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Biggie’s posthumous effort a money-making mess

Roque Strew | Thursday, February 23, 2006

Even at the clanging height of rap’s storied East Coast-West Coast friction, everything felt imaginary. Then it upgraded from imaginary to real, with the killing of Notorious B.I.G.

Like the death of Marlowe, its whodunit aura would stamp Biggie’s ghost into posterity. Like the death of Nietzsche, his death would clear the way for greedy, grisly misappropriation at the hands of surviving kin. What remains – in Biggie’s case – is a foggy legacy, obscured by extravagant nostalgia and exploitive meddling. And sadly, Duets: The Final Chapter, his second posthumous release, fails to lift the mists.

Lacking Tupac’s copious unreleased output, the executive producers- absurdly credited as Diddy, Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace and, from beyond the grave, Biggie himself- have had to rely heavily on old material. That means old chestnuts from Ready to Die, Life After Death and Born Again must resurface alongside material no one’s heard before.

Perhaps the album’s worst offender, “Wake Up Now” is an enormous misfire, with Korn’s empty caterwauling sharing space with the lyrics from “If I Die Before I Wake.” Its eerie quality somehow unintentionally makes the song’s macabre subject both tackier and more poignant. A better track, thanks to the original song’s quality, “Beef” is a throwback to one of the stronger street narratives of Life After Death, finding a seamless vocal synergy in the Mobb Deep-Biggie duo.

Along the same lines, and to horrible effect, the song “Hold Your Head” places Biggie’s old song “Suicidal Thoughts” next to an exhumed Bob Marley chorus from “Johnny Was.”

Boasting mix-tape DJ Clinton Sparks’ production, the song anchored the album’s promotional campaign, molding two poignant songs into a single kitschy, morbid danse-macabre double whammy.

Thankfully, a few rays of sunlight somehow puncture through the murk. Produced by Danja, “Whatchu Want” reunites The Commission – New York’s microphone royalty, Jay-Z and Biggie – in a famous partnership unheard of since 1996 in “Brooklyn’s Finest.”

Then the murky tracks return. “Spit Your Game” is produced by Swizz Beatz, the burned-out superproducer, and proves even he can’t engineer a solid blend of Twista and Krayzie Bone’s swift styles with Biggie’s steadier delivery. The Ruff Ryders-style production just doesn’t work.

Elsewhere, the album is peppered with other arbitrary guest choices. Missy, for example, makes an unusually forgettable cameo in “Ultimate Rush.” While nobly orchestrated, the North-South combo falls apart in “Breakin’ Old Habits,” where T.I. and Slim Thug awkwardly jostle with Biggie’s stronger rhymes. Assuming a lottery wasn’t used, it’s rarely clear why certain rappers were selected for “Duets.”

Even more mystifyingly, on two tracks, the non-duets aren’t even non-duets with Biggie. “The Most Shady” bafflingly corrals Eminem, Obie Trice and Diddy – no sign of Mr. Wallace. He’s also conspicuously absent on “I’m Wit’ Whatever,” which pairs Li’l Wayne with Dipset icons Juelz Santana and Jim Jones. More at home on uptown mix-tapes, the Diplomats’ sound is a poor fit with Biggie’s late-century Brooklyn esthetic.

This record’s shameless, morose Weekend at Bernie’s ethic – propping up a dead man to keep the party going – amounts to an incoherent esthetic. A geographic mess, “Duets” plays like a set of posse tracks assembled at random.

The lack of taste, evident throughout the whole project (the production, the selection of guests, lyrical decisions), is not surprising. But “Duets” is about cashing in at all costs, music be damned.