Music

Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell Explores the Hip-Hop Mythology and True Story of a Notorious Death

Netflix's new documentary pulls back from the inevitable ending to focus instead on what came before, showing how a life is not defined by a death
IMAGE RAYMOND BOYD
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The past always seems inevitable when you've the benefit of seeing how things played out, yet watching Netflix's new documentaryBiggie: I Got a Story To Tell, Christopher Wallace seems to know his fate is sealed just by growing up in the shadow cast by Brooklyn's Fulton Street.

We hear his childhood friends discussing how they grew up fearing the road: seeing groups smoking dope there and eventually dealing crack themselves, looking to the clocktower to make sure Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace, wasn't coming out of the train station to catch them. "Fulton Street right now is a bad luck avenue" Biggie says at one point. "It might start off prosperous, but believe me something will [go] wrong."

Netflix's new film is the latest entry in the list of documentaries that have grappled with Biggie's life and legacy, with numerous other works in the 20 years since his death focusing on his swift rise to fame and tragic death. Made in collaboration with Biggie's estate, and featuring the input of his best friends, family members, and industry titans like Sean 'P Diddy' Combs, the documentary mostly lingers in the time before Christopher Wallace knew he was going to make it, with photographs of him with his friends, or as a boy, which serve to root us in his beginning instead of his inevitable end.

It's a quieter, more child-like Biggie we see here, one whose father was never in the picture and who is smitten with his own kids. "I’m still shy," he says during an interview. "I’m a quiet dude." His lyrics, often running across the screen over old footage, take on new and painful meanings, as though the references to his mother's breast cancer diagnosis and the suicidal thoughts he battled had been dwarfed by the mythic figure of Biggie. In this sense, his 1994 debut, Ready 2 Die, is an "uncomfortable album" as Combs says, but it is, as the documentary mirrors, a cry for life instead of an embrace of death.

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Photo by GEORGE DUBOSE.

Biggie's death is hip-hop mythology; the boy from Brooklyn who changed the conversation and then was gone. He stood out next to the lighter-skinned guys who were trying to look sexy, while, as Combs says: "Big’s lips were a little cracked, he looked like he was just out in the street hustling". As rappers like Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg were raising the game, Big instead embraced melody and experimental rhythms, singing instead of rapping and standing on his own.

As with many of the stories of great talents taken too soon, it is tempting to see everything in his life as having the shadow of death hanging over it. His friend Olie's murder rattles him, with footage of Big recalling how he was meant to be with him at that point and felt lucky to survive. Tupac Shakur's death, too, can seem like a grim omen of what is to come, while his decision to quit selling drugs and embrace music feels tragic knowing his choice wasn't vindicated.

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Photo by RAYMOND BOYD/ GETTY IMAGES.

These stories are the mythology of Biggie: tales that have been told to make the tragedy easier to accept. But it is the origin story of Biggie which gives his life a better context than his death; the print he left on music forever and the savior which he will always be known as in Brooklyn, immortalized on walls around the city. In focusing on the end we bury what came before. As Combs says, "This story doesn’t have to have a tragic ending"

In the documentary we see footage from the day of his funeral where the streets of Clinton Hill are lined with screaming fans who look like they are going to a concert, not mourning a death. Nobody was crying, they were all celebrating seeing someone from their neighborhood make it, a feat which couldn't be taken away. He was gone, but he was theirs forever.

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This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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