Decades after his death, Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace, also known as The Notorious B.I.G., is still very much a legend. His impact on hip hop is irrefutable, and some people weren’t even a thought in 1997 (the year of his untimely death) but know the lyrics to his records like the back of their hands. The Notorious B.I.G.’s name carries the weight of a brick, as he’s arguably one of hip hop’s most well-known and spoken about legends. And even though his career came to an early halt, he’s regarded as one of the greatest to ever touch a mic.
In comes Justin Tinsley, a young and hungry journalist with a pen so exceptional and respected that when his publisher was sold on doing a biography on Biggie, he was the writer they called upon. Tinsley is a writer for ESPN’s Andscape (previously known as The Undefeated) and has always made it his mission to approach his stories from a cultural standpoint. Tinsley spent two years putting his journalistic skills to use by gathering interviews and stories from people who were around Biggie in all aspects of his life. The result? A birds-eye, holistic telling of not just the icon’s life but the Black experience in America at that time and most importantly, the stories behind the art that has changed the way hip hop is made, perceived, and consumed until this day.
By no means is telling The Notorious B.I.G.’s story an easy feat. His story has been told a million times through a million different art forms. His death has been studied and analyzed by everyone from experts to members of the general public, which poses the question, “What’s different with Tinsley’s retelling?” When asked, Tinsley told OkayPlayer, “What the hell do I tell people about the Notorious B.I.G. that they don’t already know? That’s a daunting task … I could tell you Biggie’s life story, but Biggie’s life story also encapsulates the world that he lived in.”
It’s worth mentioning that Tinsley does an excellent job of setting the scene by placing emphasis on the world Biggie lived in but, more specifically, the world every Black American lived in at the time. Instead of beginning his book (“It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him”) by focusing on Biggie and his early life in Brooklyn, Tinsley takes an alternative route by focusing on how events such as the crack era and Reaganomics were impacting Black communities, especially in the inner city. The renowned reporter does an exceptional job of placing the reader in the shoes of not just The Notorious B.I.G. but a large handful of Black Americans during the 80s.
There’s a difference between a journalist writing a book and an author attempting to do journalistic work, with the latter having better results. When “It Was All a Dream” begins to dive into Biggie’s early career, Tinsley’s journalistic skills are given opportune time to shine. From the new interviews with influential figures in Biggie’s life (such as Chico Del Vec, one of the founding members of Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Biggie’s longtime friend) to Tinsley’s talent for diving behind the headlines and finding the stories that exist, this isn’t your typical music biography.
Biggie’s debut album, Ready To Die, was released in September 1994 and he passed in March 1997; in less than three years, he built a career that still has people talking decades later. Tinsley spoke about this with Wbur.org. He said, “That was the extent of his career … and a quarter-century later, we’re still talking about this guy with the reverence of somebody who had a 30, 40, 50-year career. That leaves a difficult void, where all the music the then 24-year-old star could have made.”
Tinsley continued, “It’s so painful to think about where he could have taken his career because he was getting better as an artist at the time of his death … the last two songs that he recorded in his life were 24 hours before he was shot. So it’s painful to know that we never got a chance to see Biggie Smalls in his prime because he hadn’t yet hit his prime, believe it or not.”
As of 2022, we’ve heard about every track that Biggie has possibly recorded through several posthumous records. But when considering Biggie’s career on a broader scale, the amount of cultural impact Biggie had in just three short years is incredible. As a genre, hip hop has a habit of legendizing artists who passed early on in their careers, and at times it can feel inauthentic — as if they’re being viewed in that manner because of their death and not their work or impact. Still, for artists like Biggie and Tupac, that feeling is nonexistent. Every bit of praise Biggie receives feels well-deserved.
“It Was All A Dream” is the perfect book for both the casual hip hop fan and the passionate hip hop head. Tinsley’s journalistic skills and broader approach to the typical hip hop biography format make for an easy, engaging and informative read. To those who aren’t as familiar with hip hop and may question the immense hype surrounding The Notorious B.I.G. and his career, Tinsley’s retelling of his life story is the perfect introduction to who Biggie was, the stories behind his music, and the imperfect world that he navigated. For those who are more familiar, it gives insight into the imperfections behind the hip hop superstar we’ve all come to love while still paying homage to his magnificence. The new interviews featuring the key players in his world provide a unique perspective on his short-lived life, especially his early years in the game. It’s saddening to think about how far Biggie could’ve gone if he was only given more time. Still, hip hop and its community have done an incredible job of memorializing the legend; because of that, he’s been given Life After Death. “It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him” can be found at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and several other retailers both online and physically.
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