Artist

Notorious BIG

Neil Young's lyric, "It's better to burn out than to fade away," became infamous after being quoted in Kurt Cobain's 1994 suicide note. In an odd twist of fate, the same spirit reappeared in 1996 and 1997 with the deaths of two young and massively successful hip-hop stars, Tupac Shakur and Christopher "Notorious B.I.G." Wallace. Though Shakur and Wallace did not willingly take their own lives, the sentiment of the lyric still resonated as their star statuses were cemented after their respective murders. Wallace had the additional, peculiar distinction of passing before releasing a significant amount of music. He was killed almost two weeks before the release of his second full-length album. With relatively little material released in his short lifetime, he still left behind a legion of peers and fans who have taken great pains to carry on a specific vision of his legacy as a hip-hop icon. The story of "Biggie Smalls" has since become so mythic it can be considered a seminal hip-hop creation tale.

The Brooklyn-born MC came of age during the '80s crack epidemic. He dealt drugs as a teenager, dropped out of high school, and turned to rapping. His demo was circulated and eventually heard by a young A&R representative named Sean "Puffy" Combs, who quickly signed Wallace to Uptown Records. Shortly thereafter, Combs started Bad Boy Records, and Wallace joined the upstart. He made notable appearances on singles by Mary J. Blige and Craig Mack before releasing his debut album, Ready to Die, in 1994. The album was an immediate success, entered the Billboard 200 chart, and eventually went four-times platinum. Rolling Stone described the album as "shift[-ing] the focus back to East Coast rap" at a time when West Coast artists like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg garnered attention for mainstreaming hip-hop.

Wallace used his success to bring attention to other artists, notably Junior M.A.F.I.A. (which would serve as a jump-off for the solo career of rapper Lil' Kim), and to help establish other artists on Combs' Bad Boy imprint. However, as Wallace and Bad Boy rose to prominence, tensions arose with their primary business rival, Suge Knight, and his Death Row Records (then-home of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and eventually Tupac). This rivalry would soon be widely described as a broader East Coast v. West Coast "beef." In the midst of this atmosphere, Wallace worked on his sophomore album. In September 1996, Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting. Shortly after Wallace was implicated (later revealed as falsely) in the murder. Wallace continued working on his album until its completion in early 1997. He traveled to California to promote the album. On March 9, 1997, he was killed in a drive-by shooting.

True to being a legend, Wallace has continued to play a role in hip-hop culture. Tribute records have won Grammy awards. Two additional posthumous records have been released. A feature-length biopic, Notorious, was made in 2009. And to this day the memory of Wallace finds its place in countless murals, graffiti and children's art projects. Though much of the Biggie mythology can be questioned, his story has become a glamorized, modern retelling of the rags-to-riches, life-and-death yarn.


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