Thursday, 17 September 2015
D CDs #476: Ain't Arrogance If You're Right
Now I get it.
After the endless beige nightmare of Down Every Road, the thought of launching into another multi-disc album filled me with exhaustion. More fool me. Life after Death is not the best album ever made - though it's exceptionally fucking good - but in the shallower pool of the "Best Double Album EVAH!" stakes (to not so much mix my metaphors as use a spiked mace to whisk them in a bowl of acid), I'm struggling to think of anything short of Mellon Collie... that could possibly outclass it.
Hell, even the Pumpkins greatest work loses out in a few respects. Biggie's last album might not reach its dizzying heights, but neither does it suffer its occasional lows. The absolute closest this album comes to filler in its... ooh, let's say 21 actual musical platters is the somewhat spartan "I'm Going Back To Cali". Even that manages to insult Tupac twice before the rap even starts, first by using voice modulation to encroach on Tupac's hit "California Love", and then by association making it clear that this track's title is about B.I.G. returning to the subject of loving California so he can rap about it right. A double gut-punch before Biggie even has to open his mouth? That is cold genius.
And everything else here is better (well, maybe not "Ten Crack Commandments..."). Yes, my baseline lack of interest in music so obsessed with masculinity and the acquisition of wealth remains in force (and as always, fuck homophobia in rap as in everywhere else). But the mark of the best lyricists is that they can make something you give absolutely no fucks about and make it interesting, and B.I.G. clearly had the knack for that. His boasts have just enough self-awareness, his tales of cold-blooded gangster excess are punctuated by moments of tragedy and comedy (see "Somebody's Got To Die" and "Niggas Bleed" respectively), and throughout the quality of wordplay is so superlative it seems churlish to argue for a greater range of topics. I mean, Rap Genius points out one of the songs here has a quadruple entendre. Biggie has essentially won English. How can I turn my nose up at the arrogance spilling from every line here when it's so obviously and completely justified?
Life After Death also gains points for structure. Where many double albums are a messy splurge of output - even those like Mellon Collie... that have some ostensible theme to each disc - the two CDs in this pair have different focuses. The first disc is more thrilling, more brutal; the second CD is in many ways a more laid-back affair, closer to what, say Snoop (oops!) got famous doing. There are crossovers in the atmosphere between the two discs, of course, but there's a clear get up/sit down separation here, which saves this from the long-player fatigue of most albums by those who refuse to believe they have less than seventy-three minutes of high quality product to shift. If I'm honest, I return to the first disc more than the second, but that's no criticism of the album's tail end ("The World is Filled..." is a particular highlight, and closing track "You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)" would be a storming closer even without the horrible connotations it had already acquired by the time of the album's release), just an admission that it doesn't include anything quite as superlative as "Hypnotize". Or "I Love the Dough". Or, naturally, "Mo' Money Mo' Problems", which thoroughly proves the old saw that "genius steals" as it sharpens the already fierce guitar pulse and strutting bass-line of Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out" to unconquerable effect, keeping you hooked right up until the song hits the Kelly Price-sung chorus and somehow becomes even better.
Looking back at my short list of favourites, actually, it occurs to me that Biggie is at his best here paired with a powerful female voice to contrast against his deep, thick almost-drawl. Certainly Lil' Kim is the secret weapon in "Another", turning an otherwise ugly song about viciously disrespecting your ex-girlfriend into a far more interesting "he said, she said" about how two people can so easily believe the other one was one hundred percent to blame. It's still disquieting in tone, but, as with the tales of criminal violence, the full-throttle unpleasantness is undercut just enough to save things.
More often, though, nothing here needs saving in the slightest, and the female voices here are just sharp spice to an already delicious, satisfying meal. It was, of course, the last meal Biggie ever got to cook, which makes its sublime nature all the harder to bear. But these 109 minutes survive him as a greater monument than many could manage had they worked for a lifetime.
B.I.G. is dead. B.I.G. is immortal.