January 16, 2009

The Notorious B.I.G. - Born Again (December 7, 1999)



In honor (I say that cautiously, as I have not yet seen it) of the release of Notorious, the Biggie Smalls biopic that hits theaters today, I present Christopher Wallace's first posthumous album, Born Again.

The title of the album follows the natural cycle presented on Biggie's first two discs, Ready To Die and Life After Death. In fact, if I remember correctly, Biggie spoke of calling his third release Born Again prior to his untimely death on March 9, 1997, from injuries sustained in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, one which remains unsolved to this very day.

However, the title may be the only input that The Notorious B.I.G. has on this project. Since he was dead and all, he wasn't available to contribute any new verses, so his friend/mentor/boss Sean "Puffy" Combs was charged with compiling an album that could simultaneously pay homage to the man and possibly be perceived as a valid third album. Naturally, this meant grabbing as many "unreleased" (read: swiped from mixtapes) Biggie bars as possible, and fitting them onto recently-completed instrumentals like a jigsaw puzzle, and then calling upon the hot rappers of the moment (or, when that failed, pulling rank on the Bad Boy Records roster) to fill in the blanks.

Consequently, Born Again is primarily made up of song amalgamations that aren't necessarily natural. To his credit, though, Puff Daddy seems to have chosen artists to contribute that, at the very least, Biggie might have listened to in his lifetime, unlike the deviant mutations of tracks that appear on his other posthumous disc, Duets: The Final Chapter, but we'll get to that when we get to that.

For an album that was talked up in the hip hop press for about a full year prior to its release, Born Again is as notable for its exclusions as it is for what ended up on the final product. A remix of an early Biggie hit, "Party & Bullshit" (which appeared on the Who's The Man? soundtrack before Biggie was even signed to a label: his name even appears on the disc as 'Big'), featuring Will Smith and Biggie's widow Faith Evans, and featuring production from DJ Premier, was mentioned so often that I'm convinced that it's sitting in the Bad Boy vaults, fully mastered, simply collecting dust, and yet, it's not here. I suppose it would have been too obvious for Puffy to include some of Biggie's actual unreleased songs on Born Again, apparently, so only one remnant of the Ready To Die studio sessions, "Come On", makes an appearance. (Other tracks, featuring artists as diverse as Nerf Herder, The Lox, Killah Priest, Lauryn Hill, and Sufjan Stevens, also ended up missing from the final cut.) Probably the biggest name missing from the project is Shawn Carter, who publicly stated that he didn't participate because, unlike most of the artists on Born Again, he actually did record songs with Biggie Smalls and didn't feel that it would be appropriate. (And yet Jay-Z had no such qualms when Duets: The FInal Chapter was conceived. Hmm.....)

Born Again sold tons of copies and helped cement Christopher Wallace's place in hip hop's eventual hall of fame, which will either be located in New York somewhere, or possibly in Scandinavia, where the music from the South doesn't get much play. However, it was met with much critical derision, and the public perception of the disc was a cartoonish image of Puff Daddy riding his deceased friend's coattails all the way to the motherfucking bank. As such, most Biggie fans don't even bother including this disc in their hero's official catalog.

But was this backlash deserved?

Probably. Here's why:

1. BORN AGAIN (INTRO)
Kind of incredibly polarizing. You'll walk away from this rap album intro either depressed that Biggie was ultimately correct about his early death, or you'll be pissed off that Puffy and company included this shit as a wholly manufactured way to tug at your heartstrings. The dumbass chanting at the end (lyrics swiped from "Dead Wrong") also makes zero sense in this context, and seem to have been included as an inside joke being played on the listeners. We get it: the man's dead. I can read the newspaper too, jackass. This is one of the most useless rap album intros I have heard in a long while.

2. NOTORIOUS B.I.G. (FEAT PUFF DADDY & LIL' KIM)
I never cared for this song. You can almost see Puffy break out the shiny suit over Prestige's radio-friendly endeavor, and that is never a good thing. (For one, they burn the corneas and cause much distracti...oooh, look, shiny object!) I'm sure it doesn't help that the Duran Duran sample (from, duh, "Notorious") constantly reminds me today of the children dancing in fucking Donnie Darko. And wasn't this song once simply referred to as "Notorious"? What the fuck happened?

