Biggie’s face on the cover says it all: he appears downcast, disappointed and depressed. These are the emotions a true B.I.G. fan will feel after listening to what is called his new album, “Duets: The Final Chapter,” which should read, “Duets: The Final Chapter of Exploitation.” The emotions displayed in the cover photo are all open to interpretation, of course, since the Notorious B.I.G. (born Christopher Wallace) was murdered in 1999. His other posthumous releases have been troubling, but “Duets” reaches new lows.
The main problem with the record is a function of its 33 (count ’em!) collaborators, DJs, producers, executives and lawyers who were involved in its creation. Consider just a few of the more peculiar artists involved: Slim Thug, Obie Trice, Korn and the late Bob Marley. Certainly most offensive is that Bob Marley and Notorious B.I.G. are both listed as collaborators, since obviously neither was consulted. On the track “Hold Ya Head,” two tracks from the two artists are simply cut and pasted together without any trace of a unifying beat or chorus.
On many songs, including opening track “It Has Been Said” — produced by Eminem — the least vocal of the “collaborators” is B.I.G himself. While Eminem’s lyrics are some of the truest and most respectful of the album, B.I.G. is limited to monosyllabic grunts and interjections. It is actually painful to hear such an outspoken and emotive rapper reduced to a background singer — on what is supposedly his own album.
While the limited amount of authentic B.I.G. vocals do much to invalidate the record as a true posthumous release, it doesn’t even feel like a respectable tribute album. B.I.G.’s reputation was built on gritty street tales of hardship and fear, but this reputation is tarnished by tracks such as the club-bumping single “Nasty Girl.” In the video packaged with the special edition C.D., rappers are shown parading at a party with B.I.G.’s eerily disapproving portrait in the background. One rapper is seen in a hot tub with busty women while the background sings, “Ladies, if you feel me, grab those things for Biggie.” Apparently, dropping B.I.G.’s name not only gets you a hit album, it will also get you some sideline sex as well. But where’s Biggie? On a five-minute single, he only gets one minute of rapping time.
To top it all off, the funky horn riffs and driving drum beats of the artist’s first and most authentic release, “Ready To Die”, have been traded in for cheap piano lines and a more dance-friendly rhythm. That’s not Biggie. It’s a great attempt at modernizing his rhymes, but it only cheapens his words.
That said, Biggie’s own words remain inspiring, even if the beats are appalling. Strongest and most meaningful is the chorus from “Beef,” which warns against rivalries and violence in rap with lines like, “Beef is when you need two gats to go to sleep/ Beef is when your moms ain’t safe up in the streets/ Beef is when I see you/ Guaranteed to be in I.C.U.” Coming from a man murdered in a horrible rap rivalry, these intimidating words are that much more meaningful and poignant. Unfortunately, on “Duets”, Bad Boy devolves Biggie’s hard-hitting rhymes into commercialized and romanticized gangster rap.
Harsh reality coupled with honest storytelling was always Biggie’s strength, and this synthesis can be heard in the album highlight “1970 Something.” The song details his rise as a rapper from the streets: “Rap was secondary/ Money was necessary/ Until I got incarcerated, kinda scary/ See 74 March eighth set me straight/ Not able to move behind the great steel gate.” Unlike the travesties of the other tracks, “1970” is seemingly unmarred by shameless overproduction and maintains its street cred.
Had the rest of the album been propped up by a more meaningful list of collaborators (more Faith Evans and less Korn), it could have been something. Unfortunately, the project as it stands is an utter failure. Even my grandma could have made a better album — at least she was raised to remember the basic credo, “Too many cooks spoil the broth, and don’t mess with Biggie.”