Bigger than death


February 12, 2006


From the onslaught of albums that followed the deaths of Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix through the recent releases from rapper Tupac Shakur and Nirvana bandleader Kurt Cobain, the history of posthumous pop is a sad one.

Almost all of the discs issued after these artists' deaths are transparent attempts by their estates to cash in on their names, rather than preserving or forwarding their legacies. Sadly, there is no music-world cliche that rings truer than the one which holds that death is a great career move.

As the Rolling Stone cover line said of Morrison in 1981, when the Doors had been gone for a decade but were still selling 750,000 albums a year: "He's hot, he's sexy and he's dead."

Last year, Forbes compiled its ironically titled "Lucky 13" list of the top-earning dead celebrities. Six were popular musicians, and a seventh, Irving Berlin, was a songwriter. At No. 1 with $45 million: Elvis Presley. "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schultz ranked No. 2, but he was followed by John Lennon (No. 3, $22 million); George Harrison and Johnny Cash (Nos. 9-10, $7 million each) and Bob Marley and Ray Charles (Nos. 12-13, $6 million each).

Remember that when you consider that one of the most popular albums in the United States for the last month has been "The Notorious B.I.G. Duets: The Final Chapter." Sales are closing in on a million copies, nine years after the rapper also known as Biggie Smalls or Christopher Wallace was shot to death in Los Angeles in what may have been a result of a blood feud with Tupac and record mogul Shuge Knight. (Biggie's murder, like Tupac's, still has not been solved.)

Engineered by Biggie's mother; his widow, R&B singer Faith Evans, and his former partner, the ever-entrepreneurial P. Diddy, "The Notorious B.I.G. Duets" is better than his second posthumous disc, the disappointing "Born Again" (1999). But it certainly doesn't match the brilliance of his first: His second and last studio album, "Life After Death," was issued shortly after his murder.

The formula on this "new" album actually follows the one pioneered by producers who used advances in digital technology to create a duet between Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie on "Unforgettable: With Love" (1991), pairing living artists -- many of them unlikely choices -- with tape of the dead icon. Unfortunately, Biggie's contributions have all been heard before on previously released tracks, and he doesn't appear at all on two of the 22 tunes.

Considered the voice that defined the tough, street-smart sound of New York rap in the '90s, Biggie brought the spotlight back East at a time when the West Coast dominated hip-hop. His commercial success far overshadowed his rival Tupac's during their lifetimes, but Biggie wasn't nearly as prolific as 'Pac, and his grave robbers -- or monument-builders, if you prefer -- don't have nearly as much leftover to work with.

As a result, Tupac's reputation looms larger today, though Biggie's gruff voice stands as one of the best rap ever produced, and in that regard, it's a pleasure just to hear his booming rhymes again. This nostalgia combined with a handful of irresistible new grooves and the name recognition of the long list of superstar contributors -- among them Eminem, Fat Joe, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Mary J. Blige, and Chicagoans R. Kelly and Twista -- accounts for the disc's phenomenal success.

As posthumous cash-ins go, "Duets" isn't nearly as bad as some -- including Tupac's life-after-death releases -- but there are some downright disasters. These include "Wake Up," a pathetic pairing with nu-metal noise mavens Korn, and "Hold Ya Head," a track built on samples of "Johnny Was" by Bob Marley. Two dead heroes for the price of one!

Other tracks are guilty pleasures and moving tributes, including the hit single "Nasty Girl," produced by Jazzy Pha and featuring Diddy, Nelly, Jagged Edge and Avery Storm; "Hustler's Story," crafted by Reefa with guest raps by Scarface and others, and "1970 Somethin'," which finds Andre Harris and Vidal Davis remaking Biggie's "Respect" with his widow Evans and The Game.

The most striking song, however, is a new version of "Beef," which originally appeared on Biggie's debut, "Ready to Die" (1994). (The artist was morbid from birth, as his album titles indicate.) "What's beef? Beef is when you need two gats to go to sleep/Beef is when your moms ain't safe up in the streets," Biggie originally rapped, to which Diddy now adds, "Beef doesn't happen on records / You don't know what beef is."

Here's an example of a song that is much more powerful and poignant now than when its creator was alive. It may be too late for Biggie to benefit from an end to pumped-up feuds and pointless violence in the rap world, but that sentiment is heard loud and clear from beyond the grave.