Born Again, the Notorious B.I.G.'s third album (after 1994's Ready to Die and 1997's Life After Death), is the product of a long-awaited vault-opening. As well as some posthumous cut-and-paste work, new beats by producers such as Puffy, DJ Premier and Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie have been laid under old B.I.G. rhymes, some previously unreleased and others already familiar to fans, like "Who Shot Ya" and the legendary third part of "Real Niggas," given a new beat and renamed "Notorious B.I.G." The only real find here is the awesome "Dead Wrong," which shows B.I.G. in his prime.
Where many MCs make either funny records or crime songs, B.I.G. often did both at the same time, slipping jokes and double-entendres into his threats and bluster even as he changed his rhyme scheme midsentence. Check out the first verse of "Dead Wrong" - the subject matter is disgusting, but the way B.I.G.'s phrasing and line of thought shift within the rhymes is a beautiful thing: "Biggie Smalls for mayor!/The rap slayer!/The hooker layer/Motherfucker, say your prayers!/Hail Mary, full of grace/Smack a bitch in the face/Take her Gucci bag and her North Face/Off her back/Jab her if she act/Funny with the money/Yo, you got me mistaken, honey/I don't want to rape ya/I just want the paper/The Visa, capisce-ah?/I'm out like 'The Vapors.' " This was stuff he made up in his head, y'all, without use of pen or paper. Don't try this at home. You'll hurt yourself.
It's perfect that the anchor man on "Dead Wrong" is Eminem; he attacks completely different subjects than B.I.G. does, but because of Em's propensity to spit sharp, subtle comedy into detailed, gory tales, he's among the most Biggie-esque MCs out today: "There's several different levels to devil-worshipping/Horses' heads/Human sacrifices/Cannibalism/Candles/And exorcism/Animals havin' sex with them candles, mammals and rabbits/But I don't get into that/I kicked the habit." Other guests include Puffy, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Redman, Method Man, Mobb Deep, Beanie Sigel and Nas, but none of them makes the same impact.
Biggie brimmed with the delicious voice and the strong character necessary to be an elite MC. But what put him over the top was that he could sustain a theme throughout a song or an album. Both Ready to Die and Life After Death have some lyrical and musical cohesion; Born Again has none, albeit for very understandable reasons. What's even more depressing is the lack of stories, and the lack of great beats. B.I.G. knew how to choose the deep-funk beats that fit his booming voice and underscored his explicit crime narratives. Most of the music laid down here doesn't fit him quite so well - it's quirky, not sample-driven and not nearly as intense as he is. Will any of these beats, outside of "Dead Wrong," take on lives of their own as instrumentals? I doubt it.
The simple fact is that B.I.G. may have released all of his best stuff during his lifetime. Most of the rhymes here are tight, like a great actor who shines even in a bad movie, so this album won't damage his legacy. But Born Again won't improve that legacy much, either. (RS 832)
(Posted: Jan 20, 2000)
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