Rap In Peace

With new tracks exhumed from the vaults, Biggie and Tupac add to their corpses' corpora

How ya livin', Biggie Smalls? Larger than life, baby, he replies. And what does that mean? It's irascibly barking orders from a hospital bed while the sampled Simon LeBon obliviously shouts his "Notorious" praises. Sending minions scurrying for endo while nurses dutifully scrub his ass. Chafing from the inconvenience of his reputed assassination while cannily planning his next move. "Niggas say I died dead in the streets," chortles the self-proclaimed "Teflon Don" on the track "Notorious B.I.G." "Nigga, I'm gettin' high, gettin' head on the beach."

The track busts outta the stretch Lex and past the velvet rope with an ain't-no-stoppin'-us gangsta propulsion like no Bad Boy single since "Mo Money, Mo Problems." Puffy's back yapping in Poppa's shadow where he belongs ("Fuck the Joneses/Niggas trying to keep up with the Combses"), Lil' Kim preens with a chintzily glamorous snarl ("Can't stand my cologne?/Then stay your ass home") and the whole crew once more proclaims ill-gotten ghetto fabulousness as the epitome of the acquisitive American dream. Just as the hero of every blaxploitation flick vainly dreamed, Biggie has orchestrated one last big score and split the game for early retirement.

'Cept that's not how Born Again opens. In case you haven't heard, Biggie's kind of dead these days. He breathes asthmatically again only thanks to the reanimation provided here by Dr. Puffy Funkenstein and select associates. But before he gets this party started right, Puffy synthesizes Transylvanian thunder crashes atop schmaltzy piano tinkle and asks his late pal, "Where you gonna be ten years from now?" "Where do I want to be? Just livin', man," Biggie shrugs, sketching a smoked-out idyll of family and luxury. Then he cuts himself short. "Where I think I'll be? Don't think I'm gonna see it, dawg."

Call it a comeback: The Notorious B.I.G.
Call it a comeback: The Notorious B.I.G.

Biggie's actual murder doesn't necessarily make the obsessive morbidity we've come to expect from the creator of Ready to Die and Life After Death any less self-mythologizing or more prophetic. But, as always, his fatalism is redeemed by the full-blooded chase after the good life, and the slim chance that Biggie just might get away with it. At his best, Biggie Smalls combined the insatiable appetites of the Fat Boys with the stolid middle-class aspirations of Run-D.M.C. No small-time hood, he professed that his ruthless peddling past was a necessary means to a luxuriant end, even if he only half-believed he could rise above his history.

In Smalls's world, after all, luxury was object, subject, and aesthetic. Unlike most male MCs (and, for that matter, Lil' Kim) he rapped as if he loved sex for its slurpin', scratchin', squishy, sticky, smelly, foul, funky physicality, rather than out of a sense of self-aggrandizement. (Compare his slaver on "Big Bootie Hoes" to that of duetmate Too Short, who fronts like his ability to stretch "bitch" into two syllables entitles him to drop a sucky oral metaphor like "She ate it like food.") And his taste for the malleable sounds of the English language was no less voracious. If Biggie approached sex like a kid with a set of Tinker Toys, seeing which pegs fit into which holes, he brought the same experimentation to his rhyme schemes, straying from the conventional cant of the rap couplet into a mix of wheezing Satchmo scat and utilitarian Dr. Seuss nonsense.

It was rhyme for rhyme's sake, never obscurity for obscurity's sake (see: Wu-Tang). Biggie never courted clarity at the expense of witty scansion, either. "Would You Die for Me" opens with Biggie stuttering 20 seconds of vvv's through his phat lisp, dropping misleading vowels behind them. (The eventual line is "Venue after venue.") By contrast, there's the simplicity of his gruesome wit evidenced in "I'm killing babies/No ifs ands or maybes."

Born Again closes with a reminisce from Voletta Wallace, Biggie's mother, that's touching even though it bizarrely fades out before she finishes speaking. Together with Biggie's intro, the eulogy creates a framing device that acknowledges the real story--the fact that the man born Christopher Wallace was shot down in 1997--while the meat of the record imagines a fanciful afterlife of bountiful green bud, gold-plated swimming pools, and never-ending blowjobs. Both narratives are more true to Biggie's legacy than, say, Puffy's goopy "I'll Be Missing You." And Sting receives no royalties.

 

Legacy: That's a slippery word for a fallen hip-hop icon, and it slithers right in between the www and the dot-com of the Web site for Tupac Shakur's fan club, coming to rest next to the slain hero's name. The "2Pac legacy fan club" is part of the Pac's estate, which, like that of his East Coast antagonist, is overseen by his mother. Afeni Shakur's site aims "to do justice to what my son had envisioned." Or so spake the liner notes to Pac's second posthumous disc, Still I Rise, cobbled together from the rapper's miles of worktape by a rotating team of Cali producers, with limp L.A. guns the Outlawz going on mic erratically to fill up the dead air.

Charisma is an even more slippery word, one equally inseparable from Tupac's mystique. In a sense, Shakur reclaimed the violent alienation championed for white hipsterdom by Mailer's "White Negro." If Biggie aspired to Corleone domesticity, Tupac was a Wild One rebelling against whatever you got. It's a mystique this heretic/music scribe never held much truck with while Pac lived, and a spell this disbeliever in death cults wasn't about to succumb to after Pac's murder. A complex icon? Quite possibly, but anyone baffled by Tupac's ability to mingle misogyny and mama worship has a lot to learn about a little something called the social construction of masculinity. After all, not every screwed-up kid is an enigma, and not every public enigma is worth unraveling.

But though skeptical, I was hardly impervious to that mystique, especially as Tupac embodied it physically. A star on the beauty of his eyes alone--soulfully mocking, suggesting more than their possessor ever delivered verbally, simultaneously arrogant and penitent--Shakur always struck me as a graven image unjustly forced to compose his own psalms. Or, since film was more his métier, a character actor sentenced to a lifetime of improv. He did better when someone else penned his scripts. What made Tupac alluring was his apparent artlessness. But what made him effective was an outside force--Juice director Ernest Dickerson, "California Love" producer Dr. Dre, even public tastes--insisting he focus his artistic energies instead of dissipating them over two-disk rambles.

The executive producers of Still I Rise are too forgiving to help. This low-bumping rat-a-tat, synth-and-wahwah mush is the sound of gangsta ambient, dissipating into swirls like secondhand chronic smoke. And the lyrics are equally wispy. Those who say Shakur was about to flip the script, return to his Black Panther roots, and emerge as Eldridge Cleaver 2000 are directed to the socially conscious "The Good Die Young," which, while admirably pro-choice, pro-AIDS education, and anti-Buchanan, is also adamantly anti-"Planes falling from the sky." Way to speak truth to power, Pac! (At least he didn't sample Billy Joel--probably because BJ wouldn't lend Afeni his copyrighted hook gratis.)

Most telling, the very first track here fades into a cry of "Ain't nothin' changed," a fatalist mantra that sadly grows truer with each repetition. It's no fluke that Tupac scored his last hit by sampling Bruce Hornsby's "The Way it Is." His career demonstrates how violent spontaneity triggers stasis, how rage can lead to complacency. The premonitions Biggie had of his own death never sapped his conviction that he deserved his upward mobility; the rewards Tupac enjoyed never tempered his ascetically grim pessimism. As with most pop icons, Tupac's secret weapon was his essential unknowability, and death confirmed not only this essential distance, but also the futility of his vision. And so, eternally ineffectual, Tupac can never really die. Some things never change.

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