Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the Notorious B.I.G.’s second studio album, Life After Death (1997) — the sequel to the Brooklyn rapper’s 1994 debut, Ready to Die, which picks up the storyline of that album moments after its final song, “Suicidal Thoughts.” With Life After Death, Biggie had the unenviable assignment of crafting a follow-up to one of the best hip hop albums of all time. It would not be an easy task, but rather than shy away from it, B.I.G. “sequelized” — and laid the groundwork for his opus during 1994 and ‘95. Adopting the “mafioso mentality” was integral to this evolution: Weaving street-level NYC lifestyle into the raps was a precedent set by Ready to Die and Nas’s Illmatic, but with Life After Death, B.I.G. builds on the style of Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (1995) and Nas’ It Was Written (1996), leaning into a wide-screen saga of lavish-living and of his crime boss alter ego Frank White (named after the main character of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film King of New York), one of many monikers B.I.G. took on during his hip hop reign.
Another important influence on this album was Tupac Shakur’s All Eyez On Me (1996), the first double album in hip hop history (the second was Life After Death). At the time, B.I.G. consciously aimed to top his friend-turned-rival; however, over the years, many have questioned if making his own effort into a double as well was really the correct call. Compared to Ready to Die‘s 17 tracks, Life After Death clocks in at 25 (23 if you remove “Intro” and “B.I.G. Interlude”). Could B.I.G. and the Bad Boy camp have cut some of the less memorable songs (“Another,” “Playa Hater,” and “Miss U”) — especially considering there’s an alternate “clean version” of Life After Death with only 14 tracks — to make a tighter, more concise album? In all honesty, yes: The first disc of Life After Death is almost flawless (save for the slightly out-of-place “B.I.G. Interlude”), while the second is much more uneven and unruly. However, one also has to consider the breadth of material on this album — the way it functions as a compilation of popular radio hits, rugged street singles, and deep-cut personal stories. The ambition to put all of these together, to pull off that trifecta of tastes on one album, is largely non-existent in modern-day hip hop releases.
In terms of the rhymes — the real hook of B.I.G.’s music — the entertaining storytelling that B.I.G. carried off so masterfully is still a cut above most emcees of today, especially on songs like “I Love the Dough” and “I Got a Story to Tell.” The latter, in particular, is notable for the “legend” of its subject matter, concerning an unnamed woman and making reference to an unnamed player for the New York Knicks. “She get dick from a player off the New York Knicks […] She’s stressing me to fuck, like she was in a rush / We fucked in his bed, quite dangerous / I’m in his ass while he playing against the Utah Jazz / My 112 CD blast, I was past / She came twice, I came last, roll the grass…” The story could be a complete fabrication — just some clever wordplay to make rhymes using the Knicks and the Jazz — but in the years since B.I.G.’s passing, many outlandish yarns have been confirmed true by the likes of Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Lil’ Cease, Faith Evans, Jadakiss, and other close confidants. The vividness of the rhymes adds further fuel to that fire: “…She giggle, saying, ‘I’m smoking on homegrown’ /Then, I heard a moan, ‘Honey, I’m home!’ / Yup, tote chrome for situations like this.” The sticky situation continues, as B.I.G. narrowly escapes, only after threatening to shoot his way out. At the least, the story has had fans and New Yorkers poring over the era, analyzing the Knicks’ roster from 1995 to ‘97, trying to identify anyone who may have interacted with or had an issue with B.I.G.
Even with his career cut short at age 24, B.I.G. is still recognized as one of the most prolific storytellers in hip hop — and it’s the size of Life After Death (and to a lesser extent his unfinished third album, Born Again, which was rumored to have been a triple-disc offering) that shores up that legacy. Had B.I.G.’s life not ended when it did, where he might fit into today’s hip hop landscape (or even the hip hop landscape of the late ‘90s/early 2000s) is a subject of endless debate. But 25 years later, we can at least say both that B.I.G. was a generational talent, and that his work matters and still sounds vital today. In terms of lyrical content and overall production on this album, nothing sounds all that dated, with songs like “Going Back to Cali” and “Hypnotize” — thanks in part to a high-quality remaster — holding their own on contemporary rap playlists (though, sure, if you’ve only listened to hip hop for the last ten years, some of the beats don’t have the heavy, heaving bass of the trap era). But looking back, it’s clear that Life After Death is an album true to the paradox of its title: It’s more polished in some ways than its predecessor, but also still thick with a rugged ‘90s hip hop sound. If it’s ultimately an inferior sequel, it also exhibited the noticeable growth of its author. And most importantly, in its perfectly imperfect way, the album transcends ever feeling like a relic of the past, and instead sticks in your consciousness like an important life experience. True to its author, it’s simply too big to ignore.