When debates arise about the best song from The Notorious B.I.G. many will pinpoint to “Juicy” for the superior storytelling skills and its mainstream breakthrough. Some will say it’s “Big Poppa” for establishing one of his many monikers. Others will argue “Hypnotize” for its addictive chorus and being his first to go No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100. “One More Chance” and “Mo Money Mo Problems” also come in the running for their iconic music videos and legendary samples of DeBarge and Diana Ross, respectively.
For me personally, I would contest that The Notorious B.I.G.’s best is his Life After Death deep cut “My Downfall.” In fact, it’s not just my favorite Biggie song; it’s my favorite of hip-hop history, period — above Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” Wu-Tang Clan’s “Triumph,” and Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones, Part II.”
As a 90s baby — like many others — music became essential (and crucial) to shaping my personality. I grew up with grandparents notorious for blasting soul records and nostalgic 70s disco jams from a record player connected to giant house speakers in their den during family gatherings. That way of life would be passed on to my mother and uncle, who would sit by those same speakers on countless nights, dissecting the greatness in Mary J. Blige, A Tribe Called Quest, and Kanye West. That would lead to my adoration for all the aforementioned, repeating that behavior with doses of Rihanna-led pop&B — ultimately prompting my foray into music journalism.
The person who I share the closest music bond with (and nearly identical tastes) is my mother. So much so, that we decided to run a joint music blog together as a means to establish writing practice, but to also stay connected during my undergrad studies at NYU. As she always recalls it, I would dance in my carseat as an infant who could barely walk, while she would ride around to 112, Aaliyah, and Toni Braxton. She even combined part of her middle name and inversed Sade’s to create mine, with a rather unique spelling. And like mother, like son, my favorite rapper was forever The Notorious B.I.G.
Christopher George Latore Wallace — who would have turned 46 today (May 21) — is undeniably the greatest rapper of all time. He templated the definition of G.O.A.T. His charismatic, relaxed, and witty flow set him apart from the JAY-Zs, the Nases, and the Snoop Doggs. It’s like he didn’t have to try — his shit was effortless. There’s not a single bad verse delivered or a song he didn’t master into a potential hit. When it comes to his catalogue, he’s scored a perfect 100 (features and all) — and even then earned extra credit for simply having a gritty personality that always was larger than life.
While most select his 1994 debut, Ready To Die, as the classic of his two studio LPs, I’ve always preferred Life After Death. There’s no denying the mastery presented on Ready: The storytelling is immaculate, the samples are genuine, the concept simply brilliant.
But think about it… He only went up from there with more experience in the game and additional life challenges by the time of his sophomore release in 1997. It’s almost as if Life After Death modernized rap as we know it today. Each song has an element of hip-hop’s past origins of displaying the personal narrative; the then-present Bad Boy ideology of flashing arrogant riches through Mafioso wordplay and exuberant production; and the future trends of establishing catchy, commercial hooks that seemed relatable to the everyman and woman (regardless of ethnicity or social class).
Both striking and haunting, the album cover features the rapper dressed as a pallbearer standing next to his own hearse with a license plate that reads “B.I.G.” The LP’s release two weeks after The Notorious B.I.G.’s tragic death in real life ironically cemented a more earnest legacy for Life After Death. It debuted at No. 176 on the Billboard 200 albums chart before jumping to No. 1 the following week — making for his first album to do so. Life After Death earned three Grammy nominations and topped the 1997 Year-End chart for Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. It’s one of only seven rap albums to go diamond in RIAA certifications.
As an ambitious two-volume set of 24 tracks, Life After Death contains a plethora of exemplary hip-hop moments on wax. Starting with the “Intro,” the LP picks up from Ready To Die with a TV-styled recap of Biggie taking his own life on “Suicidal Thoughts.” It’s revealed in a hospital room — where best bud (and executive producer) Sean “Puffy” Combs pleads in a monologue for the inevitable to not happen — that B.I.G. flatlines. From there, The Notorious slips into a stream of consciousness in the afterlife with a Mafioso flare, clever punchlines, stunning guest features, and most importantly, music making history.
There’s way too many delectable bits: A baby crying during the robbery shootout mayhem of “Somebody’s Gotta Die”; The LOX repping New York on “Last Day”; JAY-Z finessing his Reasonable Doubt-swagga alongside Biggie and Angela Winbush on “I Love The Dough”; the opening “ha, ha, ha, ha, ha”-turned-barz on “What’s Beef?”; a master lesson on what not to do in the drug game on “Ten Crack Commandments”; Notorious falsetto singing and Puffy ad libbing “wake your ass up” on “Playa Hater”; and 112 sounding like harmonious R&B angels on “Sky’s The Limit.” These intricate details are what makes the record pop, setting it apart from many other hip-hop LPs.
Life After Death also asserts the notion that The Notorious B.I.G. is the Greatest Of All Time, because he has a wide-ranging versatility. As my mom has always explained it to me, a rapper needs to not only have the ability to develop their own signature sound and draw listeners into their world as uniquely as possible — they need to be able to adapt their peers’ styles and then elevate them.
