Music News

The Closing of the American Ear

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As bold as these claims were, they didn't cause much of a stir among the masses, in large part because Ready to Die, like most rap, was ghettoized by the mainstream media. Although the CD was a smash with teens into the gangsta thang, it remained virtually invisible outside the hardcore hip-hop community. But because of Wallace's death and its proximity to the murder of Tupac Shakur the previous year, Life After Death was considerably more difficult to ignore, even for music journalists who seldom paid attention to hip-hop. A case in point was Anthony DeCurtis, a Rolling Stone writer who is most comfortable writing laudatory pieces about groups like Counting Crows. In his review of Biggie's sophomore turn, he gave little indication that he was familiar with the artist in question or rap in general, but he gave it four stars anyhow. Other rock scribes were equally effusive, but the cautious tenor of their prose made it clear that they'd rather die themselves than actually listen to the damned thing again. As for more middlebrow commentators, they were all but unanimous in their contention that B.I.G. got what he deserved--the live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword theory--and used his slaying as an excuse to criticize the entire hip-hop genre for its negative influence on America's youth.

A more objective listen suggests that both of these viewpoints are suspect. Because of the efforts of a slew of gifted producers, including DJ Premier, Easy Mo Bee, Mobb Depp's Havoc and Sean "Puffy" Combs, the man most responsible for Biggie's stardom, Life After Death is extremely listenable and exhibits an impressive sweep: Especially noteworthy from a purely musical perspective are the funky "I Love the Dough," the sassy "Another" (a pornographic duet with jailbait Lil' Kim), the smooch ballad "Fucking You Tonight" (crooned mainly by R. Kelly), the unexpectedly soulful "Playa Hater," and the macabre "Niggers Bleed."

Of course, Biggie's raps on these tracks are an acquired taste. His tone is certainly meaty, but it's also a bit mushy and phlegmatic; at times he sounds like Chicago Cubs sportscaster Harry Caray. His subject matter, meanwhile, is little different from that displayed on Ready to Die. He continues to be casually misogynistic, and his glorification of the thug life is still, at its base, adolescent. He might have developed into a deeper thinker had he gotten the chance, but Life After Death proves that he wasn't there yet; even the much ballyhooed "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Kills You)" is clotted with couplets such as, "The kids, the dog/Everybody dyin'/No lyin'." Anyone who pretends to the contrary is merely indulging in sentimentality for a dead man who generally shunned that emotion himself.

By the same token, the Notorious B.I.G. does not epitomize rap; the style has grown too large for such a generalization. Hip-hop has existed for around two decades now, and in that time, its evolution has been extraordinarily vigorous. Sure, there are plenty of hardcore types who operate in the Biggie tradition, and many of them--like the Wu-Tang Clan, whose own double album, Wu-Tang Forever is set to drop in June--are hugely popular. But there are also party types such as DJ Kool and Sir Mix-A-Lot; jazzier sorts like A Tribe Called Quest; hybrids along the lines of the Fugees; creatively ambitious sorts typified by DJ Shadow; and uncategorizable aberrations such as Dr. Octagon. In other words, hip-hop is every bit as diverse as rock, an umbrella term large enough to cover everyone from Jewel to Marilyn Manson. And those who don't realize this are suffering from either ignorance or racism--and often both.

No one could credibly claim that all hip-hop is good. In fact, Combs, recording under the moniker Puff Daddy, has made two of the lamest singles in recent memory: "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," in which he rapes Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" (as important a song to rap as "Like a Rolling Stone" is to rock), and "I'll Be Missing You," an alleged tribute to B.I.G. that finds Combs mumbling to the tune of the Police's "Every Breath You Take" as Wallace's wife, Faith Evans, warbles in the background. The weaknesses inherent in this last number might be excusable under the circumstances were not the entire enterprise so obviously an attempt by Combs and Evans (who was separated from Wallace at the time of his death) to pimp Biggie for a little more cash. After all, the video to the cut is relentlessly focused on Combs (B.I.G. is seen only once, in a photograph at the end of the clip), and the lyrics are the worst kind of Hallmark homilies. When Puff Daddy talks about seeing his friend in heaven someday, it's hard not to think of the Ready to Die song "Suicidal Thoughts," in which Biggie spat, "When I die, I want to go to hell/I'm a piece of shit, it ain't hard to fuckin' tell."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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