The Poetry of Biggie Smalls

Netflix’s Notorious B.I.G. documentary is a great origin story, but doesn’t talk enough about Biggie’s lyrics

Netflix has recently released I Got A Story To Tell, a new feature-length documentary about the life and work of Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, aka Christopher Wallace, he of Brooklyn born. It’s worthwhile that people pay more attention to “the Black Frank White”. All these years later, he’s still one of the greatest to have ever done it despite the fact that his entire output is dramatically smaller than most. Dying at the Keatsian age of 24, under mysterious circumstances no less, only reinforces Biggie’s massive place in the pantheon of great street poets of history. 

I Got A Story To Tell contains some interesting personal footage, and wears its love for Biggie on its sleeve but, doesn’t explore the real depths of Biggie’s writing. You can commend the “reach for the stars” approach, and I suppose Biggie’s story is inspiring in some ways. But I wanted more exploring of his songs’ dark imaginative power and moral turbulence. I Got A Story To Tell already assumes that the songs are great, which they are, but doesn’t analyze them much beyond demonstrating Biggie’s impeccable flow. 

Like many artists, Biggie was his own greatest creation. The film doesn’t explore that enough, and his story isn’t complete without it. A Gemini, Biggie was drawn to duality all his life; he dueted with himself via his “psycho killer” voice in “Gimmie the Loot” and went head-to-head with only the very best of his peers. 

At times, you can glimpse the person within the persona. It’s fun to be able to see how jazz drumming influenced him, or to watch him banter in the home movies that his friends were taking while on tour. It’s quite touching to watch him prepare for a show in the hotel room, hoping he’s got that young-man energy. Barely in his 20s, and New York has already crowned him king. And the home movies are worth it just to see the full extent of the influence of his Jamaican roots, finding out that he couldn’t get to sleep without country music playing. 

We meet his tenacious mother Voletta, who got caught in a difficult situation early in life and made the most of it, and we hear her explain how shocked she was at the language in her son’s songs. It’s very amusing, but the real powerful moment is to see the flash of anger in her eyes when she explains that her son disrespected her house, especially when you realize how hard she had to work to hold down that tiny apartment in Brooklyn and support her only child. I doubt that he had to eat sardines for dinner, as he claimed, but I’m sure times were plenty tough. And so the thing that plenty of people do to make money ended up getting him kicked out of that house, dropping out of high school, and doing what he could to get by while gradually becoming a superstar.

There’s also a very short moment that I find absolutely hilarious. In an MTV interview Biggie anxiously pleads with the audience not to call him Biggie anymore because of some doofus who had trademarked the name (adding a Z, of all things) back in the 80’s and was threatening to sue him for everything he had because of copyright infringement or whatever. I don’t blame Biggie for being a young rich Black man who wasn’t about to take any chances, but I do find it funny that a guy who on record is one of the biggest badasses of all time is terrified of potential litigation in real life. You know what they say: more money, more problems. 

Life’s a bitch, and then you die

There are plenty of reasons why Biggie made it; he had natural talent, a style, charisma, and a dedicated team behind him. He also had the crucial ability to be the best boaster on the block, in a part of town not known for modesty. Part of rap, and plenty of popular songs worldwide, will always be about explaining to the audience how awesome you are, how much style you have, how much you’ve got in the bank, how much women love you. The question becomes: how well can you back up all that boasting with the real shit? No one who wants to last can afford to have a faulty answer to that question. A true decadent at heart, Biggie took his lyrical apotheosis to entirely deeper, darker place.

If you spend any serious time listening to the songs, it’s not just the swagger that’s seductive. Someone once described Biggie’s lyrics as “cinematography” and that’s much closer to the effect. A big movie buff, Biggie learned how to tell a story from the greats. Ready to Die is an aural concept album, following an archetypal street kid literally from womb to tomb. It’s almost a rap opera. You start to see the dark, elegant, outrageous, and death-haunted mythos start to work its magic. I’d immediately fall for anyone who came up with a line calling himself “the rap Alfred Hitchcock” but its even better when it’s an actual description of what he did with his art. 

This is the part of Biggie’s corpus that Netflix documentaries don’t talk about. Biggie’s morbid, elegant odes to murder and violence and sadism and robbery and his slightly disturbing gallows humor puts him in an avant-garde category that exists beyond the mainstream. He’s even censored on one of own songs—a little throwaway about robbing pregnant women that was blurred out of some of the editions of Ready to Die

Biggie’s fervid imagination, bolstered by his masterful braggadocio and the gleeful shocking of the audience, eventually ran so wild that it collided with real life in a very tragic way. Kurt Vonnegut once warned us that we should be very careful about who we pretend to be because that is who we will end up becoming. Ready to Die does make Biggie’s actual experience of street life fairly clear. He may not have done half of the things he bragged about on record, at least we hope not, but he certainly knew whereof he spoke.

Eerily, Biggie seemed to realize this latent doom deep within his bones. It’s all over the songs: even an ostensible party anthem like “Going Back to Cali” openly acknowledges that he’s walking into clear and present danger. There’s an existential price to pay for all of Biggie’s elegant tales of sin and wickedness, and we hear the self-loathing, the alienation, the general disgust at himself and the world. This adds a surprising moral dimension to the work. How often in art do you get a villain who ends up punishing himself for his intimately related crimes? 

Biggie had more in common with the Existentialists. He and Jean-Paul Sartre were both cockeyed ladies men, talented but nihilistic, fond of wearing black, smoking, and scowling in pictures. Sartre loved writing about Genet, the hustler poet of the Paris streets, and that morbid dandy Baudelaire. In Sartre’s world, as in Biggie’s, there is no God and no order to the universe. One must survive one’s life by living by your wits, that means moment to moment, condemned to absolute freedom, and no matter what happens you are ultimately responsible for everything you do. As Biggie once said, and Sartre believed, “Life’s a bitch and then you die/ that’s why we puff lye, because you never know when you’re gonna go.”  

I Got A Story To Tell is certainly worth watching but doesn’t begin to delve into the deeper complexities of Biggie’s work. Humanizing your subject is a worthwhile goal, but the film doesn’t help us understand more about what made Biggie so respected and feared in his time. Perhaps a more unfiltered look at Biggie’s lyrical obsessions would be too much for Netflix to risk. They even take the film’s title from a song that plays over the credits, in which Biggie describes how he thinks quickly while being discovered in flagrante by the woman’s husband, an NBA star no less, both as verse and in conversation. Our hero ends up getting away with it, of course. I won’t spoil the surprise, but it isn’t exactly something you’d want to put in a documentary.  

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Matt Hanson

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.

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