B.I.G. as Ever


Newsweek - - WEEKEND -

A COU­PLE of sum­mers ago, “Juicy,” by the rap­per No­to­ri­ous B.I.G., was boom­ing from ev­ery bar in Brook­lyn. Big­gie Smalls, rap­ping about “sip­pin’ on pri­vate stock,” while pal­lid hip­sters or­dered $8 pil­sners. The fre­quency with which his most fa­mous song was played seemed to in­crease as one got closer to the cor­ner of Ful­ton Street and St. James Place in the now-fash­ion­able Clin­ton Hill, where a sin­gle mother raised the man born Christo­pher Wal­lace. To­day, he watches over Ful­ton Street from a mu­ral three sto­ries high that is adorned with the “Juicy” lyric: “Spread love, it’s the Brook­lyn way.” A&E’S Big­gie: The Life of Noto

ri­ous B.I.G. is the first au­tho­rized doc­u­men­tary about the crack dealer turned rap­per, who found that the best way to es­cape his sur­round­ings was to de­scribe them in vivid de­tail:

I know how it feel to wake up fucked up

Pock­ets broke as hell, an­other rock to sell

That’s from his first al­bum, 1994’s Ready to Die, which at the time was deemed “gangsta rap,” an ap­pel­la­tion that seems out­dated 23 years later. But it is a re­minder of how raw his mu­sic was—an East Coast an­swer to the West Coast scene, in par­tic­u­lar Tu­pac Shakur, a friend be­fore they be­came bit­ter ri­vals. The play­ful tone of Run DMC and the so­cial con­cerns of A Tribe Called Quest were gone.

Big­gie was a so­cial con­cern, only in­stead of of­fer­ing up­lift, or dis­trac­tion, he of­fered re­al­ity. His col­lab­o­ra­tion with pro­ducer Sean “Puffy” Combs was in­cred­i­bly fruit­ful, and much shorter than it now seems: By the time his sec­ond al­bum, Life Af­ter Death, was re­leased on March 25, 1997, Wal­lace, just 25, was dead, gunned down in Los An­ge­les. The case re­mains un­solved. Oth­ers have tried to play de­tec­tive, with lit­tle re­sult; A&E’S Big­gie thank­fully does not. And he was clearly aware his life would end badly, as in this cou­plet about his mother from “Sui­ci­dal Thoughts”:

I won­der if I died, would tears come to her eyes?

For­give me for my dis­re­spect, for­give me for my lies

A re­cent screen­ing of the doc­u­men­tary fea­tured a talk with Wal­lace’s mother, Vo­letta, and wife, Faith Evans, both listed as ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers. Big­gie ben­e­fits greatly from their per­mis­sion to use his mu­sic. His raspy vo­cals—with their ver­bal mas­tery and bubbling flow—haunt the film. The tal­ent is ob­vi­ous, but the scope of that tal­ent was more lim­ited than his fans may want to ad­mit. Big­gie’s mu­sic, rife with images that are vi­o­lent and misog­y­nis­tic, glo­rify drug deal­ing and rarely look be­yond grat­i­fi­ca­tions of the self. “Juicy,” for all its shows of comity, opens with: “Fuck all you hoes.”

What is most dif­fi­cult about Big­gie is also what is most en­thralling. His jour­nal­is­tic ac­count of Brook­lyn in the ’90s doc­u­ments a place strug­gling to re­cover from the crack years, still a hope­lessly woe­be­gone sib­ling to Man­hat­tan. Big­gie wasn’t nice, but nei­ther was his Brook­lyn. This was when Myr­tle Av­enue was called Mur­der Av­enue, be­fore $10 mil­lion brown­stones ar­rived. The film in­cludes an in­cred­i­ble trove of never-seen footage, a grainy win­dow into his world— one the film, wisely, nei­ther glam­or­izes nor de­mo­nizes.

Vo­letta Wal­lace seems rec­on­ciled to her son’s im­per­fec­tions. In the film, she re­calls with hu­mor how she once threw out a plate of mashed pota­toes—ac­tu­ally co­caine cool­ing into crack. “It’s very pos­si­ble he might be in jail to­day,” she said at the screen­ing. “Or maybe liv­ing in Bora Bora with 500 women.” The joke was met with ner­vous laughs. She added more se­ri­ously, “I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing him in par­adise.”

+ HIS TOWN: In a scene from the film, Vo­letta Wal­lace ob­serves a mu­ral of her son, still lord­ing over a cor­ner of his now gen­tri­fied hood.

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