April 28, 1997 12:00 PM

The Notorious B.I.G.

While it’s impossible to listen to the double-CD Life After Death without thinking about the murder last month of the Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, it would be a chilling collection in any case. Like directors Quentin Tarantino and Abel Ferrara, Biggie concocts a morally bankrupt universe that thrives on sexism, violence, gangland mythology and a winner-take-all ethos. It’s a world the former drug dealer turned rap sensation had called home, and it was his muse. Like many rappers, Biggie, 24 when he died, was fixated on his own mortality. His 1994 first release, Ready to Die, ended with the sound of an apparent suicide by gunshot. The cover of Life After Death pictures him next to a hearse and opens with the sound of a heart monitor flatlining.

Biggie’s death gives a weird spin to tracks like “Going Back to Cali,” in which he plays down the alleged feud between East and West Coast rappers, the gloomy-sounding “Long Kiss Goodnight” (a complex production by RZA) and “What’s Beef?” in which Biggie dispassionately states, “Beef is when you need two gats to go to sleep.” Yet, despite the dire tone, there are lighter moments: X-rated spoken-word interludes and a few tracks, notably “Hypnotize,” concerning Biggie’s way with the ladies.

Life After Death concludes with “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” Biggie already was somebody, and it’s a sad but familiar irony that his senseless death has made him an even bigger star. His last recording is a series of cautionary tales that are offensive, exciting, disturbing, funky and undeniably the product of a serious talent. (Bad Boy/Arista)

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