B.I.G. as Ever
THE FIRST AUTHORIZED DOCUMENTARY OF CHRISTOPHER WALLACE IS A PORTRAIT OF A HIP-HOP MASTER BUT ALSO OF A PLACE CALLED BROOKLYN
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That’s from his first album, 1994’s Ready to Die, which at the time was deemed “gangsta rap,” an appellation that seems outdated 23 years later.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.