Notorious B.I.G.: an album too far?

The dead hip-hop star's latest disc, a series of fake duets, is a hit. Matilda Egere-Cooper wonders if it's an album too far
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On a winter's day in Brooklyn, New York, Fulton Street is a-buzz with anticipation over the new album from the borough's slain son, Notorious B.I.G. The exotic melody of his current single, "Nasty Girl", resonates throughout a busy clothes-store. On a street-stall, a man is hawking screen-printed short-sleeved T-shirts of the rapper in a variety of sulky, ominous poses for $25, although it's the middle of the winter. And at Beat Street Records, the biggest music shop in Biggie's home borough, staff say they are struggling with the weight of orders. "People just love Biggie," says the manager ,Danaia Thompson. "He's their hero."

It's been eight years since the unsolved murder of Notorious B.I.G. - also known as Biggie Smalls - and yet another posthumous record has managed to force its way onto the high street. The Notorious B.I.G. Duets: The Final Chapter is 22 tracks featuring the most renowned artists of an urban and rock kind, including Jay-Z, Mary J Blige, Missy Elliot and, oddly, Korn. Tupac makes an appearance for a second B&T duet, but the biggest surprise collaborator comes in the form of Bob Marley, whose poignant track "Johnny Was' was sampled for the lead single "Hold your Head", and kicked off the album's promotional campaign.

Clinton Sparks, a mix-tape DJ who produced the track, says, "I didn't just want to make a beat - I wanted to make an event. I thought if I take two musical legends together... people would already be interested without even hearing the song."

"I thought Clinton Sparks really hooked up the beat crazy," concurs Tim Westwood, Radio 1's hip-hop DJ. "I think Bob Marley and Notorious B.I.G. is an incredible combination - two icons."

While a duet between two deceased legends seems more ghoulish than ground-breaking, it has succeeded in making the rapper a massive presence in the music world yet again. On its release, the album went straight into the US Billboard charts at No 3, and four weeks on it had yet to drop out of the Top 10. On the US rap charts, it has been No 1, and has sold nearly 700,000 copies to date. "It's a true representation of the love that people have for B.I.G. and his artistry," the Bad Boy label-head Sean Combs told the rap website "I think that it shows that in the people who have come out to be on the album, and even now in his rhymes that you hear so many years later - he's still the greatest." As for the UK, the second single "Nasty Girl" went to No 2 this month after receiving heavy rotation on the likes of MTV and Kiss and being playlisted on Radio 1. Unsurprisingly, hip-hop-savvy teens in most major cities have already claimed the single as their ringtone du jour.

But for all the album's hype, that bad news is that we've heard it all before. Duets is merely another rehash of the rapper's most recognisable lyrics, from tracks like the infamous "Beef" and "Suicidal Thoughts", taken from his 1994 debut Ready to Die and the 1997 follow-up, Life After Death. But suggest that this could be another example of hip-hop's obsession with the posthumous cash-in, and Voletta Wallace, Biggie's mother, is indignant. "The people want to hear Christopher," she reasons. "They don't care what it's on."

Wallace has been the primary caretaker of her son's estate since he was fatally shot in Los Angeles on 9 March 1997. She says she came up with the idea for the duets album, along with Biggie's ex-wife and R&B singer Faith Evans, and his mentor Diddy. Wallace's involvement in the new record has come as a surprise to many, considering her recent memoir Biggie, in which she criticised Combs and others for "exploiting" her son's work through the constant re-use of his lyrics. But while she has crusaded for her son's murder to be solved (Los Angeles was recently ordered to pay her $1.1m for withholding evidence during their civil lawsuit), as well as running the Christopher Wallace Foundation for inner-city youth, she doesn't hide the fact that releasing another album has its financial benefits.

"Everybody that's on this album makes money," admits Wallace. "The artists make money, we make money. But this album was made for Christopher's children, yes and for me, and for Faith. And not only that, but to give the audience something of my son, something that they asked for, and something that they really needed."

Warner Music Group and Bad Boy Records haven't helped dampen scepticism by having a "B.I.G. Mobile month", to release ringtones of songs from the new album and his classic cuts. And Diddy has promoted more Biggie ringtones through Jamster. But Sparks isn't complaining. "Obviously you have some cynics, you have some people sitting there like, 'Oh it's wack! All you're doing is taking his vocals and making new songs! All they're trying to do is capitalise and make money off of him'," he says.

