On March 9, 1997, Christopher Wallace – or Notorious B.I.G., as he is more commonly known – was gunned down by an unknown assailant. He was yet another victim of American rap’s infamous, senselessly violent East Coast-West Coast Feud. Sixteen days later, his second album, Life After Death was released, which hit the number one spot in the U.S. and later attained diamond record status in 2000. Biggie has since become a cultural icon. Now, his legacy has been brought to life in the biopic Notorious.
This sugar-coated portrayal begins with a flashback to 1983 after Biggie has just been shot. At the time, he was just a young man living with his mom in Brooklyn. His father had left the family, leaving his mother, Volletta Wallace, to raise her son alone. The film is highly sympathetic to Biggie’s mother, and emphasizes the close relationship that they had – which is to be expected, considering she produced the film. As time passes, Biggie gets sucked into a gangster lifestyle, and begins to deal drugs.
The portrayal of Biggie’s hustlin’ days is highly idealized, suitable for white middle American teenagers wishing to emulate his lifestyle. It depicts Biggie as the ultimate gangster – packing heat, making money, and dealing drugs – without questioning the moral implications of his actions. Eventually, he finds out that he has “slipped one past the goalie” and will be a father soon.
Biggie begins his rise to fame because of connections he has with Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy. At his first recording, those present are blown away by Biggie’s skills – possibly because they had all been smoking fat blunts. As a result of Biggie’s new-found success and smooth-talking abilities, he becomes very popular with the ladies. It truly seems as if no woman can resist his advances. The resulting sex scenes also betray the superficial nature of the film. The camera shows only Biggie’s head when he has no shirt on, ultimately to hide his overweight body, as if it were some kind of indignity to depict him like this. However, the director had no qualms about showing a variety of topless women.
Ultimately, the film offers little in the way of originality and innovation. Its cliché portrait of the life of the legendary rapper often makes the film feel like a two-hour rap music video. But although there is little innovative in the film, it remains an interesting story about the rise of a cultural icon who started with nothing and made himself into one of the greatest rap musicians of all time.