Biggie’s Story Finally Gets a Proper Retelling

I Got a Story to Tell achieves something notably slicker than your average Biggie murder story Photo: George DuBose

At the heart of “Juicy,” one of hip-hop’s most indelible rags-to-riches anthems, is the world-beating joy of a Black boy from Brooklyn realizing his dreams are finally within reach. The lilt in the voice of the 21-year-old Notorious B.I.G. as he detailed quality of life improvements that new fame allowed — a Super Nintendo and a Sega Genesis, a nice television and a leather couch to watch it on, bottles of champagne at the ready — is perfectly infectious. The boasts are modest, signs of the bleakness of prospects for inner city youth who didn’t come from great means, many of whom would never find chances to experience the world past streets they grew up in. “Juicy” plays with a familiar formula: As with early rap gems like Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the Treacherous Three’s “Feel the Heartbeat,” or the Funky 4 + 1’s “That’s the Joint” and “Rappin and Rocking the House,” “Juicy” lifts its unstoppable bounce off a popular cookout anthem, New York post-disco icons Mtume’s “Juicy Fruit,” reimagining the music of the artist’s childhood as a launchpad for more adult concerns. What sets the Ready to Die staple apart from similar moments of pride throughout hip-hop history is that at the time of recording, things weren’t yet “all good” for Biggie.

He had cut his teeth doing an impressive array of guest appearances by the summer of 1994, when he released the lead single from his debut album, most notably on remixes to Bad Boy and Uptown Records affiliates Craig Mack and Mary J. Blige’s “Flava in Ya Ear,” “Real Love,” and “What’s the 411?” He’d already shined on 1993’s “Party and Bullshit” and stole the show on “A Bunch of Niggas,” the closer on the Heavy D and the Boyz highlight Blue Funk. He’d been in The Source, the bible of 20th-century hip-hop, in 1992 thanks to his impressive demo tape. He didn’t have a hit record yet or any certainty that rap would be a lucrative career decision. Listening back to “Juicy” in retrospect, it’s easy to forget that the rap phenomenon born Christopher Wallace was still dealing drugs between sessions for Ready to Die, so convincing was his confidence and presence. He was calling his shot, though. Really, “Juicy” is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Biggie was only 24 years old when he was gunned down in Los Angeles in early 1997 on the night of that year’s Soul Train Awards, and the circumstances of his death have long haunted the story of his life. He rapped with chilling candor about suicidal ideations and threats against his life. There are those who feel that he must’ve had premonitions that he wasn’t long for the earth (although this doesn’t explain why he would put himself in the city where he would be most hated just months after his friend-turned-rival 2pac was killed at the peak of all-consuming war between hip-hop’s east and west coasts). We see Biggie as a poet of the determined and the downtrodden, a former stick-up kid who captured the bleak realities of the street in novelistic detail and for whom death was merely another fact of life. It’s an image corroborated by the man himself in talks like the November 1994 Interview magazine feature where he tells rap journalist Havelock Nelson he’s “immune” to hearing about people getting killed, both a powerfully grim thing for a 22-year-old to say and a shrewd, almost political assessment of the universality of inner city suffering in an era when New York City averaged 2,500 homicides a year (a rate roughly five times what it is today). We celebrate Biggie’s impact on the sights and sounds of rap, the sleek, mob-boss fashions he favored, and the way his impeccable flows and suspenseful storytelling built on gains made by Golden Era greats like Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, took inspiration from Heavy D’s “overweight lover” concept, and inspired peers like Jay-Z and successors like Pusha T. But what we miss when we remember Biggie is the truth that as much as he was a tragic figure, he was a bright young dreamer, a loving father, and a loyal friend whose core motivation was making life better for his family and the neighborhood pals uses his star power to uplift. The new Netflix documentary I Got a Story to Tell breaks tradition by pushing death to the margins and instead focusing on the hopes and dreams of a brilliant mind gone too soon.

