The cover of "Life After Death," the posthumous double album from the Notorious B.I.G., is enough to send chills up the spine of even the most cynical hip-hop critic.
The 24-year-old rapper, who was fatally shot March 9 in Los Angeles, is shown leaning on an old-fashioned hearse, not unlike the one that carried his body in a funeral procession through his old Brooklyn neighborhood.
With song titles such as "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)" and the persistent sound of gunfire on various tracks, the album, which was released Tuesday, raises the question: Is this life imitating art or art imitating life?
"Biggie must have known something" is what many fans will whisper after hearing this eerie, compelling work. In "My Downfall," B.I.G. (real name: Christopher Wallace) talks about his mother crying at his casket, and he apologizes to his daughter for dying so soon. There's also a fictional, tape-recorded death threat at the beginning of the song.
"Yes," many will conclude. "Biggie must have known something."
But that thinking is wrong.
The album title, as B.I.G. explained just 24 hours before his death, was not meant as some prophetic message. They were the words of a man who felt he had been given a second chance at life and who felt he finally had a bright future.
"Life After Death"--which is expected to enter the national sales chart next week at No. 1--reflects both the dark and the heartfelt sides of the rapper's Gemini personality. It's not only a complex testament to who he was in his private life, but also a demonstration of his amazing rhyming ability.
In key moments, B.I.G. does a marvelous job of surfing between accessible music fare tailored for the radio ("Mo Money Mo Problems") and more challenging material ("Kick In the Door") that will be savored by hard-core rap fans who have long admired B.I.G.'s microphone skills. Rarely has a rapper attempted to please so many different audiences--and done it so brilliantly.
In "Notorious Thugs," he uses Bone Thugs-N-Harmony rapid-fire rhyme patterns so effectively that he could have become the group's fifth member. With "Somebody's Got to Die," B.I.G. proves that he may have been rap's ultimate cinematic narrator.
And with the sensitive "Sky's the Limit" he takes off the stylish sunglasses to reminisce about the struggling, "pre-Versace" days when he was so broke he only had two pairs of pants and had to sew designer labels on his bargain-basement clothes.
B.I.G. leaves behind a tragic legacy. He's someone who deserves to be remembered as an artist who made a lasting impression on hip-hop culture--not because of his death at the apex of his fame, but for the illuminating nature of his artistic passion.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).