Life After Death: The Greatest Rap Album of the Golden Era

Image from XXLmag.com, courtesy of Bad Boy Records.

Sequels often suck, and sequels to game-changing originals rarely sniff the same rarified air, but Life After Death is a masterpiece that improves on the strengths of its predecessor. Biggie’s follow up to his monster debut album, Ready to Die, continues the cinematic vibe he and Diddy established, but they scale up the entire production and create two distinct halves of the same movie.

It’s bombastic and triumphant in its highest moments, throwing money out of the window going 100 down the highway, and it’s absolutely haunting in its darker recesses. As often as we hear Biggie celebrate his life, we hear him elaborate about death. His death. His rivals’ deaths. All of it spoken and sung to us from what is supposed to be the afterlife. It’s the album’s title. It was all too real.

If there was an argument to be made about who rocked the “King of New York” crown between 1993 and 1996, Biggie put it to rest with Life After Death. He flexed new rhyme-schemes, showing off his versatile delivery. We all knew he was wicked with the slow flow, but we didn’t know he had it in him to burn up a track with Bone Thugs. His lyrical content had also evolved. He still had all the hardcore shit for fans-there’s a lot of gunplay and fucking-but he also showed us Big Poppa’s vulnerable side. He was still affected by his best friend’s murder. He was contemplating his life as a father to his young children.

Of course, Christopher Wallace never got the chance to be that father. He wasn’t even alive when this Life After Death dropped, which is eerie because this album is prophetic. It shifts between the violent retribution of tracks like “Somebody’s Gotta Die” and “Long Kiss Goodnight” to the strike first mentality of “Kick in the Door” and “Niggas Bleed” to the bleak paranoia of “My Downfall” and “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)”. Biggie’s work on these tracks reflects the heat he felt on his back when he wrote this album at the height of his feud with Tupac. He kept it real, and we loved that about him. Biggie’s authenticity might have been the best thing about him, but life and art blurred lines on March 9th, 1997.

Image by Lori Shepler, LA Times.

At the time, in my world, Life After Death was the biggest album to drop. The hype for it had been bubbling since the previous summer because it was supposed to be released on Halloween that year, but Biggie got in a car accident in September, and the album release was pushed back to March 25, 1997, which ended up being two weeks after Biggie’s murder. So, in addition to carrying the hype around being Biggie’s follow up to Ready to Die, this album also carried the tremendous weight of Biggie’s legacy beyond the tragedy of his murder.

Biggie was a living legend, recognized at an early age for having the skills that would later make him one of the most influential rappers to ever do it. His murder only made him more legendary. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since then.

Life After Death is one-of-a-kind. It defined the Mafioso rap subgenre and signaled the end of the Golden Era of hip-hop. You could argue that, given Biggie’s short career, his most significant piece of work was Ready to Die. That album was unlike any rap album that was ever produced, and it opened the door for Biggie to make Life After Death. The sequel was better than the original, though, in every way. It’s a damn shame that Biggie wasn’t around to see the response to Life After Death, his true magnum opus.

Here’s a toast to your legacy, Big.

Long live the king.

Favorite Tracks

Three tracks. That’s all I get.

For those of us who didn’t experience this album on CD or vinyl and only know it in its entirety via streaming service, the first album is “Life After Death (Intro)” to “I Got a Story to Tell”; the second album picks up at “Notorious Thugs” and runs to the finale, “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)”.

Biggie tears up every track he raps on. Like they do on Ready to Die, the beats just serve to amplify Biggie’s lyrics, the true star of the Life After Death. It’s hard to whittle this list down to three tracks because I like them all, but here it goes.

“I Love the Dough”

Ain’t shit changed, except the number after the dot, on the Range

Can’t say it enough: Biggie and Jay-Z would have been the ultimate hip-hop album collab. Watch the Throne could have been Big and Jigga, produced by Ye.

Fuck.

Instead, all we got were two collab tracks with these legends, and they’re both bangers. Who would’ve known, right? This is the audio version of Magic and MJ, and “I Love the Dough” is Dream Team level game.

“I Got a Story to Tell”

Bring some weed I’ve got a story to tell

Speaking of Jigga, I think HOV is a tremendous storyteller, and he’s versatile. There isn’t anything he can’t rap about, and despite the label he got as strictly a rapper who focuses on materialism in his content, Jigga has a lot of introspective content in his catalogue.

Biggie was all that, but he was better at it. His delivery was smoother, and his voice had more edge.

He was a fucking Jedi master at crafting a lyrical narrative. Life After Death has several examples, and they’re all fire, but my favorite of the group is “I Got a Story to Tell”. For as dark as Biggie’s lyrics were, he had a sharp sense of humor, and it’s on full display here, where he takes us through the events of a saucy night with an NBA player’s old lady while he’s away at a game.

“Notorious Thugs”

Armed and dangerous, ain’t too many can bang with us.

Biggie and Bone Thugs at the peak of their fame on a record together. Biggie matches the Cleveland quartet’s rapid fire delivery bar-for-bar, showcasing why he was the best to ever do it. Who else could flip their style like that without compromising their authenticity?

Nobody.

Biggie was the best to ever do it.

Originally published at https://www.farfromprofessional.com on March 25, 2022.

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