"The reason Miss Wallace wants to do this album in the first place," he says, "is because there's a whole other crowd of hip-hop fans that weren't fortunate enough to be around when Biggie was alive. So she wants to preserve the name, and to expose him to a whole new hip-hop audience.

"And I never get sick of Biggie," he adds. "He represents the struggle. He represents coming from nothing to being on top of the world, to being accepted by the masses. He was a nice guy, and even though he talked street-talk, he was a good guy. And lyrically and creatively, no one can tell a story like Biggie tells you a story. He's one of the greatest MCs of all time and will be forever. Whenever you have somebody that great, you want to preserve them. And as long as they preserve the integrity of his music... then I'm cool with it."

Notorious B.I.G. was arguably one of the most significant rappers of his time, more influential than his apparent rival Tupac Shakur, who failed to reach Biggie's commercial status before his own fatal shooting in 1996. Most notably, the rapper re-established the potential of East Coast rap music after a lengthy and dominant era for the West's gangsta-rap genre. After the release of Notorious B.I.G.'s first mainstream single, "Juicy", in 1994, his debut album Ready to Die was critically acclaimed internationally, and he even kick-started the career of the now-incarcerated Lil' Kim when he created his crew Junior Mafia. However what he had in talent and lyrical ingenuity, he lacked in productivity - unlike Shakur, who recorded a vast array of material.

So now that Biggie's work is all out, is re-releasing it really preserving his legacy? One blogger likened the album to "dancing on his grave", and Justin Onyeka, the music editor at New Nation newspaper, doesn't think a new album is doing anything for the rapper's reputation. "I can understand people wanting to hear new music from Biggie because he was an awesome artist and he was a legend, without a doubt, a great lyricist," says Onyeka, who interviewed the rapper in 1995. "But the sad truth of the matter is, as brilliant a lyricist as Biggie was, he just was not as prolific as he should have been in the way that Tupac was. There is not a vast, great body of work available.

"I think it's very sad and very painful to see them constantly pushing out these rehashed albums because the bottom line is that they don't exactly enhance Biggie's legacy. There are other ways they can maintain the legacy rather than rehashing and kind of devaluing really classic tracks. It's obviously a money-making thing, a great money-making opportunity for Puffy and Bad Boy. Instead of rehashing the album, they should get top rappers to record brand new, original tracks, dedicated to Biggie in some way, rather than raiding his albums. And, at the end of the day, it isn't his perspective; it isn't him putting out the music. Real Biggie fans will realise once the smoke has cleared, they're not really getting anything brand new. They're just getting somebody else's interpretation of Biggie."

Sparks says that he understands. "I think as a fan, I understand why a hip-hop-head would say, 'Hey man! I don't want you to remake his classics'," he admits. "Half of me felt that way when I was asked to do it, when I was asked to recreate classic records. I thought, 'Man! That's almost damn near impossible!' But I think I did a great job with the song I did. And hip-hop fans that weren't fortunate enough to be around when he was alive will now be able to hear him again."

Westwood reckons that, although the album is brimming with recycled lyrics and isn't the almighty LP of lost tracks many fans have prayed for, anything released by Notorious B.I.G. is still worthwhile. "And a lot of people still want to hear Biggie," he says. "He's touched people's hearts and their minds."

It's still remains questionable how necessary a new Notorious B.I.G. album is today, given that on this occasion, it's quite simply nothing original. But if Bob Marley can do it, considering his posthumous reputation has seen his fanbase grow with every generation that has been introduced to re-release after re-release of "No Woman No Cry" or "I Shot the Sheriff", than so can Biggie, it seems. And for what it's worth, the superstar production on Biggie's new album isn't half bad, exposing the rapper's incredible wordplay to a whole new audience, thanks to studio work from Eminem, Swizz Beatz, Timbaland and Scott Storch.

Diddy and Wallace say that B.I.G. Duets will be his last album, but Wallace reveals a greatest hits record is slated for release sometime in 2007, while a bio-pic of the rapper is currently in the works. As for the murder case, a retrial has been set for later this year after a mistrial in the summer.

"His legacy is his music," says Wallace. "There's no ands, ifs or buts about that. My son was the type of son who didn't hide anything back. He was gritty, he told a beautiful story. If he was bad, you understood the bad. If it was good, you understood the good. He painted a story in his music... and you not only hear it, but see it. So Christopher's music will be here forever."

'The Notorious B.I.G. Duets' is out now