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‘Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G.’ Documentary Dives Deep Into Rapper’s Rise to Fame

Courtesy of A&E
Courtesy of A&E

Twenty years after his untimely death on March 9, 1997, the legend of The Notorious B.I.G. still looms large over the landscape of hip-hop. That tale is revisited once again in A&E’s Mark Ford-directed Biggie: The Life of Notorious B.I.G., the first authorized documentary of Brooklyn’s most iconic MC.

Spanning just about two hours, the new doc offers a revealing look at Catholic schoolboy Christopher Wallace’s transformation from a hustler named “Fat Chris” to a rap phenomenon. Poignantly enough, The Life of Notorious B.I.G. begins with news clips broadcasted shortly after the rapper’s tragic demise. These clips contextualize what was lost in the death of the larger-than-life superstar, whose unmatched skills and powerful authenticity gave voice to Brooklyn’s disenfranchised block-dwellers while redirecting the rap world’s attention to the East Coast near the peak of Death Row Records’ dominance on the West.

“His music just went through our body…gave us chills,” one fan tells a reporter in the news clip. “Because he talked nothing but the truth.” As Biggie says in bits from the new A&E special, which is intermittently soundtracked by clips of his best work, the truth in his music comes from either his own experiences or those of his friends who were also consumed by the everyday struggle. In the doc, that same multilayered reality—that of a loving father and son sharing the same soul as a hardened crack dealer-turned-rap champion—comes courtesy of Big himself and an absolutely loaded roster of interviewees who were close to the late rapper.

Carrying the monumental task of doing justice to a rap legend, The Life of Notorious B.I.G. thrives because it provides direct access to the folks who either shaped or were shaped by Biggie during his brief, but eventful 24 years on earth.

There’s Big’s mother Voletta, who says she realized the full extent of her son’s impact while being driven around the Brooklyn corner where Biggie’s funeral erupted into a block party. There’s Faith Evans, his R&B star wife who couldn’t stay mad at her charismatic husband despite his infidelity. There’s Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s Lil Cease, whom Biggie used to buy juice boxes for during his days hustling on Fulton Street. There’s Diddy, who helped the rap rookie overcome his fear of going commercial by letting him tell the story of a “Black male misunderstood” over glossy instrumentals you could dance to.

With their richly personal details, interviews from Biggie’s closest friends and family flesh out the identity of B.I.G. the man. On the other hand, appearances from rap luminaries like DJ 50 Grand, Mister Cee, Nas and JAY-Z deconstruct the makings of The Notorious B.I.G., the most potent MC to ever pick up a microphone.

Mister Cee and DJ 50 Grand—two figures responsible for getting Big’s foot into the doorway of Sean “Puffy” Combs’ office at Uptown Records—mention Biggie’s preternatural mic presence and a flow that was already pro-certified. Hov and Nas—arguably Biggie’s two biggest New York City competitors at the time—dissect the unique word choices and piercing storytelling techniques that induced personal epiphanies about their position in hip-hop.

“When he made ‘Who Shot Ya,’ I wanted to quit,” says Nas, who also compares Big to legendary poet Langston Hughes. For his part, Hov touches on the way his friend and rap rival’s music tapped into the collective “angst” and “frustration” of the Black male trapped in the street life.

The Roc Nation boss even says it was a lyric on Biggie’s song “Real Niggaz” that ultimately reaffirmed his commitment to leaving the drug game once and for all. “I remember hearing ‘And being broke at 30 gave a nigga the chills’ and thinking, Oh, because I was still almost in the life, coming out like, thinking about trying to be a rapper,” JAY-Z shares. “And so those sort of phrases change your entire life. Really change your life. Like literally made me say, ‘OK, I gotta figure this out.”

While The Life of Notorious B.I.G. addresses the rapper’s relationship with Tupac Shakur, Big’s death at the hands of an unknown drive-by shooter (a murder that is still unsolved) and the LAPD’s alleged unwillingness to pursue the case, its focus, appropriately enough, remains squarely on the life and impact of Biggie. With a wholesome mix of archival footage, insightful interviews and select songs from his pristine catalog, you wouldn’t want it anywhere else.

See Photos of Biggie’s Different Looks Over the Years

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