I Got a Story to Tell is something of a social history of the Notorious B.I.G. and the world he inhabited, by turns a history lesson on a first-generation Jamaican immigrant and how that experience would color his life’s work and also a clinic in how geographical proximities and common interests can birth a scene. The doc posits Biggie as an intersection where several disparate paths meet and then sets off to see where a few of them lead. At the cost of skipping memorable performances — like the day in 1995 when Wallace performed “Juicy” and “Big Poppa” on MTV’s spring break edition of The Grind wearing a Coogi sweater in the Lake Havasu, Arizona, heat or the unforgettable Bad Boy showcase at that year’s Source Awards, a contentious night in the east-west rap spat but also one where B.I.G. cleaned up, taking home trophies for New Artist, Lyricist, Live Performer, and Album of the Year — I Got a Story to Tell visualizes the making of the artist more than the unmaking. Colorful characters in Wallace’s periphery, like Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s Lil Cease and C-Gutta (who you may remember as the kidnapper in “What’s Beef?” or the buddy selling blue tops in Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn’s Finest” or the bodyguard to M.A.F.I.A. alum Lil Kim who did a 16-year bid after the shootout outside Hot 97 in 2001), get extra face time. Home movies from Biggie’s friend D-Roc blend with interviews of close associates and family members to paint a fuller picture than the one we know.

This direction both humanizes Biggie and absolves I Got a Story to Tell of the predictable velocity of most music documentaries, which zip between talking head testimonials and archival footage, telling a story in brisk, chronological order and, in the cases of legends who are no longer with us (like Frank Zappa, who was memorialized last year in Alex Winter’s brilliant Zappa), allowing the shifting tides of the artists’ fates to nudge the films themselves from joy to pain. I Got a Story to Tell opens with news-camera footage of the hearse driving B.I.G.’s coffin through crowds of fans in Brooklyn but doesn’t come back to it until the last few minutes. Between these bookends, we learn about the dream of big city living that drove a young Voletta Wallace to move from Jamaica to the United States, the lure of recognition on the bustling Fulton Street corners where B.I.G. participated in the rap and crack games, and the set of circumstances by which the budding rapper got a demo tape in the hands of Harlem rap impresario Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. Some of these details are relayed out of order, and the doc highlights tidbits that might have otherwise been lost to time. An aside in an interview where we learn that Voletta preferred country music to rap is pursued to its roots in Jamaican radio history, and we also discover that Biggie sometimes used country as a sleep aid. (Meeting the uncle in Jamaica whose musical tastes impacted the rapper is a delight; instantly, you grasp why there are patois toasts in Ready to Die’s “Respect.” It wasn’t just ’90s custom or tacit acknowledgment of Caribbean sounds in hip-hop’s DNA, it was an artist connecting with his own culture and history.) Jazz musician and sometime Art Blakey sideman Donald Harrison gives a history of Clinton Hill as a Brooklyn artist hub and remembers taking young Christopher in and teaching him about art, setting up the film’s most overt musicology moment, as it’s suggested that B.I.G.’s way with words descends from jazz, and a rap is tracked alongside a drum solo by bandleader and erstwhile Charlie Parker collaborator Max Roach.

The history and theory are revitalizing, but it’s seeing Christopher Wallace in moments when he didn’t have to wear his larger-than-life alter ego, dumping water on his chest in the back of a sweltering tour bus or pestering friends in their hotel rooms, that offers a poignant contrast to the madman he was on record and the tragic figure he’s become in our shared recollections.

But he still feels like a ghost in the machine. His reign was short. He died before he could really begin to stand in his legend, snuffed out at the start of what should’ve been a powerful run of albums, like Scott La Rock, like Big L, like Nipsey Hussle, like Pop Smoke. To know them is to wonder what they could have become. To listen is to wonder why it’s always the ones trying to build themselves up who get taken out before they get to execute their plans. To remember them is to set aside, if only for a short time, the ceaseless and unchanging reality of Black death in America, to steal a gem of joy out of the thick darkness. I Got a Story to Tell stops short of editorializing overtly about the political climate that powers this cycle, leaving B.I.G.’s lyrics to dispense that message and highlighting more uncommon points instead. It achieves something notably slicker than your average Biggie murder story. That said, it helps to be familiar with the pertinent points in his biography and catalog before watching, because I Got a Story to Tell is more of a document of the long months where fame wasn’t certain for Wallace than it is a portrait of the abrupt deluge of fortune and misfortune that happened afterward. Similarly, the most edifying points in “Juicy” are about leaving NYCHA housing behind and getting featured in the rap mags he grew up adoring. I Got a Story to Tell is essential viewing, provided that you’re the kind of person who can rap the first verse of “Hypnotize” from memory. You come away wishing B.I.G. could’ve dreamed bigger.

Biggie’s Story Finally Gets a Proper Retelling