Ask any hipster or long-standing Brooklynite and it’s clear that the borough is becoming increasingly gentrified by the day. While the first spots that come to mind are places like Williamsburg, right across from the Lower East Side – connected by the bridge of the same name – the gentrification process is gradually extending into the heart of Brooklyn. Follow the ‘L’ line and you might find yourself in places like Bushwick or, as realtors call it, East Williamsburg, and Greenpoint. Slightly off the beaten path, as rent prices skyrocket, two worlds begin to meet as the newcomer to the area looks for their first affordable apartment.
On the surface, there’s not a lot Biggie and this new Brooklyn demographic would have in common.He is seemingly gentrified from his audience. Yet, he is someone that a large number of people identify with despite this schism. A large part of that is because of his second, and unfortunately final, studio album Life After Death. Biggie was grown when he recorded this, yet still a child of the streets. His pre-rap life and the rapid success of Ready To Die forced him to mature faster than most. What came with that maturity was not only an enhanced ability to flawlessly tell stories, but also the knowledge that what made him wasn’t what had to be his future, though it would lead to his demise.
Where Ready To Die was tales from the hood as told by a hustler trying to make it, Life After Death was tales from the hood told by a storyteller who was, not so much trying to escape it, but proving that he was past it. At the same time, he had not completely left it behind; after all, he was a gangster-turned-artist who still had a chip on his shoulder, but was too high on life not to stop and acknowledge how good he had it.
Not too many people from the suburbs knew the rules to proper drug-dealing etiquette until Biggie told them. “Ten Crack Commandments” was a “step-by-step booklet for you to get your game on track, not your wig pushed back.” While it was targeted at the street entrepreneur, under the surface it was an intricate manual for how to live life at any level.
Since it was recorded at the height of the East Coast/West Coast war of words (and as we all know by now, more than words), Life After Death is littered with beef. One of the most underrated diss tracks in the history of hip-hop comes in the form of “Kick in the Door,” which was aimed at Nas’ claim of being the ‘King of New York,’ as well as shots at Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. Though, unlike the Tupac beef, this was more about being a dominant microphone controller than a personal battle of disrespect and violence. “It’s ill when MCs used to be on some cruddy sh*t, took home Ready to Die, listened, studied sh*t,” is just a taste of some of the fire coming from one of the most lyrically potent and versatile MCs of all time. It all culminates with Biggie describing what it really means to have problems in “What’s Beef?” “Beef is when you need two gats to go to sleep, beef is when your mom ain’t safe up in the streets.”
He shows more of that versatility by shape-shifting his flow to whatever suited the track best. When joined by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on “Notorious Thugs,” Biggie completely adapted to their tongue-twisting Midwest style, yet made it his own. But where he really shines, and where this album truly makes the point of bringing all kinds of different people together, is the way he stays a street-savvy hustler on some of the most radio-friendly and club-banging hits of all time. To this day, “Hypnotize,” “Going Back to Cali,” and “Mo Money, Mo Problems” can come on at any time, any place, and everyone within earshot takes notice. His voice was unmistakable, and his talent was undeniable. these were things that could bring people of all walks of life together.
In Jay-Z’s recent book “Decoded” he has this to say about the unifying power of hip-hop: “That is why the hustler’s story- through hip-hop – has connected with a global audience. The deeper we get into these sidewalk cracks and into the mind of the young hustler trying to find his fortune there, the closer we get to the ultimate, human story, the story of struggle, which is what defines us all.” No one was able to get across the hustler’s story better than Biggie. “I went from ashy to nasty to classy” he says on “My Downfall.” No matter our situation, we’re always striving to be better and that’s what Biggie was doing. Not only did he become better, he became the best. A few years back, when revisiting the making of Life After Death, DJ Premier told XXL Magazine that when Biggie stepped out of the booth after recording “Ten Crack Commandments,” he proclaimed to Premier, “Premier, I did it. I did it. I’m the greatest!”
Not too long ago, the Los Angeles Times published the closed files from the investigation of Biggie’s shooting, which was 15 years ago on March 9. Found on his person were a Georgia driver’s license, 3 Magnum condoms, an asthma inhaler, a bag of weed, and a pen. He was a man, just like everyone else, he just happened to have a superior talent and way with words that allowed people who would normally never have anything in common to cross paths.