January 12, 2012

Image via Up North Trips

You can guess what Abe Beame’s Spotify looks like.

A natural progression for great young writers often includes an apprenticeship based on autobiographical material and intense emotion. As the writer matures and spends his personal capital, the focus centers on craft: ironing out dialogue, developing character and story. It’s hard not to see this arc playing out in Christopher Wallace’s brief body of work. Ready to Die was an exhilarating and terrifying walk in Biggie’s shoes, his Invisible Man, his Bigger Thomas. As previously discussed, the album’s conclusion signaled an end of a certain urgency in Wallace’s narratives.

Life After Death is a kaleidoscopic showcase of an artist only beginning to understand how to flex his prodigal abilities. In comparison to the claustrophobia of the first album, one can’t help but feel a sense of remove. This is where Wallace often receives criticisms when people assess the two disc sophomore effort. Here, Wallace’s technique is elevated to a level of mastery. It’s no coincidence that Big’s new-found calm allows him to exhibit godlike control over the worlds created on Life After Death. “Somebody’s Gotta Die” is an ideal place to begin the discussion.

The story that opens Biggie’s opus has familiar beginnings. It’s late at night, and a visitor brings bad news. The immediate precursor is “Warning”, with its 5:46 AM disorientation and confusion. While the earlier narrative takes place over the phone, this bearing of bad news occurs in person, and Biggie milks the moment for all its paranoid drama.

The last album closed with Wallace haunted by nightmares of wrongs committed to his mother and baby’s mom — a traumatic, unshakeable impoverished past. Before the knock at the door that will launches the story, Big dreams of private planes and platinum sales. The point’s clear: the young man has made it and his eyes face forward, not back.  No protagonist plays a part here. Though it’s certainly a fictive version of himself,  we’re meant to believe this is the Notorious B.I.G. telling us his story. This is crucial because Biggie uses this premise to deliver an array of imaginative gems.

It starts immediately, with Biggie declaring in an aside: “Puff won’t even know what happened.”  Just because Big has graduated from crack to records, don’t think he’s above getting blood on his hands. He can brag about Benjamins but still weave his hyper-realized Goines tales about a rapper who can still get gutter when need be,.

The ambiguity of the opening scene also reveals a writer with a nose for opportunity and flare for minor detail. We’re with Biggie as he inspects this armed, bloodied late night visitor. Is he friend or foe? It’s a great way to suck us into the story, ratchet suspense up,  and help us understand the stakes at play. We also get a glimpse at a nascent maturity. While Wallace’s immediate response is retaliation, he’s simultaneously selecting weaponry, strategizing and plotting an alibi as he digests the murder of his friend D-Rock. This is a far cry from the young man’s idea of opting to fire on police men when being pursued for a stick-up.

In the second verse, we get a well-sketched back story of how D-Rock and Jason’s partnership went sour. It’s fantastical but ambiguous.. Did D-Rock set Jason up? It’s left up to us to decide, but it doesn’t seem to matter. They killed D-Rock — whether or not there was reason, retaliation is a must. But again the small touches make the verse. Biggie pauses the back story, mid-verse, to urge the messenger, his boy Sing, not to overload his gat for fear of jamming. It’s a great detail, but it also simultaneously gives us a vision of the two, loading clips as Sing tells the story and they prepare to head out seeking vengeance. There’s also the great moment where Biggie pauses to ask what type of guns were used to kill Jason, pausing to get a writerly detail as well as figure out what kind of ammunition his enemies are holding.

The final verse is a masterpiece. Big contradicts himself with “fuck all that planning shit.” It harkens back to the wild gunman of Ready to Die, yet a moment later he’s stressing caution: My favorite part is the moment of foreshadowing that Big leaves us with right before the twist ending: “I start to get a funny feelin.” As Jason turns around, daughter in hand, shots already fired, Biggie changes the entire thrust of the story. What came off as a righteous quest for revenge has to be re-examined. Biggie, already a famous rapper, gets sucked into a reactionary assassination due to the murder of an old friend who may have had it coming. By murdering a child, he commits the very offense he has cautioned against . The very hook has to be re-examined: did somebody really have to die?

This kind of ambiguity, the asides and details strewn throughout this story are a sign of real maturity and development. While there are more songs on Life After Death, there are less stories. The narrative driven album cuts on Ready to Die make way for shit talking and style collaborations alongside Bone Thugs, the Lox, and Jay-Z. However, the few dedicated stories on this album capture an even more poignant nuance than ever before.

MP3: The Notorious B.I.G.-“Somebody’s Gotta Die”