By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
When Biggie Smalls--né Christopher Wallace--was murdered two and a half years ago in Los Angeles, he didn't leave behind the sort of convoluted mythology that made Tupac's legacy extend well beyond musical influence. A counterpoint to Pac's gregarious ingenue, Biggie was a more reserved character, a prototype for today's luxuriant player--someone who calmly eyes the room from a corner booth as activity swirls furiously around him. His power wasn't pushed on people so much as gently transmitted. Speak softly and carry a big stick--the Bad Boy ethos.
After his death, the hip-hop world struggled to come to terms with his loss and rearrange itself to fill his void, but all that's been left in his wake is a sea of King of New York pretenders. In Biggie's absence, label boss Puff Daddy has had to assume Bad Boy's superstar role himself, despite his best efforts to cultivate a slew of young heirs apparent. What's become painfully obvious from recent Bad Boy albums, namely those from Mase and Black Rob, as well as releases from Biggie protégés Lil' Cease and Charli Baltimore, is that although Biggie's specter remains--his echoes resonate strongly throughout each of these records--his unique talents went with him to the grave.
It's not all bad, though (baby, baby). Quite to the contrary, each of these albums is paradigmatic of the post-B.I.G. years--a panoply of danceable thug music, balancing hustler savoir faire with pretty-boy fantasies, all set to frighteningly repetitive loops valued for instant recognizability (what I've come to call "the diminishing rate of nostalgia") and proven ass-shaking power. With a hefty pile of cash to pay the right producers, bring on hot guest MCs, and secure the right samples (and maybe engage in a bit of payola?), damn near any rapper can put out an ingratiatingly catchy record. Drop one surefire radio hit, go gold, then go home--the new hip-hop career.
Cold as Ice
Take Lil' Cease. Please. Back when extended crews were novel, not de rigueur, we came to know him as the Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s leading man, who introduced himself at the outset of "Player's Anthem" with "Who smoke more blunts than a little bit?/What, are you an idiot? /Listen to the lyrics I spit like M1s." Since apparently Cease has only recently begun penning his own M1s, it's no surprise that very little stands out lyrically on his debut album. Rather, it's the deliberately infectious hooks that grab a hold and won't let go--bits and pieces of "Trans-Europe Express," "You Are Everything," "A Little Bit of Love (Is All It Takes)," and "Super Hoe," among others. As for words, the only ones that truly resonate come on one of the skits, where Cease affirms his place in the hip-hop hierarchy: "I wanna give a shout out to that third nigga in the back of that coupe. Real tight. Let them two niggas shine. Let them niggas do their thing. You'll get your time." Too true.
It's kinda the same thing for Charli Baltimore, Biggie's girlfriend at the time of his passing. Unlike Faith and Lil' Kim before her, each of whom had her own album under way before getting involved with the Notorious one, Charli is a confessed grade-school geek who only began rapping seriously at Biggie's behest. Her beau was killed soon after, though, and her rap career is ostensibly an homage--his death is chronicled on "Have It All"--but who knows if he was expecting that filthy mouth? "Thought I was coming on some high-yellow bitch shit?" she challenges, spitting raw, powerful venom explicit enough to make Kim blush and reflective like the stories Biggie told. Like Cease, who dedicates his album to B.I.G. and alludes to him on more than half the cuts, Charli peppers her record with references to the deceased, even going as far as sampling his voice on two tracks. They're not gratuitous lifts--Charli can hold her own--but they're not without utility. It was Biggie who brought her into the game, and it's by his presence that she'll be evaluated.
Back on the Bad Boy farm, the quest is on for the next Frank White. Puff knows he can make you dance, but the streets need something they can feel. The Lox were supposed to be Bad Boy's street saviors until money and ego got in the way; now they're relegated to a guest turn with Black Rob, the label's new ghetto griot. Adhering closely to what P-Diddy himself calls the "Bad Boy formula" on "PD World Tour," Rob, too, gets over on hooks--"La Isla Bonita" and "Children's Story" (remember when Def Jam wouldn't let anybody sample that song?)--where lyrics fall short. Admittedly, like The Lox, Rob's a capable MC, but your ear can't help but pick out the Biggie influences--his vocals emanate from somewhere deep in his throat, and he rolls syllables like the late don did (though he can't hold a candle to Bad Boy's secret-Biggie-soundalike Shyne).
Of course, of all the Biggie tributes, our man Combs saved the most thoroughgoing for himself. With "I'll Be Missing You" well into seven-figure sales and still funding Sting's tantric sex lessons, the only way for Puff to outdo himself would be through resurrection. So rather than wait for the forthcomingfound-tapes Biggie record, Born Again, to drop later this year, he sneaked one of the lost verses--the familiar "Real Niggas"--onto his own album, Forever. Shrewd? Naturally. But Puff knows the fans want a piece of Big Poppa, not tears from the kids.