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Notorious & The Authenticity Myth

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Over a beat that turned the glossy synth-funk of Mtume into something glossier and funkier as only Puffy and pals could do, Biggie dedicates “Juicy” to “all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothing…to all the people that lived above the buildings that I was hustling from that called the police on me when I was just trying to make some money to feed my daughter, and all the niggas in the struggle” and then, raps a bittersweet song of big-time success, minor victories, and hazy hip-hop memories. The joy, the pain, and all that stuff’s palpable and it’s still pop enough for the radio!

Cynics and even-handed fact-checkers have long pointed out that Biggie’s upbringing wasn’t as bad as his songs made it out to be. That he followed a long line of self-mythologizing, kinda fake-ass rappers was as much an obnoxious cliche as the corrective to the fake-assery: When he’s rapping it, you totally believe it, and that’s what matters. What struck me though, hearing this song Saturday on a college hip-hop station (sandwiched between “It’s Supposed to Bubble” and some T-Pain “banger”) was how even that introductory dedication, which sounds totally sincere and isn’t hip-hip “cool” like crack sales or poverty, ain’t true either.

Biggie’s daughter T’yanna Wallace was born on August 13, 1993, after Big had a record deal. The year before, he’d popped up in The Source’s “unsigned hype” and on Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” remix. The movie Who’s the Man came out in April of 1993; the soundtrack of course, featured “Party & Bullshit”. Not that a rapper with that minor level of fame couldn’t–or wasn’t–still hustling, but that the truth behind Biggie’s affecting dedication’s a little more complicated.

Unbelievable, Cheo Hodari Coker’s excellent book–and the basis for the new movie Notorious–confirms Biggie’s return to dealing upon news of ex-girlfriend Jan’s pregnancy. But the story Coker presents has a similar feeling of “print the legend” or at least, smooshes some stuff together for the unfortunate pragmatism of a readable biography. Biggie went to the relatively less competitive crack game of North Carolina–he’d done time there for dealing earlier–and apparently, got an angry call from Puffy urging him to come back, forget about dealing and work on his music. And Biggie did it.

He later got news that the very place he was staying in Raleigh got busted by the cops. Big took it as a sign and got real serious about rapping. Perhaps that’s just a story that really happened as is and just sounds like a movie. And maybe it’s Biggie turning his real-life anecdotes into legend just as he did with his raps and maybe it’s Puffy and friends making real-life, scary events capital-R romantic…something you can’t blame anybody for doing when the real life’s that of their murdered friend/husband/father/lover.

The point is, the real-life event was weirder, less and more dramatic, and less and more complicated than pages 77-79 of Unbelievable or the people involved make it and now, you’ve got this movie Notorious, based on the “real-life” events of a now-dead dude hyper-aware of his importance and legend, supported, exploited, and everything else by people that too understood the significance of a good story, whose memories are additionally clouded by years and idealization of a dead friend, claiming to have worked closely with these very unreliable sources to tell the guy’s “true” story which is marketed as big, exciting Hollywood bio-pic in the vein of Walk the Line or Ray.

This is simply what happens to all of our “old” favorite pop-culture, but the whole thing’s particularly silly and–outside of money–a fruitless endeavor, even more so because Big was a guy who balanced the whole selling the dream and breaking it apart thing pretty well. Biggie’s discography’s his biopic. And while Ready to Die and Life After Death don’t contain songs where say, a disheveled Faith Evans opens the door to see Biggie with a groupie, anybody with ears and a brain gets a more affecting and uglier, more-real version of a scene like that on say, “One More Chance” or that blowjob skit at the end of “Respect”, complete with all-too-real blowjob noises and a moment of touching reality where Big and the girl share a mid-sex laugh.

A scene where Biggie and Faith are shown deeply in love will use the same all-too-obvious romance signifiers as Academy Award-grabbers like Benjamin Button or Revolutionary Road (subpoint: An essay just like this one could be written about the disconnect between Yates’ novel and the Mendes film), but you’ll get a more touching and affecting version of fucked-up but all the more stronger for it romance on “Me and My Bitch”, a song where Biggie’s totally adopting the voice of a drug-dealing don married to the kind of girl Tony Montana thought he had without idealizing her at all (his deconstruction of the word “bitch”, the mini-story about using his toothbrush to wash the toilet).

The bottom-line focus of even art-oriented Hollywood pictures mixed with the idiotically obsessive attention to structure that’s infected even “good” screenwriters wouldn’t allow for a makes-the-song details like the point where Biggie (or his character in the song), despite being sure something truly fucked up’s happened to the girl he adores, still “make[s] the U-turn [to] make sure [his] shit was clean”. To be real (and real pretentious) that’s some like Auerbach’s Mimesis-level of storytelling complexity type shit.

And if it isn’t reality or representations of reality that you’re into and you want to see iconic Biggie, well, you can see the actual videos and performances…why you’d want to see actor-ly approximations of stuff that happened ago a decade on television re-performed by melty-looking versions of the real icons, I don’t know.

If you care about hip-hop for the right reasons, because it’s affecting and full of ugly-true, smart, touching, just over all affecting details that bypass bullshit terms like “real or authentic” and concern themselves with the real bottom-line (emotions) all the while, being fun and catchy enough that corporate interests that ran/run television and radio couldn’t deny, skip out on Notorious. We don’t need a semi-mainstream but still “authentic” version of Notorious B.I.G because that was the very line he balanced and tested for all of his short but brilliant career.

Written by Brandon

January 6th, 2009 at 6:56 am

Posted in Notorious BIG, movies

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