3. DEAD WRONG (REMIX) (FEAT EMINEM)
Probably the most vile song on all of Born Again, but I mean that in the best possible way. Biggie's demented lyrics (taken from multiple sources and not, in fact, from an unreleased song entitled "Dead Wrong", as I mistakenly believed) are aided and abetted by an after-the-fact beat from multiple members of Puff Daddy's Hitmen production squad. Since Biggie actually comes off as someone you would not want to fuck with, I have to give kudos. Marshall's tacked-on verse at the end is unnecessary (as was his cameo in this track's video), but still mildly amusing: this was during Slim Shady's career apex, so it's actually pretty entertaining. True fans should probably track down the original version of this track online, sans Eminem, so that you can hear what it sounded like prior to label interference (read: Puff Daddy).

4. HOPE YOU N----S SLEEP (FEAT HOT BOYS, & BIG TYMERS)
When Born Again was released, this song caught a lot of flak: would Biggie have actually worked with Cash Money artists if he were still around. Looking back, the answer is a wholehearted "You bet your fucking ass he would", especially when it comes to Lil' Wayne, hip hop's flavor of the month, who bats cleanup on here as part of the Hot Boys. The Mannie Fresh instrumental is alright (believe it or not, I always kind of liked his beats; I was just never impressed with the artists he chose to work with), and, in a sentence I never thought I would see on my blog, I found Juvenile's verse to actually be really good, and B.G.'s wasn't entirely without merit. Aaah, lowered expectations! Biggie's vocals sound awkwardly laid in by the engineers, though, as if they did it while wearing earplugs, a blindfold, and six broken condoms. (See, not all of these comments make sense.)

5. DANGEROUS M.C.'S (FEAT BUSTA RHYMES, MARK CURRY, & SNOOP DOGG)
This patchwork quilt of a song is only notable because, apparently, there was something wrong with the audio on Biggie's original recording: we actually lose his voice for almost two bars, so Busta Rhymes steps in to help us out. Otherwise, this song is boring as fuck, and Busta's hook is almost as stupid as the one that Ron Browz contributes to his own "Arab Money". Okay, I'm exaggerating: nothing could be dumber than the hook on "Arab Money". Snoop's appearance on here brings with it more questions than necessary, the primary one being: Why? And I'm almost nineteen percent sure that it isn't the same Mark Curry that had his own show, Hangin' With Mr. Cooper, on ABC for five seasons. (It was on for that long? Seriously?)

6. BIGGIE (FEAT JUNIOR M.A.F.I.A.)
Although Lil' Kim appears on this track, she doesn't get her own performer credit, as she was still technically a part of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. back in 1999. Anywho, save for the inclusion of an older vocal sample in the hook, Biggie Smalls doesn't actually appear on here at all. Instead, the Junior M.A.F.I.A. take the opportunity to rhyme about their mentor, although everyone involved take major detours during their verses, derailing the sympathy. Also, while Kim doesn't sound horrible (indeed, she is actually the best rapper out of the group, although that's possibly because she was fucking her mentor), she's already appeared on Born Again too many times, and this is only her second appearance.

7. N----S
For obvious reasons, this is the only song on Born Again that doesn't feature any guest assistance from anybody. When Curtis Jackson was set to release his Get Rich Or Die Tryin', a mixtape-only track was released (with this same title) that fit Biggie's lyrics from here onto a much better beat (one I believe was provided by DJ Green Lantern, but I could be wrong). Not that Puffy did a completely awful job with the instrumental, but if I wanted to hear music that sounds like the opening theme to a 1970s cop show, I would turn on my television.

8. BIG BOOTY HOES (FEAT TOO $HORT)
Ahhh, nothing like a misogynistic sex rap to help pay your respects to a deceased artist. (Remember all of those vulgar anal sex jokes after Ray Charles passed away? Or the vivid discussion of autoerotic asphyxiation on Mozart's farewell album?) I have to admit that I laughed out loud when Biggie exclaimed how he likes his women "educated, so [he] can bust off on their glasses", and that makes me feel a bit guilty, but not by much, as we've all seen much worse in mainstream porn. (If you haven't, you should open up a new browser window and look that up while finishing the review.) Too $hort sounds pretty bored as fuck on here, as if even he realized that he's said all of this shit before.

9. WOULD YOU DIE FOR ME? (FEAT PUFF DADDY & LIL' KIM)
Beat-wise, this comes off as a companion piece to Life After Death's "Nasty Boy". Hook-wise, it'll make you want to run a wire hanger through your ear canal to stab your brain to death. I would like to think that even Puffy would be aware that the chorus could have been better served if it were performed by a couple of fucking hyenas (literally, two hyenas fucking) in front of a classroom of tone-deaf fourth graders. Also, why the fuck is Kim on here again? (That's a rhetorical question, you two, so please don't leave your theories in the comments.)

