A succession of hits, no matter their individual success, does not make an album. An album is meant to tell a story. Not necessarily in a literal sense—though, it certainly can—but in that every good album has a beginning, middle and end, and that as a whole it’s more than the sum of its parts. Much of this is done through sequencing, which can make or break an album, no matter the individual quality of its tracks.
Few albums in hip-hop history make a stronger argument for this case than The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death.
At first glance, Life After Death shouldn’t work. It’s 24 tracks deep, and that’s not even counting a multitude of skits peppered between those two dozen songs. Despite having some genuinely great material on their double-disc extravaganzas, neither JAY-Z nor Nas could pull off that kind of excess. Yet, Biggie did. And he did it with style.
The introduction on Life After Death picks up where Biggie last left us on the outro to Ready to Die, with his suicide still ringing in our ears as he’s being rushed to the emergency room. Puffy is lamenting his demise as we hear dramatic piano keys give way to falling raindrops. The sound of Big’s heart rate monitor flatlining, a signal he is experiencing cardiac arrest, is still fading as the first beat on the album kicks in.
Arguably the darkest song in his entire discography, “Somebody’s Gotta Die” details Biggie hearing about how his friend C-Rock just got shot by a guy named Jason, and how he plans his revenge. With the supreme eye for detail that made him such a master of storytelling, Biggie lavishes specific details that make the listener envision the scene: the dogs barking, the blood on the sneakers of the friend giving him the bad news, how he knows him from slinging on the 16th floor.
The second verse is the dialogue of the moment the duo prepare their retaliation (“Don't fill them clips too high, give them bullets room to breathe”), which creates a gradual increase in rising tension before the attack in the third verse gives way to the heartbreaking conclusion:
"There's Jason with his back to me / Talkin' to his faculty / I start to get a funny feeling / Put the mask on in case his n*ggas start squealin' / Scream his name out (‘Ay yo, playboy!’) / Squeezed six, nothin' shorter / N*gga turned around holdin' his daughter"
Big's final sentence is filled with so much regret, we can feel his guilt. As a father of a young daughter himself, a daughter we’d seen him doting over in the Juicy video, we now fully understand why he felt he didn’t deserve to live at the end of Ready to Die.
Life After Death’s intro, and by extension, Ready to Die’s outro, don’t just bleed into this song to nicely tie the records together. No, this song is a key factor in what ultimately drove Christopher Wallace’s Biggie Smalls character to suicide. “Somebody’s Gotta Die” is a capstone that reflects back on his previous album, casting nothing but pitch-black shadows.
Add to that Biggie’s real-life sudden death, which preceded the album’s release by a mere two weeks. As his funeral parade was slowly rolling through the crowded streets of Brooklyn, the freshly pressed discs were already stacked high in record distribution centers all over the world. Hearing the tragedy of Life After Death’s opening unfold while Biggie’s actual death was still being processed by family, friends, and fans, puts the album in a light wholly devoid of, well, light. The storytelling at work on “Somebody’s Gotta Die” is astonishingly beautiful to behold, but damn.
How do you keep the momentum going after you’ve just killed off your main character?
How do you pull your audience back from the abyss after such a torrent of utter darkness?
How does this not stop the whole arch of the album dead in its tracks already?
The answer: “Hypnotize.”
As soon as we hear Biggie croon his remarkable “Uuuh!” overtop the sophisticated sway of a song that had already established itself as an anthem by the time the album dropped, listeners are once again reunited with their fallen friend. The ending of “Somebody’s Gotta Die” didn't just say goodbye to the Biggie Smalls character, though. It subtly introduced a sleeker production style and cinematic sound effects that moved away from the rugged boom bap sounds that dominated much of Ready to Die.
Behold The Black Frank White, a brand new character authored by Christopher Wallace that comes barreling in through “Hypnotize," leaving us no time to mourn. He’s effortlessly cool, suave and insanely charismatic, but with an all the more menacing undertone. Speeding on a gleaming yacht with his scrawny buddy, running from the man, Gucci shirts flapping in the wind as stacks of money flutter across the water in their wake.
You’re witnessing the infectious birth of the shiny suit era, and it’s clear whose steering rap in this direction: Yeah, Poppa and Puff. Close like Starsky and Hutch, stick the clutch.
