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Grave diggin’
Biggie Smalls’s Final Chapter

By the time most rappers drop their fourth album, either everybody’s paying attention or nobody is. In the case of Christopher "The Notorious B.I.G." Wallace (a/k/a Biggie Smalls) — gunned down in LA in 1997 — and the new album, Duets: The Final Chapter (Bad Boy), the truth may be somewhere in between.

Lukewarm responses to Biggie’s posthumous work can be traced back to his nemesis in life, Tupac Shakur. After Shakur’s passing, labels began sifting through his apparently endless collection of unreleased recordings and have subsequently released nearly 10 albums of half-baked, mediocre material. Though Shakur is still widely considered one of the greatest rappers of his time, most rap fans wouldn’t give a "new" 2Pac release a second glance at this point.

But the people closest to the Notorious B.I.G. (namely, his mother, Voletta Wallace, and longtime friend and producer, Sean "Diddy" Combs) have done a much better job of protecting Biggie’s reputation. Since his death, only one Notorious B.I.G. album — 1999’s Born Again (Bad Boy) — has been released, and a handful of vocals have been rented out as samples for other artists. (The previously unknown artist Smitty struck gold with said formula this year when he sampled Biggie on "Diamonds on My Neck.") Now, after years of speculation and rescheduled release dates, Bad Boy has revealed the so-called "final chapter" in the saga of Biggie — Duets.

On the new disc, some of Biggie’s previously heard vocals are reformatted and placed alongside freshly recorded tracks from today’s most popular artists and producers, most of whom never had the opportunity to work with him in life. Naturally, with an album boasting performances by everyone from Eminem to Jagged Edge to Korn (seriously), the results are scattershot. But on the whole, Duets is remarkably listenable and well thought out.

Some of the most exhilarating moments come when those who worked with Biggie in life join up with him again. Diddy and Wallace’s wife, Faith Evans, are both featured on a number of songs, but none of them feel as monumental as "Whatchu Want," where Biggie and Jay-Z form "the Commission." For as many times as Jay has namechecked his deceased friend over the years, the connection has never seemed more vital than right now. Jay’s Def Jam empire has a choke-hold on the rap game at the moment, and this track feels like two giants at the peak of their powers. It also highlights the difference between the two: whereas Biggie is untamed, flying off the handle with outrageous threats ("I’m stickin’ ice picks on the tip of your dick/Give your testicles a swift kick — ain’t that some shit?"), Jay is ever the cool and composed businessman.

Most of the songs are loosely themed, with producers and guests alike using Biggie’s verses as jumping-off points. In "Breakin’ Old Habits," his line about how "them southern niggas call me Frank White" begets a slinking dirty south beat and guest verses from today’s southern kings, T.I. and Slim Thug. Meanwhile, "Nasty Girl" is a lightweight, radio-friendly Jazze Pha-produced track that doesn’t offer anything of interest besides the unintentionally hilarious and morbid hook, wherein Jagged Edge proclaims, "All my ladies, if you with me, grab your titties for the B-I-G."

As much as Biggie’s singles celebrated his life of decadence, his album tracks were often grim meditations on his ill-gotten gains and the penance he believed lay in store for him in the afterlife. "Hold Ya Head" is a chilling stomp-clap suicide note that borrows its refrain from Bob Marley’s "Johnny Was," while the lyrics from Biggie’s "Suicidal Thoughts" are laid on top, taking on new meaning. "When I die," he says. "Fuck it, I wanna go to hell/’Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell."

Sorry, Biggie – I have to disagree.


Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2006
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