Words by Michael Walter
When a hip-hop artist comes out with a double album, critics and fans alike always end up discussing whether or not it would have been better had some material been cut and it had just been released as a single album. Personally, I think the hip-hop double album is always a mistake. There has never been one that was a true five-star classic, and even those that are solid still contain way too much filler.
This is the first in a series of columns where I’ll look back at various hip-hop double albums and see if I can successfully trim them down to one disc. And I’m kicking things off with one of my favorite rap records of all time …
Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death (1997)
Let me first say that I absolutely love Life After Death. In fact, I actually find myself listening to it more than Ready to Die. When I put it on, though, I can never go from “Life After Death Intro” to “You’re Nobody (Till Somebody Kills You)” in one sitting. There are too many lesser songs that need to be skipped just to make it all the way through. So this is my attempt to cut down a hip-hop classic and even make it better. Blasphemy? Perhaps. But it should at least spark some interesting debate.
We begin, of course, at the beginning. It wouldn’t feel like a B.I.G. album without a cinematic opening, so “Life After Death Intro” stays. It does a superb job of setting the death-obsessed tone of the album without wasting too much time.
The first major decision I had to make was figuring out what to do with “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems.” Both were huge hits, but both are also incredibly polarizing. In fact, while doing a little research for this column, I ran across several people online who swore that Life After Death would have been a better record had both songs been left off altogether. I couldn’t disagree more. “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems” may have both been overplayed, but they also happen to be two of the best mainstream rap singles of all time. How can anyone possibly hear “Mo Money Mo Problems” and not crack a smile? “I’m Coming Out” was absolutely begging to be sampled and Puffy and his crew did a fantastic job with it. As Nas and Kanye proved with “Still Dreaming” from last year’s Hip-Hop is Dead, sampling Diana Ross is never a bad idea.
Of course, if you’re keeping the smash singles, you have to keep Biggie’s hard-hitting gangster tales. Cuts like “Somebody’s Gotta Die,” “Kick in the Door,” and “Niggas Bleed” all found B.I.G. proving he hadn’t lost a step since Ready to Die. To this day, I can’t hear “Somebody’s Gotta Die” without my heart racing as he goes to answer the doorbell. This isn’t just a man spitting a few verses, this is storytelling at its very best.
Two personal favorites than I just had to keep are B.I.G.’s collaborations with R. Kelly and Jay-Z. The production on “Fuck You Tonight” sounds so dated that I almost laugh out loud when listening to it, but it’s still a fun song that switches up the tone of the album. I’m a fan of “I Love the Dough” for obvious reasons … who doesn’t want to hear a young Jay?
Of all the great tracks on Life After Death, my favorite is “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” In fact, with all due respect to “Juicy,” I think it is the greatest song B.I.G. ever recorded. The beat is fantastic, the hook is stirring and the verses find the man at his best. I’ve been known to listen to this song on repeat for hours. It just never gets old.
Determining what songs to cut was simple. “Last Day,” for example, has a decent beat, but hearing it always just makes me want to skip ahead to “I Love the Dough.” “Miss U,” “Another” and “Sky’s the Limit” are just plain bad. “Long Kiss Goodnight” has never done anything for me … can’t Puffy just be quiet sometimes?
Anyway, without further ado, I give you my single-disc cut of Life After Death:
1. Life After Death Intro
2. Somebody’s Gotta Die
4. Kick in the Door
5. Fuck You Tonight
6. Notorious Thugs
7. I Love the Dough
8. What’s Beef?
9. Niggas Bleed
10. Ten Crack Commandments
11. Mo Money Mo Problems
12. Playa Hater
13. Going Back to Cali
14. You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)
There it is. I’ve taken a great album and shown how it could have been better. If Life After Death had been released as a single disc, with the songs in an order similar to what I came up, it would be one of the very best hip-hop albums of all time.
Next time, I’ll be tackling Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse. Wish me luck with that one.