Twenty-five years ago today, the rap world welcomed one of its greatest exceptions.
Released just over two weeks after his tragic demise — nearly three years removed from his seminal debut album, Ready to Die — The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death is a historic cocktail of shapeshifting flows, Martin Scorsese-esque storytelling and dynamic hit-making. Doubling down on Biggie’s strengths while expanding the scope of his sound, the project distills the Brooklyn rapper in all his ruthless, virtuosic grace, making it one of the rare posthumous albums to add a meaningful chapter to a late artist’s legacy.
Checking in at 25 songs, the double album sees Biggie go any and everywhere sonically and thematically, merging luminous triple beam dreams with technicolor disco funk (“Mo Money Mo Problems”) and murderous overtures with dreary soul (“What’s Beef”). RZA, DJ Premier, Puff Daddy (now known as Diddy), Easy Mo Bee, Havoc and others supplied Biggie with the very best that the worlds of boom bap and commercial production had to offer. On the feature end of things, JAY-Z, 112, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, The Lox, Lil’ Kim and Ma$e popped out for the LP, with Big’s memorable Bone Thugs impression (“Notorious Thugs”) being a standout moment of the collaborations. There are get money celebrations (“Hypnotize”) and gloomy ruminations on death (“You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)”). There are aspirational anthems (“Sky’s the Limit”) and pained reminiscences (“Miss U”). There’s even Biggie’s declassified drug dealer survivor guide (“10 Crack Commandments”).
Drug dealing and street economics are still present on Life After Death, but they’re a lot more fun this time around. On Ready to Die, Big made a name for himself through hungry, worker-level street tales, but Life After Death sees him indulge in the mythic mafioso stories of the era. On tracks like “Niggas Bleed,” he renders a cinematic gangster fantasy with unsparing, writerly details and conversational ease. In just a few minutes, he introduces a detailed timeline for a hardened criminal and recaps an old beef before concluding a tale of a drug deal gone wrong. He’s even got time to make a quip about Maxi Priest because, as Biggie knew, the best dramas still make room to get jokes off. Biggie dives into humor again on “I Got a Story to Tell,” a hilarious detour that gives way to a story about cheating with a certain NBA player’s love interest.
Quippy exchanges and crime-thriller epics are dope, but they’re also just a couple of parts of Biggie’s overall appeal. Executive produced by Diddy, Life After Death also provides some of Biggie’s most indelible singles. For the Ma$e, Diddy and Kelly Price-assisted “Mo Money Mo Problems,” Diddy repurposes a joyous Diana Ross sample to create an energetic reflection on the ironic burden of wealth. The track topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart shortly after its 1997 release. Meanwhile, songs like “Going Back to Cali” and “Hypnotize” also helped epitomize the shiny suit era, except Biggie’s effortless flow made the tracks hard to compare to subsequent adopters of the style.
Threaded by introspection, charm, production wizardry and all-around songwriting know-how, Life After Death avoids the typical monotony of double albums; its malleable aesthetic and thematic diversity ensure compelling thrills whether they’re Hot 100 singles or harrowing gangster tales from the heart of street rap. Guiding it all is Biggie himself, whose conversational flows, eye for specifics and knack for tongue-in-cheek humor replaced empty gangster bluster with three-dimensional portraits of thug opulence and all the perils that come with it.
Grand but never too self-serious, profound yet endlessly fun, Life After Death represents Biggie at his peak — and is one of the very best posthumous albums ever released. With Big in elevated form and Diddy facilitating production, it’s a fully realized vision for the peak of late 90s gangsta rap and a reminder of the potential Big still had at the time of his passing.
The title Life After Death was meant to be the logical sequel to Ready to Die — the signal of a new phase for his then-still unfolding career. Now, 25 years later, Biggie’s first posthumous album itself evokes its name because of its quality; a creation that continues to resonate long after the death of its creator.