Netflix’s Notorious B.I.G. Documentary Scales Back The Myth-Making Just Enough To Show Us The Man
One of the first things that comes to mind when you connect Jodeci and the Notorious B.I.G. is very loud sex. While “Feenin” plays in the background on the “Fuck Me” interlude, Lil’ Kim calls Biggie a “gangsta killin’,” “chronic smokin’,” “blendin’ black greasy motherfucker.” At Ready To Die‘s dead center, the descriptors are pretty much a vulgar SparkNotes of Biggie’s persona: rotund, strapped, great on the mic and in bed (and two songs later, a pretty good motivational speaker).
Another Jodeci track, “Freek’n You,” pops up early in Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell, the new Netflix doc from director Emmett Malloy that touts unreleased footage from Biggie’s close friend Damion Butler. We don’t see the skit’s recording session, but maybe something a little better: Christopher Wallace and his crew of twentysomethings unashamedly singing an unashamedly horny song toward the camera. It’s a sublimely average moment of knuckleheadedness from a man who has long since become a myth.
The catalog of Biggie documentaries is plagued with features that obsess over the cruel details of his death instead of the intricacies of his life, making sure his legend stays a legend, or just repeating what’s come before. It’s apparently hard to take a fresh look at a person that’s immediately tied to so many of hip-hop’s biggest tropes without just relying on the tropes. That’s how you get moments like Biggie saying that Pinterest-ready “can’t change the world unless we change ourselves” line, to Diddy, in the middle of a club. (It’s on you if you believe that actually happened.) I Got A Story To Tell isn’t that interested in redressing Biggie’s two-album arc in gold and insisting on its significance to the universe. It zooms in tighter. We see what Ready To Die was before it became a cultural jewel: the product of a drug dealer trying to survive, blindly betting on a fired music executive.
I Got A Story To Tell takes care to lionize Biggie’s gifts as well as the biographical particulars of what went into his quotables. His uncle and grandmother in Jamaica appear on screen to remember a young Christopher embracing the island’s sounds, while saxophonist Donald Harrison — a neighbor up in Clinton Hill — talks about bonding with him when he was grooming his “little buddy” to be a jazz artist. The details don’t only illuminate the finer threads that run through his art: Because the Notorious B.I.G. is hip-hop, they make connections for the genre itself. Even Biggie’s more exaggerated rhymes are couched in human stakes. “Whatchu Want” includes some of his most assaultive bars, but the film suggests the cartoonish violence comes from real-world frustration. In the scenes immediately before and after the verse’s appearance, Diddy remembers Biggie trying to hide his poverty from him and a lifelong friend opens up about intimate conversations where Wallace knew his raps were a lifeboat from a life spent preparing for death.
The doc’s personal focus also gives an interior to the folks Biggie immortalizes through his songs, which in turns gives the star another dimension. There’s insight into why Biggie dedicated Life After Death‘s “Miss U” to Roland “Olie” Young: Before his death made the New York Times, he was someone who believed in his boy. St. James Place, Gates Avenue, and Fulton Street regularly pop up in Biggie lore, but seeing their closeness on the film’s map, one understands beatmaker Easy Mo Bee’s pity about how, for a time, these dark blocks were the only world Wallace and his crew knew. Seeing them whine about the heat on a tour bus or marvel at the sun setting behind silhouetted mountains — just living — feels like a small triumph.
I Got A Story To Tell doesn’t solve every problem inherent to making a good Christopher Wallace documentary. Some of them are perhaps unsolvable: There’s only so much you can cover in a short life; even if you’re a moderate Biggie obsessive, this is at least the third time you’ve heard Voletta Wallace tell the story of the dried mashed potatoes. Others lie in the executive producer credits for Ms. Wallace and Diddy, who obviously are more inclined to enrich Biggie’s legacy, not complicate it. As such, Lil’ Kim and the unpleasant details of their relationship in and out of the booth aren’t even touched on.
But these Bad Boy-approved 90 minutes aren’t just relevant because they offer a new look at an eternally relevant icon. The tragedies of Nipsey Hussle, Juice WRLD, and Pop Smoke are reminders that death still haunts hip-hop — Nipsey was the only one out of the three who outlived Wallace’s 24 years. Their deaths, too, lend a glimmer to those candid reminders of their humanness, whether it’s Nipsey being clearly in love with Lauren London or Pop’s emoji approval of a “Foreigner” joke just hours before his killing. They’re glimpses of people in the moment with an assumed tomorrow, every “is” and “will” cut into “was” and “would have.”
“We’re just gonna do our thing forever. Forever and ever.” This is how Biggie closes out what I Got A Story To Tell presents as his last ever interview. It’s on the nose, but loss doesn’t require nuance. These fallen rap stars are men who’ve colored our lives before they got to fully live theirs. That point should be blunt.
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell is streaming now on Netflix.