My dad was the greatest rapper ever, and his legacy lives on.
—“The Greatest Rapper” interlude, spoken by Christopher ‘CJ’ Wallace
It is a truly heinous tribute that forces the critic into the position of negatively reevaluating the talent of its posthumous subject. I’ve always regarded the ongoing debate over the “greatest MC of all time” to be a singularly specious pastime, an unfortunate side-effect of the masculine competitive spirit that has animated hip-hop since its earliest beginnings, not to mention a reductive dismissal of the actual artistry involved. Before there were more than a handful of rappers in existence, there were claimants to the imaginary title: way back when “Rapper’s Delight” hit the streets, Master G was already saying “I’m going down in history / As the baddest rapper there ever could be”. Obviously Master G didn’t do a lot else to earn the title, but that hasn’t stopped every subsequent MC from putting their hands on the fictional crown.
If there ever was a literal crown, it would probably look something like that worn by the Notorious B.I.G. on the cover of Duets. The advantages of placing this crown on the head of a dead man are obvious: who’s going to argue with a ghost, let alone the dead man’s cherubic offspring, grieving wife and reverent peers?
I guess it just isn’t enough to say that he was a fantastic rapper who died far too early. No, he has to be elevated almost to the level of a deity, a faultless god in burnished marble, a musical icon of inestimable significance. As a rapper, it pays to buy into this myth, insomuch as anyone seen to be paying insufficient or insincere tribute to their forebears will be dismissed almost entirely out of hand.
Well, fuck that. I’m a critic, I’ve never rapped a verse in my life, and I’m about as white as you can be without being an albino. Despite all this, I’ve listened to a lot of hip-hop over the years. I’ve seen a lot of hype and spin, and the Notorious B.I.G.‘s postmortem career is probably the best example of both I’ve ever seen. As Diddy intones repeatedly throughout the album, B.I.G. was the “Greatest of All Time”—what other asset can a dead rapper possibly have besides his unassailable reputation?
It’s this reputation that has inspired the compilation of Duets, probably the closest the rap world will ever come to a unified statement a la “We Are the World”. You name it, pretty much everyone’s here—Jay-Z, Eminem, Snoop, Nas, Ludacris, Nelly, Missy, R. Kelly, Fat Joe, Mary J. Blige, Scarface… they’ve even arranged for a few posthumous duos, roping in the likes of Big Pun, Bob Marley and (inevitably) Tupac. For no apparent reason, Korn show up too. Diddy and Faith Evans appear throughout the entire album.
But all these guests, this endless star-studded cavalcade of platinum-dripping hip-hop royalty, only serves to obscure the presence of the ostensible man of the hour. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the copious cameos further accentuate the big man’s absence.
Unlike Tupac, B.I.G. didn’t leave a lot in the way of unfinished recordings. As such, the estate hasn’t had a lot to work with in the ensuing years—there has only been one posthumous album, Born Again, and that did little to add to his legend. In the meantime, those entrusted with ensuring his legacy and protecting the commercial viability of his limited catalog have had to work triple-time, in the place of actual product, to keep his name on people’s lips. In doing so, however, they have overreached to almost comical effect, as we see in Diddy’s verse from the album’s “It Has Been Said”:
“I took him from coal to diamond, /
I molded his mind, /
Into the most phenomenal artist of any and all time, /
I made a Frankenstein, my design impressed, /
Backpackers and press who said my house was a mess, /
Critics lashed and said I made a fortune off of his passing, /
All I did was make a dynasty off of his passion.”
Later on in the song, he goes so far as to predict B.I.G.‘s eventual “resurrection”, in the form of someone fit to wear his lyrical “crown of thorns”. It would be comical if he didn’t seem so damn sincere about it, in addition to the fact that Diddy doesn’t seem to see any irony at all in the fact that “[making] a fortune off his passing” and “[making] a dynasty off his passion” are effectively the same thing. Biggie died for our sins—and to pave the way for Boyz N Da Hood. I believe that Diddy has probably passed the point where he can perceive the difference between crass exploitation and honest reverence—but that’s between him and his analyst.
As specious as it sounds, they’ve elevated Biggie’s reputation to such absurdly stratospheric levels that, at this point, the only way to go is down. It is possible to inflate an artist’s reputation so much that a backlash ensues—look at Hemingway’s post-mortem devaluation, for instance. In the end, the Notorious B.I.G. was a gifted rapper who recorded a near-perfect debut and a so-so, bloated sophomore effort, in addition to a few odds and ends. You can pretty much say the same thing about the Stone Roses, and no one is weaving Christ metaphors around Ian Brown (except Ian Brown, of course). The fact is that B.I.G. died before he had a chance to really define himself beyond his debut. We can perhaps catch a glimpse of what his career trajectory would have been like had he lived in Nas—another preternaturally gifted MC unable to escape the shadow of his first record. If B.I.G. were still around, we’d undoubtedly take him for granted because he would have had more than enough time to record a pile of sub-par material.
My point is not that B.I.G.‘s contributions to the art were anything less than sterling. Ready to Die is a legitimate classic. What he meant to people—hip-hop fans all across the world in addition to his community in Brooklyn—was immense and defies easy definition, but inflating his reputation to godlike proportions risks obscuring what made him so important to begin with.
The Notorious B.I.G. was important because he was a storyteller, and at his best he translated the nihilism and desperation of street living into something profound. He was at his best when he was at his worst. That an entire generation of MCs has come up from the streets misunderstanding this essential point is a shame, but ultimately not surprising. Biggie himself took a turn for the worse when he glamorized or exaggerated the reality that lay at the heart of his pain. Most MCs, raised on a culture of machismo and testosterone, can’t reach much further than glorification and bragging—Jay-Z has raised it to an art form, but at least he occasionally lets his guard down enough to admit that there’s more to life than excess.
Still, it would be churlish to deny the simple pleasures found in hearing the likes of Eminem and Ludacris spit their verses on Duets—both have a habit of stealing the spotlight wherever they appear, and this album proves no more impervious to their talents. The aforementioned Jay-Z has raised paranoid luxury to almost Stalinesque proportions, and must be admired for the sheer gall of hijacking a tribute album and transforming it into yet another paean to the greatness of himself.
However, there’s a reason why most of Biggie’s verses were left on the cutting room floor: you can tell they’re not up to his standards. I have to give the respective producers credit, because the results don’t sound like the shambling mess you’d expect. But there’s no denying that this is anything but an actual B.I.G. album. Duets is state-of-the-art celebrity hip-hop for the year 2006: pick a handful of MCs and a superstar producer, have everyone rap over eight or 16 bars, put the results in Pro Tools and call it a day. Few rappers can prosper when restricted to cameos (those who can stop by to steal the show), and unfortunately, Biggie is mostly relegated to the position of delivering cameos on his own album.
Which is not to say that there aren’t a couple instances where, almost despite itself, the album seems to rise to the occasion. “Living in Pain”, featuring Tupac, Nas and Mary J. Blige on the hook, delivers a surprisingly affecting punch. Instead of glorifying himself Nas chooses to level a stirring indictment of current political injustices, calling and end to street violence since “there ain’t no Mardis Gras, / And Bush won’t apologize”. Jigga missed a bet: by rapping alongside both fallen titans, Nas subtly manages to stake his claim alongside them, and based solely on their performance here, Nas’ position as the true king of New York seems slightly more secure.
The album saves the best for almost last, pulling a miraculous star turn out of the hat with “Hold Ya Head”, featuring Bob Marley. Thankfully, Marley is restricted to singing the gimmicky hook, leaving Biggie to shine alone on the verses:
“When I die fuck it I wanna go to hell, /
‘Cause I’m a piece of shit it ain’t hard to fucking tell, /
It don’t make sense going to heaven with the goody-goodies
dressed in white, /
I like black Tims and black hoodies . . . /
Fuck that shit I wanna tote guns and shoot dice, /
All my life I’ve been considered as the worst, /
Lyin’ to my mother, even stealing out her purse, /
Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion, /
I know my mother wish she got a fucking abortion.
The track isn’t even three minutes long but it easily outclasses everything else here. Marley’s superfluous contribution hardly obscures the power of these verses. For one last moment it’s possible to see why he was such a powerful storyteller, and why so many of the pretenders to his throne have fallen woefully short.
As much as I may despise the practice, it’s hard not to fall back on the same royal metaphors that Diddy and his publicists have flogged to death. But I think the truth of the matter is something far more ambiguous than Biggie being merely the “Greatest MC” or anything of that nature. Listening to him rap next to the biggest stars of 2005 lends credence to the suspicion that with his and Tupac’s passings, rap lost a vital degree of gravitas—if Biggie is a king, he’s King Lear. The gangsta genre has gotten old and tired, having lived long enough to turn into a parody of itself, the mirror-image of every exploitive and insulting stereotype inveighed against the genre since the first needle dropped on an Ice-T 12”. Whatever dignity the genre had came from the fleeting images of honesty and compassion that shone through the grime and the muck of violence, misogyny and ignorance. The Notorious B.I.G. was special because he understood, at least part of the time, that the glories of hood life were fleeting and fickle. Duets is subtitled The Final Chapter, with the implicit understanding that Biggie’s leftovers have been pretty much exhausted. It would be nice to imagine that maybe, looking back on his death and life after almost a decade, his memory might serve as an inspiration to write the final chapter on gangsta rap.