Song of the Day: The Notorious B.I.G., "Somebody's Gotta Die"
The thing that strikes me most about the death of Biggie Smalls (which occurred on this day a full 20 years ago) is how depressingly mundane it felt at the time. I had only recently embraced hip-hop beyond what the radio had deemed acceptable—a BMG Music Club purchase of the debut album by Wu-Tang Clan had shown me that there was far more to rap music than one-hit wonders like Tag Team or Snoog Dogg's filthy playground rhymes. I had mixed feelings about Biggie's forthcoming Life After Death. Thanks to a steady diet of Spin, I was comfortable with the idea that the man born Christopher Wallace was one of the finest MCs working, and that his debut album Ready to Die stood in the pantheon of top-tier rap records (and alongside Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction, it's probably the best debut album in history). But I also had quickly grown weary of the dude who often stood next to Biggie, an obnoxious little twerp named Sean "Puffy" Combs who operated as label chief, hype man, and producer. I loved the way Big was able to construct narratives—I can still recall every story beat of "Warning" because it is such a compellingly constructed story, a remarkable feat for a song with no chorus—and the first single from Life After Death, "Hypnotize," was all bitches and bling. (The accompanying speedboat-based video did not help matters.) Combs seemed to be a guy who took compelling rappers and buffed out their edges for the sake of dance tracks, all the while mumbling stuff in the background.
Despite my reservations, I was excited for Life After Death—so excited, in fact, that I had pre-ordered the album at my local Coconuts. The demand for the two-disc collection was theoretically going to be so high that stores were encouraging people to reserve a copy in advance of its arrival. I remember that a big part of the walk-up to Life After Death was the idea that the audience was so thirsty for it that supply might not be able to keep up with demand. Looking back, that just seems like a marketing trick, though ironically the demand for Life After Death did skyrocket in the weeks leading up to its release because Biggie was shot and killed two weeks before.
I can't remember if I found out about it via MTV (Kurt Loder tended to be the guy who let me know when one of my favorite musicians had passed), or if I discovered it in the newspaper a day or two later (I definitely know that's how I discovered that Shannon Hoon had died), though I'm leaning towards the latter. It was a drag for a number of reasons, but retroactively I remember thinking that this is just what happened to good rappers. Tupac had been murdered less than a year prior, and as somebody who was relatively new to the rap world, I just sort of assumed this is what went on in that universe: Rappers got shot like rockers overdosed on heroin. It was mildly racist of me to assume that, but it's vexing to me now how quickly I accepted what was obviously a fucked up new reality.
Life After Death did end up selling a ton of copies, moving 690,000 units in its first official week of release (though so many stores ended up selling it early that it actually charted the week prior, making its leap from 176 to 1 the greatest single week gap-closer in Billboard history). It was reviewed relatively well, though like a lot of double albums, there are only enough great songs on it for a single disc. The singles from Life After Death tend to be sort of a drag, full of glossy nonsense and obvious samples (as was Combs' custom at the time), but the crime narrative stuff on that album still paints a hell of a picture (though they are even more impossibly bleak than they were on Ready to Die). "Kick in the Door," "Long Kiss Goodnight," and the above album opener "Somebody's Gotta Die" all illuminated Biggie's incredible ability to turn narrative phrases and wrap cinematic details around minimalist grime. I still miss him.