Friday, January 16, 2009

1/16/09 - Party and Bullshit

Notorious coming to the movie theaters, and it looks like Biggie's getting the full-on hagiography treatment, which is almost a shame since the bulk of his recorded output is summed up by one of his earliest songs from '93:

Biggie: "Party and Bullshit"

Death has a way of whitewashing life; so too to any kind of lasting achievements. Phil Spector seems to be on a mission to balance the karmic scales by going full-blown crazy to reverse atone for all the girl-group singles he helped produce, but even with what looks an awful lot like blood on his hands, his epitaph is still going to be dominated by his musical work in the '60s. Abraham Lincoln put the Emancipation Proclamation in place, but they don't tell you in high school that he loved dirty jokes.

So it's a little disconcerting to see Biggie mythologized like this, blown up to a larger-than-life image, when he was especially gifted at creating himself as a larger-than-life image anyway. The tough part of it is that his version is a lot more complex and a lot more real feeling than the hagiographic treatment that seems to be advertised in the promotional materials for Notorioius. It's not an encouraging sign that Sean Combs help produce the movie; as the overblown explosion of "I'll Be Missing You" post-Las Vegas shooting showed, Puffy's trades in sentimentality and melodrama when it comes to his now 15 years dead friend. That's all well and good from a coping perspective, but it murders art.

The genius of Biggie was the way that he traded in operatic images and themes, but extracted real drama, not melodrama, from them. The blinged-out fantasy world that Puffy luxuriates in was, for sure, something that Biggie also cast as aspirational lifestyle shit in his rhymes. But Puffy's motto is to never let them see you sweat - Biggie let the contradictions hang out, and deepend the thrust of his lyrics by showing the fear, desparation, and hopelessness behind the gangsta mask.

Take the opener, "Things Have Changed", from Ready to Die - it comes replete with thug life imagery:

"Turn your pagers, to nineteen ninety three
Niggas is gettin smoked G, believe me
Talk slick, you get your neck slit quick
Cause real street niggas ain't havin that shit"

But what comes before that, what it opens with, is an invocation of what's been lost:

"Remember back in the days, when niggas had waves
Gazelle shades, and corn braids
Pitchin pennies, honies had the high top jellies
Shootin skelly, motherfuckers was all friendly
Loungin at the barbeques, drinkin brews
with the neighborhood crews, hangin on the avenues"

Biggie: "Things Done Changed"

In the opening verse of his debut album, Biggie sketches out the lament of the crack epidemic in the inner cities - the dissolution of neighborhood bonhomie in the name of the real. It's this "real" that Chris Rock so memorably skewered as a dead-end street, and the critique is right there in Biggie's verse - this is the way things are, he's saying, I'm a part of it, but the way things used to be worth lamenting.

It's the filling in of the context, of the margins, that make his verses so resonant, and that give even his straight-up gangster songs and verses their tragic weight. Without Michael Corleone in Italy, the depth of his fall doesn't quite tug on the heart so hard. Without the image of a Biggie waking up "fucked up/pockets broke as hell/another rock to sell", all the threats to grab his shotty and identify the body and smuggle crack and all that would just be the empty swagger that we've seen Xerox'ed into irrelevance by 50 Cent et. al. Similar to the way that one of 50s most compelling stories is that of wanted to sell drugs to buy a new hat (context is king), Biggie's gangster narratives are made so much richer by the details filling out the margins.

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