Perhaps posthumous legacy was always on the mind of late rapper Christopher “Notorious BIG” Wallace. His impactful debut album Ready to Die was followed by Life After Death, released 16 days after he was killed aged 24, in a still-unsolved, drive-by shooting. Yet while there have been several filmic attempts to capture this legascy –– including Nick Broomfield’s 2002 documentary Biggie & Tupac and the 2009 biopic Notorious –– this Netflix release is the first to successfully sidestep the quicksand of murder mystery, and focus instead on what Wallace accomplished in life.
Clearly redressing that balance was the motivation of at least two executive producers, including Wallace’s label boss and friend, Sean “Diddy” Combs, who early on declares: “This story doesn’t have to have a tragic ending.” It’s the contribution of Wallace’s mother, though, that’s particularly significant. Firstly in the form of family photos and stories illustrating a childhood spent between their Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant and her family’s home in Trelawny, Jamaica. There, young Wallace’s favourite uncle exposed him to sound system culture, while back in Brooklyn a jazz musician neighbour played him Max Roach and Clifford Brown. So that by the time a 17-year-old Biggie triumphed in the now-legendary rap battle on Bedford and Quincy, he was already “rhyming in a way that exudes all the finer qualities of a bebop drum solo”.
More subtly though, Ms Wallace’s involvement gives permission for loyal associates to open up about the “gangster” part of “gangster rapper”. The darkest rumours are omitted, but there’s a detailed account of how Biggie came to dominate the local crack cocaine economy. These mid-90s, north-west Brooklyn specificities are fascinating and relevant; to Biggie’s art, certainly, but possibly also to his death.
• Released on 1 March on Netflix.