Redding and Carla Thomas did on "Tramp" -- what comes through isn't playful aggression but just plain ugliness. It's enough to leave you wishing for a 2 Live Crew reunion.

Traditionally, the excuse given for such excess is that the rapper is drawing from his own life experience -- "keepin' it real," as they say. That would certainly explain some of the raps here, such as "Ten Crack Commandments," a simple how-to that undoubtedly owes its insights to Smalls' own days as a crack dealer in Brooklyn. But is that any reason to commit this garbage to record?

All that might have been forgivable had B.I.G. balanced his violence and venality with something of musical merit. But not even high-profile cameos by R. Kelly, Lil' Kim, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Too $hort can camouflage Biggie's inadequacies as a rapper.

"Notorious Thugs," the track with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, is typical; although the rhythm track's spooky shuffle is perfect for the Thugs' rapid-fire sing-song. Biggie can't find the groove, and instead of emulating BTNH's dance hall-derived delivery, his cadences come across as an awkward imitation of Miami Bass. And after hearing him try to sing in embarrassingly amelodic "Playa Hater," all I can say is, Come back, Biz Markie! All is forgiven!

"Life After Death" is not only unlikable, but also unoriginal. From the deep-thumping pulse of "Hypnotized" (a tricked-up version of bass line from George Clinton's "Atomic Dog") to the jangly funk of "Mo Money Mo Problems" (built on a sample from Diana Ross' "Coming Out"), the album's greatest strength seems to be petty thievery. The only original idea on the album is to steal from tracks other rappers have ignored (like Schoolly D's "PSK -- What Does It Mean?").

But that seems an apt memorial for the Notorious B.I.G. For what better way to remember a man whose artistic persona lionized hustling than with an album that is, in every sense, a rip-off?

Biggie's

To hear excerpts from the Notorious B.I.G.'s new release, "Live After Death," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6109. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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