In March of 1997, not quite a year after the death of fellow rapper Tupac Shakur, Christopher Wallace (aka Biggie Smalls) was fatally shot on his way back from a party in Los Angeles, CA. Though the murder remains unsolved, it is widely thought to have been a gang-related hit, and rumors continue to suggest that the LAPD and record producer Marion "Suge" Knight (allegedly a Blood affiliate) may have played a role in the crime. In any case, shockwaves reverberated throughout the hip-hop community; the respective kings of West and East Coast gangster rap were dead, both murder victims, in an eerie microcosm of the "thug" lifestyle that pervaded their lyrics.
Notorious begins long before the coastal rivalry, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, when Biggie Smalls is a chubby, precocious youngster his mother refers to as "Chrissy-poo." Labeled "too fat, too black, and too ugly" by his peers, Christopher Wallace initially obeys his mother, Voletta (Angela Bassett), studies hard, and rarely strays from his front stoop. Sadly, the rampant crack cocaine trade of the time lures Wallace into a self-admitted addiction to wealth. By the time he's grown (taller as well as wider), Wallace is neck-deep in all the trappings of the inner-city drug trade: he carries a gun, womanizes, evades the police, and knowingly sells crack to a pregnant woman, all to feed his obsession with money. Eventually, Biggie is arrested, and spends his time in jail channeling his life experiences and frustration into his lyrics. Upon his release, determined to redeem himself to his mother and provide for his baby daughter, Wallace teams up with a young, pre-Diddy Sean "Puffy" Combs, as played by Derek Luke, and puts his heart and soul into building his rap career.
Watching Notorious is a bit like watching a Shakespearean tragedy, except with guns, naked women, and profanity -- a lot of profanity. Since the hip-hop world is somewhat of a mythology unto itself, with hundreds of thousands of rap lyrics devoted to a downtrodden young man climbing his way out from the underworld (the ghetto) and into the promised land (wealth and status) without falling victim to an admittedly dangerous lifestyle, the premise works. Jamal Woolard bears an almost haunting resemblance to Smalls, and puts forth the larger-than-life (literally and figuratively) energy one would imagine the rapper himself would have needed in order to succeed on the streets and in the music industry. The same could be said for Anthony Mackie, whose portrayal of Tupac Shakur as an intense, erratic, paranoid, and otherwise multi-layered personality is at times more interesting than Biggie's streetwise-yet-gentle giant. When Biggie begins to see the fruits of his labor, Shakur (then his friend) tells him that the best part of his career will be coming up -- it's at the top when things get tough, because there's nowhere to go but down. Appropriately, Biggie's rise to fame is filled with bling and colors; turquoise minks, flashy suits, gold chains, and bright stage lights dominate the screen as Biggie becomes increasingly successful. After things go bad (particularly after Tupac's death), the drab, gritty backdrop of California becomes the atmosphere. Though Biggie had hoped to end the rivalry by traveling to L.A., his hulking stature seems almost obscene as he walks down the streets. In Brooklyn, he's a hero; in L.A., he's a target. Unfortunately, he doesn't come back to his hometown alive. Though the strings are tied a little too fast to be believable (in the ten minutes before his onscreen death, Biggie manages to become a good father, make amends with his estranged wife, and tell his mother how proud he is of her), Biggie's murder is nonetheless effective in bringing a sense of finality to both the movie and the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop beef of the 1990s.