Locating Life After Death’s impact some 15 years after its release presents a difficult task. Faced with how much of the mythic folklore surrounding the album is rooted in Biggie’s untimely death and how much stems from the album’s quality feels largely impossible. However, looking at the album from a sonic standpoint, the starkest takeaway is that when compared to Ready to Die, it showcases B.I.G. in a different light. The double album represents a compromise of sorts with Christopher giving us a variety of stylistic changes from his mostly hardcore East coast debut, infusing a noticeably more pop sensibility. Herein lies the really interesting legacy for this album, again speaking from a musical standpoint—Life After Death is one of the first ‘gangster’ rap albums to fully integrate a Top 40 pop formula, cementing Christopher Wallace as one of the game’s most important cultural icons.
In terms of the music, the album is largely all over the place mixing and matching extraordinarily introspective thoughts about mortality with grandiose braggadocio. For every “The Last Day” there’s a poppier counterpart like the infinitely radio friendly “Hypnotize.” With an obvious nudge from Diddy, it is B.I.G.’s willingness to take risks (whether with new production styles or singing on the track), the variety of guest artist appearances, and the undeniable talent for telling stories that make Life After Death an album that, despite its length, never feels stale. Sure, some of the tracks feel a little more skipable than others (“Playa Hater,” for example), but Biggie was one of raps biggest stars for a reason; his charm shined through on every track, even if he simultaneously threatened your life or playfully sung extremely off key.
Few artists can jump from a song with R. Kelly to one with the LOX to another with Jay-Z and still come off as undeniably cool and in his element. And no matter the medium or the message, Biggie always managed to reify his position as a larger-than-life rock star icon. His enduring legacy is similarly bloated, more than any singular contribution that he made in terms of songwriting or delivery. Biggie took the world by storm with his charismatic nature, thoughtfulness, and undeniable star quality. And 15 years later, these features remain as the standouts on Life After Death, sadly reminding us that we were robbed of one of Hip Hop’s preeminent storytellers far too soon.
Nottinghamers…as we celebrate the 15th anniversary of Life After Death, share with us your favorite track from the album in the comments.