A Legacy of Life on the Streets Biggie Smalls Told the Terrible Tale with the Voice of a Poet

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"We are overwhelmed with grief by the death of a great artist, a family member and our friend, the Notorious B.I.G." - Bad Boy Entertainment

THE 24-year-old rapper Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls, was shot to death early in the morning of March 9 in a drive- by shooting in Los Angeles.

The murder set off a wave of intense media speculation about the state of rap music. Six months after the murder of rapper Tupac Shakur, some wondered if Biggie's death was a retaliatory strike, the latest chapter in what's called rap's East Coast-West Coast rivalry.

Perhaps it's so, perhaps it's not. Biggie was an East Coast rapper who was associated with Bad Boy Entertainment honcho Sean "Puffy" Combs, while the late Tupac was aligned with the West Coast head of Death Row Records, kingpin Marion "Suge" Knight.

Much has been made in the past about the bad blood between these parties, and now, as the dust settles, the sight is pretty grim: Knight is currently in prison, Tupac is dead, Biggie is dead. Puffy Combs is the only principal left standing in this particular drama, and I imagine the guy must be feeling sort of shaky in the wake of all that has transpired.

But for now, I'll put aside more speculation about retaliation and East Coast-West Coast rivalries, and instead focus on what hit me hardest when I got the news about Biggie's death: We lost an important artist this week, and that's no sentimental hype.

Ironically, Biggie's new album, "Life After Death . . . 'Til Death Do Us Part," is scheduled for release on March 25. As of press time, an advance copy was unavailable, so I can't attest to its quality. But what I can speak to is the quality of Biggie's 1994 debut CD "Ready To Die." It's an album of such power, intelligence and emotion it still knocks the socks off most hip-hop offerings, and, frankly, most current offerings in any genre.

"Ready To Die" is an explicit album and comes with a parental advisory sticker.

Biggie told frank stories, fraught with human contradictions. At times, the language is extremely harsh, but it's not an album that is gratuitous in its use of violent and sexual imagery.

With his sleepy eye, Biggie cast a hard look upon his own life and came up with a concept album that follows the short life of a hard- core street hustler from birth to death by suicide.

Biggie emerges as a poet on this disc, and believe me, that's a word I rarely use in connection to someone in popular music.

On the stunning song "Things Done Changed," the lush, symphonic music (which recalls an Isaac Hayes mood for the '90s) provides a back-drop as Biggie furiously laments the death of the old neighborhood. The dread builds as he runs down all the contemporary pressures that have driven him to the boiling point. …