Celebrating their cartoonishly lavish lifestyle by proxy, we’ve left the darkness well behind. But the next song makes clear that Christopher Wallace hasn’t forgotten the people that brought him here. This is underscored by a genuinely funny skit (a rare feat in itself) featuring The Madd Rapper, a character on a talk show who is ranting about why his raps deserve more success than Biggie.
It’s something The Black Frank White’s success could easily allow him to ignore, but Biggie still remains a rap purist at heart. So he kicks in the door over a knocking Premier beat, throwing bleach in the eye of any of his peers that dare doubt his mettle.
“Kick In The Door” is a rap purist’s wet dream, so of course it’s followed by “#!*@ You Tonight,” the most sexed-out, R&B crossover track on the album, featuring none other than R. Kelly, the Peed Piper himself. This wise contrast of tracks is held up throughout practically the entire album. Following this glorious raunchiness is “Last Day,” where Biggie and The Lox prove they can tackle a Havoc beat as well as any rapper from Queensbridge. That griminess is followed by the glitzy JAY-Z collaboration “I Love the Dough,” which, in turn, is followed by the brooding “What’s Beef?”
It’s one for the heads, one for the hits. On and on. But neither mood is ever left to linger, making sure no part of the audience is granted time to become alienated. It eases his street fans into smoother joints, while the audience coming for the hits isn’t pummeled by a flurry of hood anthems, allowing for both segments to cross over and coexist in harmony.
This is most blatantly apparent on "Mo Money Mo Problems," a song straight from Puffy’s patented late ‘90s template of highly recognizable, barely chopped samples from established hit records, paired with celebratory lyrics. Its predecessor? The short but stomping “B.I.G. Interlude,” in which Biggie repurposes Schoolly D’s minimalist classic “PSK, What Does It Mean?” the very song whose brutal drums and unapologetic lyrics started gangsta rap itself. It’s every bit as recognizable and even more unchanged than the Diana Ross source material that follows, but the end result is a sharp contrast that moves the story along.
On the second half of the album, we see Biggie introduce another element to his game of contrasting tracks: adopting styles from other regions. Decades before Drake would be accused of stealing the sauce from regionally successful rap acts, Biggie was collaborating with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on a track that’d fit right in on one of their own albums. He’d also unabashedly express his love for California on “Going Back To Cali,” a typical West Coast banger complete with Roger Troutman sample. Naturally, that record was followed by “Ten Crack Commandments,” a track featuring a booming Chuck D countdown over a classic DJ Premier beat, without a doubt the most NY record on the album.
The album’s momentum almost hits the skids when we reach the joke song “Playa Hater,” where B.I.G. and Puff provide The Delfonics’ “Hey Love” with new lyrics describing a robbery, which is immediately followed by the raunchy “Nasty Boy” and its electronic bounce. Thankfully, the following interlude featuring B.I.G.’s mom, introducing the iconic “Sky’s the Limit” and giving the last single off the album a sense of gravitas, get the album back on track.
"The World Is Filled…” then features West Coast rap veteran Too $hort, which is in turn contrasted by NYC rap veteran DMC on “My Downfall,” a track that also features a top-3 Puffy rant (wedged between No Way Out’s “Victory” and “Long Kiss Goodnight”).
Closing out the album is “You're Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You),” which despite its biblical intro and moody Faith Evans backing vocals, finds The Black Frank White himself unperturbed by death. On Life After Death’s opening salvo, it’s the bleak ending feared by all, solemnly wrapping up Biggie Smalls’ story. On its mirroring final track, it’s the force that births stories—why should the greatest storyteller himself ever fear it?
Critics might call Big’s constantly contrasted tracklist a calculated move meant to achieve crossover success, and it probably was, at least in part, but the deft swaying between moods also makes Life After Death’s nearly two-hour runtime feel closer to half of that. Try to imagine three or four random tracks placed anywhere else on the album and you’ll quickly realize that Life After Death could’ve very easily collapsed under the weight of its own ambitions.
It is this expert level of sequencing across two discs (or three pieces of vinyl) that doesn’t just effectively showcase Biggie’s obvious and undeniable talent, but also proves Puff’s intellect as an executive producer. More than two decades after its author passed away, the legacy of Life After Death lives on through its creator and a master class in the art of album sequencing.