By Dan Charnas
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
On the cover of a rap magazine from 1995, the Notorious B.I.G. stood superimposed against the skyline of Lower Manhattan, tall as the twin towers behind him. The headline read "The King of New York Takes Over."
Those landmarks are gone now, and so is Biggie's towering presence. In New York his absence is as visible as that hole in the sky. In hip-hop, it tingles like a missing limb. Today, in a crowded nightclub or on the radio, a sound as simple as B.I.G.'s trademark "UNNH!" can bring back waves of collective memory.
The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Duets: The Final Chapter" -- like similar efforts undertaken on behalf of John Lennon and Nat King Cole -- offers the illusion of the fallen icon's presence by stitching previously recorded vocals into new musical clothing. But unlike his former friend Tupac Shakur, B.I.G. never generated the backlog of material that made Pac's posthumous career nearly as prolific as his living, breathing one.
So we've heard these rhymes before. The twist is their juxtaposition alongside new accompaniment -- purposeful and pointed additions from friends he left behind after he was murdered in 1997, and stars who rose after his passing. "Duets" is not just resurrection through recycling; it attempts immortality through interpretation.
Fact is, the best Biggie post-death duets have already been done, and they're not on this album: 2003's "Realest Niggas" with rap titan 50 Cent, and "Runnin' (Dying to Live)," B.I.G.'s inevitable reunion with Tupac. On "Duets," some likely pairings are missing as well, with his proteges Lil' Kim and Little Cease either uninvited or indisposed.
Still, if you've been holding your breath for some stellar faux-collaborations, "Duets" delivers. Jay-Z and Nas are the only contemporaries who come close to matching B.I.G.'s impact and intellect, and they're both here on "Whatchu Want" and "Living in Pain," respectively. Mobb Deep adds a new dimension to Biggie's "Beef." The most inspired pairing is B.I.G. and Big Pun, because it was Pun who filled the void in hip-hop's "corpulent chieftain" archetype after Biggie's death. (When hip-hop needed another fat man, Pun stepped right in -- as Fat Joe did after Pun's untimely death.)
The revelations on "Duets" don't come from any of those likely candidates, though. The Game, of all people, practically steals the album with his creative verse on "1970 Somethin'," the young Compton rapper's sincerity vouched for by Faith's chorus. But the real marvel is the quiet reflection of Biggie's mother, Violetta Wallace, on "Love Is Everlasting," and the voice of B.I.G.'s daughter T'yanna, whose level of maturity at 13 makes the gun talk around her sound positively juvenile.
The few additional uncanned moments come not from the dark gangsta dirges but from tracks alive with sexual energy. R. Kelly and Biggie are potent in "Mi Casa." And when Puffy's tenor follows B.I.G.'s baritone in "Nasty Girl," for a brief moment it's 1995 again. The club bumps the latest Biggie joint, and the girls dance.
Outside, the towers still stand, and all is right with the world.