10. COME ON (FEAT SADAT X)
Somewhere, someone is reading this and thinking, "Sadat X? What the fuck is he doing on Born Again? When was the last time Sadat sold millions of records?" Well, here's the deal, for those of you two that aren't aware: "Come On" was originally intended for Ready To Die, but was removed for reasons unknown to me (possibly sample clearance issues, but my theory is that Puffy felt Sadat X from Brand Nubian didn't really fit the demographic he was aiming for). This means, that, unlike every other fucking song on here, "Come On" is the only track which Biggie actually recorded with his guest, and it shows in the quality. This isn't bad at all: whatever happened to producer Clark Kent, anyway?

11. RAP PHENOMENON (FEAT REDMAN & METHOD MAN)
And then we're presented with this shit. Anybody remotely interested in hearing what Reggie Noble would sound like over a DJ Premier beat will find themselves severely disillusioned, as Primo falters on what is ultimately the most disappointing instrumental on all of Born Again. Seriously, Primo gave a much better beat to motherfucking Fred Durst. Red and Meth sound pretty boring, but, admittedly, Biggie's verses (swiped from his guest appearance on Tracey Lee's "Keep Your Hands High" - I was always a fan of his "The Theme (It's Party Time)", but the track featuring the guest of honor was of no consequence) sound pretty good. Still, this could have been so much more.

12. LET ME GET DOWN (FEAT CRAIG MACK, G-DEP, & MISSY ELLIOTT)
Is that really the best use of Craig Mack you could muster, Puffy? Come on, motherfucker! The man is partially responsible for Biggie's success for two reasons: (1) Craig Mack, Biggie's only labelmate in the early days of Bad Boy, was much less charismatic than The Notorious B.I.G, leaving listeners with no choice but to pick Biggie, and (2) Craig Mack's "Flava In Ya Ear (Remix)", which featured Biggie on the lead verse (and also included Busta Rhymes, Rampage, LL Cool J, and Puffy on the ad-libs) with a performance that cemented his place in hip hop while Craig Mack was forced to take a night job at Ruby Tuesday's. Oh, the song? It's not bad, but it's not very good, either.

13. TONIGHT (FEAT PUFF DADDY & MOBB DEEP)
An unnecessary remix of Life After Death's "Long Kiss Goodnight", now with one hundred and eighty percent more Puff Daddy shouting. Havoc sounds alright, but the surprise here is Prodigy, who, uncharacteristically, doesn't suck. This probably would have been a much better song had Havoc actually manned the boards, but I'll take what I can get. Hearing Joe Hooker on the, well, hook, makes me miss Black Rob's "I Dare You".

14. IF I SHOULD DIE BEFORE I WAKE (FEAT BLACK ROB, BEANIE SIGEL, & ICE CUBE)
This track is almost fucking avant-garde in its execution, with its awkward beat and a hook that shouldn't exist as a hook. (It doesn't help that the "hook" was converted to such a beast from some older Biggie lyrics that had to be censored due to content, hence the quantity of empty space.) I don't appreciate how Puffy seemed to select his chosen guests by utilizing the Randomizer on Def Jam: Icon: come on, Beanie Sigel and Ice Cube? Really? At least Sigel sounds good (and Black Rob comes off decently as well - I really should try to find his debut in my boxes), but considering that Biggie has approximately half a verse on here, this song is a waste of time.

15. WHO SHOT YA? (FEAT PUFF DADDY)
Biggie's classic "Big Poppa" b-side, a first-person monologue from the perspective of a kidnapper, finally sees a release on a "proper" album (please note the use of quotation marks). This song easily destroys any other track Born Again has the sack to offer up. And I say this even though Puffy takes the coward's way out and fades out the song just before Biggie takes out his frustration on his captive. (The full, uncensored version can be found online rather easily.)

16. CAN I GET WITCHA (FEAT LIL' CEASE)
Rap song number 1,873,472 extolling the virtues of the woman with the ample bottom. Raise your hand if you're disturbed at the idea of Biggie and Lil' Cease trading lines (relatively speaking) in the chorus about one of them wanting to get with the other because they have a big B-U-T-T. (I realize that's not what the chorus is actually going for, but it's pretty fucking close, and it's distracting enough to make you move to the next song.)