For her, The Notorious B.I.G. accomplishes this feat best on “Notorious Thugs,” where he spins Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s fast-paced Cleveland vernacular into his own Brooklyn drawl. With their unorthodox 1996 hit single “Tha Crossroads,” Bone Thugs-n-Harmony were referred to as arguably the hottest hip-hop act at the time. Hearing Biggie casually spit, “Shit, lyrically, niggas can’t see me/Fuck it, buy the coke, cook the coke, cut it,” for the first time had become her favorite moment on wax ever. This ideology is quite fitting: Even on “Going Back To Cali,” Biggie acknowledges the East Coast-West Coast feud by flipping the latter region’s signature g-funk sound.
With all of this in mind, here’s why I believe “My Downfall” — Life After Death’s second track from the last — is the best of all time.
First, it’s placement on the conceptually-whole LP is of no coincidence. Since the start of Life, Notorious had been building (and successfully proving) a case for being the G.O.A.T. in hip-hop. With that territory comes rivalries — and as the Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels’s featured-hook suggests, “MCs have the gall to pray and pray for [Biggie’s] downfall.” This subtle diss towards his spiteful nemeses actually mocks the fact that they can not work hard enough on their own to obtain lyrical greatness and star power. Instead, they have to trust in a deity force of some kind to cause harm to their competition.
Conceptually and lyrically, “My Downfall” can’t be touched. At the beginning, B.I.G. receives random death threats over the phone — something based on his actual real life experiences as the East Coast-West Coast rivalry persisted stronger after 2Pac’s death. From there, Puffy rants about jealousy, attributing that to a sign of weakness from their haters.
The Notorious opens his verse in memorable fashion: “I dream filthy/My moms and pops mixed me with Jamaican Rum and Whiskey/Huh, what a set off.” Part of that line would go on to be sampled in Foxy Brown’s reggae-fused verse in 2001’s “Oh Yeah.” She wouldn’t be the only one sampling some of the song’s quotable lines, as future-soul trio Diddy-Dirty Money would interpolate the stanza beginning “Ain’t no shook hands in Brook-land,” and ending “Kinda quiet, watch my niggas bring a riot,” in 2010’s “Angels.”
With too many bars to select from, the flow, autobiographical candidness, and rhyme scheme of “Apologies in order to T’yanna my daughter/If it was up to me, you would be with me/Sorta like Daddy Dearest, my vision be the clearest” will forever be my personal favorite. Similar to “Juicy,” B.I.G. maps out his rise from a drug-dealing past to becoming one of the most envied and wealthiest rappers — “I went from ashy to nasty to classy, and still” being one of the song’s best lyrical examples.
Sonically, “My Downfall” tied in elements of the old with the new. The instrumental samples the violin-esque portion of Al Green’s 1972 classic “For The Good Times,” with a deadly, ominous twist. The hook is lifted from Run-D.M.C.’s 1984 cut “Together Forever,” and the end of the song includes turntable scratches akin to the legendary group’s sound — making McDaniels’s feature all the more special. What’s always drawn me further into “My Downfall” is the female background singer harmonizing “and pray, and pray” alongside the chorus, where she’d operatically riff at the song’s end — a component that never goes wrong on any hip-hop song if executed correctly (see: The Roots’s “You Got Me” featuring Erykah Badu (or Jill Scott) and Wu-Tang Clan’s “Second Coming” featuring Tekitha).
But the main reason why “My Downfall” is truly my ultimate favorite is it’s relatability factor. Anyone at some point of their life can connect to excelling at something just to have jealousy and sabotage from others come in their direction. I’m relatively new to the world of professional music journalism, with little over a year under my belt. And although I have accomplished much in that short amount of time — including some bylines for publications that others wished they could have — and been championed by some of the best writers and editors in the field, I have encountered some shady moments from others due to my talents.
Being someone who naturally loves music, to the point where it’s become a necessity in life, has instilled a dedicated passion and thoroughness in my craft. Currently — just like any other profession — it’s starting to become evident who’s in the field (writing fluff) just for free concert tickets, celebrity photo ops, and subpar accolades, but have no true regard for the hustle and drive that goes into reporting and critiquing accurately and insightfully. There are some who don’t truly value the gift of music the most talented artists in the industry give us. And as countless social media posts have called out, there’s still a long way to go with publications giving black and minority artists their due respect.
By the way of Diddy, one of the most valuable lessons that The Notorious B.I.G. has ever taught me, particularly on “My Downfall,” is to not let the haters discourage you, because they’re not even strong enough to stand for themselves. In his lifetime, The Notorious B.I.G. always had an attitude of a G.O.A.T. His path to showing everyone and manifesting that reality was through authenticity. He finessed and improved upon his talents, and then ran with it to ultimately change the game. At the end of the day, that’s the true spirit of hip hop — and practically life existence in general.
More from Da’Shan Smith: