By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
IN HIP HOP, the definition of "keepin' it real" seems to have changed a great deal over the past decade. For the 16- and 17-year-olds who strut around calling each other punk-ass bitches, dreaming of wearing bowlers and silk shirts and throwing "gangsta parties," "keepin' it real" has become a validation for indigent behavior that can be too easily blamed on an oppressive society. It's the only hip hop they've ever known, so we should expect no different.
For twentysomethings like myself who grew up living old-school hip hop in the same Brooklyn that spawned rappers such as Notorious B.I.G., keepin' it real can hold an entirely different meaning. Remember "The Message"? For me, that was keepin' it real--explaining the hardships one has endured on the streets and in life in an effort to steer others away from that same fate. Boogie Down Productions kept it real. Public Enemy kept it real. De La Soul still keeps it real. In the '90s that same phrase has come to mean maintaining, promoting, and in most cases amplifying the same criminal mentality that hip hop once shunned in order to make money, most of which ends up in the hands of greedy record execs anyway. Again, it's worth remembering the late Tupac Shakur was born and raised on the East Coast, attended an acting school in Baltimore, and never had a criminal record until his super-stardom.
With Life After Death, Biggie Smalls makes only a half-hearted attempt to break the cycle that has brought about the downfall of many of his hardcore peers--and by the time of its release, Biggie himself, shot to death last month outside a party in Los Angeles. Picking up where Ready to Die left off, he resumes his contradictory role of player/lover/gangster/dealer/killer/father. The main difference between the albums is that on his sophomore effort, Biggie's superstar status has attracted a truckload of all-star producers and guests to the table for significant contributions. It's safe to assume that this broad posse serves two distinct purposes. The first is to help Biggie create bridges for the future between East and West and possibly redefine what keepin' it real means. The second, perhaps unwitting purpose is to further illustrate Sean "Puffy" Combs's lack of creative vision. Cuts from producers such as RZA, DJ Premiere, Kay Gee and Havok overshadow the Puffy tracks with ease.
Disc one is vintage B.I.G., rivalling Ready to Die in hardcore content and delivery. The intro is a prophetic dramatic sequence in which a sobbing Puffy sits at the hospital bed of Biggie as he dies from a recent shooting. Scary, yes. But in the context of the album, the death is seen as a rebirth for Biggie into a new person with a new lease on life. It's a pity the first disc's songs don't bear this out. After "Hypnotize," currently getting its share of airplay, Biggie goes the road well traveled for the rest of the disc, pontificating about his badness as a gangster and a player.
Disc two holds the sort of musical and lyrical surprises that one expects from a "rebirth." This is a versatile, remorseful Biggie we've never seen before, and nowhere is that versatility more present than in the first track. "Notorious Thugs," a group cut with Bone, Thugs and Harmony, features Biggie sliding into an up-tempo, rambling Midwestern rhyme style (think Crucial Conflict). "Miss U" is a eulogy to a friend killed during his street hustler days, with Biggie exorcising guilt alongside smooth R&B vocals ("I look up in the sky and ask God why/ I can't look his baby girl in the eye"). On "Going Back to Cali" Easy Mo Bee provides the driving, thumping California bass track as Biggie rhymes a tribute to his West Coast fans, distancing them from his public conflicts with Death Row.
There are some backwards steps, too. "Ten Crack Commandments" is a how-to manual for pushing dope on the corner that should quickly become a theme song of dealers across America. "The World Is Filled... " is a playa cut featuring Biggie, Puffy and Too Short as they rhyme about the life of a hard-working pimp behind an amusing Carl Thomas vocal ("The world is filled with pimps and hoes/And we're just talkin' bout those I knows/The world is mine, can't you see/I'm just tryin' to be all I can be").
From a musical standpoint, Life After Death is one of the best hip-hop albums of the year thus far, and should cement Biggie's place in the hip-hop history books. B.I.G.'s message from song to song is predictably confusing, with what seems like a constant internal battle going on between the man's positive and negative forces. But he possessed an incredible ability to articulate both sides, and it's unfortunate that we'll never know which Biggie might have emerged victorious from this internal morality struggle. The memory left behind will be mostly of a gangster for whom keepin' it real was more about cultivating the negative than cultivating the rap prodigy into which he was developing.