17. I REALLY WANT TO SHOW YOU (FEAT K-CI, JOJO & NAS)
So Biggie's "Everyday Struggle" is remixed into submission, to the point that you may need to use dental records to identify it. The inclusion of Nasir was supposed to be a big deal because Nas and Biggie weren't exactly close during his lifetime: yeah, Puff, having Nas appear on the disc after the star has already died is a surefire way to help them bury the hatchet.

18. MS. WALLACE (OUTRO) (FEAT VOLETTA WALLACE)
I found this to be a very touching and honest outro. Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace, denounces her son's decision to become part of the music industry, all while acknowledging that his rhymes brought entertainment to more than a few people's ears, because she feels that rap music was directly related to her son's murder. I appreciate her candor, although it is ironically tacked on to the end of a rap album (and is faded out before she even finishes talking - goddamn it, I hate when people do that shit). However, the biggest problem with this outro is not its existence, unlike other albums. No, the beef I have with it is that it will probably never be heard by Biggie's fans, who will skip this shit right back to the beginning after realizing that this isn't a song. Sigh.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Born Again is an inferior album in the Biggie Smalls catalog. That's the opinion that essentially everyone on Earth has, so you two shouldn't be surprised by my conclusion, but the reason it fails is not because of the massive number of guests: it's because said guests fail to show even the smallest ounce of emotion regarding the passing of the star attraction. The most sincere comment comes from Biggie's mother, but she's talking about how she wishes her son never picked up the mic: that's not what hip hop fans want to hear. It's pretty obvious that Born Again was a cash-in for Puff Daddy, capitalizing on exploiting his friend, and I have a weird feeling that Notorious will give me that same feeling. Again, none of this is new information: it's just a new twist on popular opinion.

BUY OR BURN? Enough people already bought enough of this garbage to warrant it the number one slot on the Billboard charts the week of its release, but that doesn't mean you need to make the same mistake. You should avoid this album in much the same manner as I try to avoid anything remotely relating to The Hills (which is to say, like the fucking Black Plague).

BEST TRACKS: "Dead Wrong (Remix)"; "Who Shot Ya?"

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
Some more Notorious B.L.O.G.S. here (sorry, couldn't resist the bad pun).

10 comments:

  1. Any particular reason you think Scandinavia will house hip hop's hall of fame? ;)

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  2. Red Spyda did the beat for the B.I.G./Curtis collabo.

    Too $hort sounds pretty bored as fuck on here, as if even he realized that he's said all of this shit before.
    ========================================
    LOL

    Thorough read as usual Max, filled with all the quips & dry humor I've come to expect.

    Props.

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  3. "Party and Bullshit" is on the "Notorious" soundtrack. Not sure what version it is as I haven't listened to it.

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  4. funky funatiJanuary 16, 2009

    Red Spyda produced that 50 Cent song, and Eminem - once again - KILLED the remix

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  5. "...or possibly in Scandinavia, where the music from the South doesn't get much play."

    You would be surprised of how far music can travel. Believe me; the South is as present here in Scandinavia as the cold rain is.

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  6. I remember buying this. Hearing this. Selling this. And I lost not a penny.

    The engineers didn't do a great job masking the different sounds between B.I.G.'s recordings and the other MC's... sometimes it sounds horrible, like in the Eminem song..

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  7. The version of "Come On" included here is an inferior remix (surprise, surprise) of the original Lord Finesse-produced version intended for Ready To Die. The version Finesse handles is much, much, MUCH better, a lost classic that would've made an already classic album (Ready To Die) that much more...uh...classic. It was supposedly left off of Ready To Die as Puff wanted to give the album a more mainstream direction. On this note, Pete Rock's remix of "Juicy" from the 12" is apparently the original version of the song before Puff tweaked it to make it more radio-ready. Makes sense considering Pete Rock's version of "Juicy" differs little from the album version (save the drums).

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  8. Mr. BentleyJanuary 22, 2009

    The missing lines from dangerous mcs was a shot at tupac. I guess at that point they felt there wasnt a place for it anymore.

    Heres the original verse (over a dilla beat):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QOe3WpSDyU&feature=channel_page

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  9. dj clark kent left the production to let his air force one addiction flourish in undisturbed insanity

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  10. So Max, What's your opinion on the film Notorious?

    ReplyDelete