With his book on the Notorious B.I.G., “It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World that Made Him,” author Justin Tinsley takes on the formidable challenge of telling the story of one of the most gifted, legendary and iconic rappers to ever hold a mic — and one who has, since his death a quarter-century ago, been the subject of at least seven books, one biopic, myriad podcasts and two documentaries, most recently the 2021 Netflix film, “Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell.” In the introduction to his book, Tinsley confesses that he was apprehensive when he was first approached to write a biography of one of the most biographed rappers.
“What the hell could I say about the Notorious B.I.G. that hadn’t already been said?” Tinsley recalls asking himself. “That people were willing to speak about?”
Not much, it turns out.
Anyone who considers himself or herself a fan of Biggie’s music must have some familiarity with his story. Born Christopher Wallace in Brooklyn and raised by a single mother, Biggie dropped out of high school to become a full-time hustler, peddling crack cocaine on street corners and occasionally getting into trouble with the law. He was on his way to becoming yet another anonymous statistic, when he was discovered, almost by accident, to possess an extraordinary gift of lyricism and storytelling. He rocketed to hip-hop superstardom, dropping hit after hit, and was days away from releasing his highly anticipated sophomore album when he was killed, at age 24, during a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles in March 1997.
Published to coincide with what would’ve been Biggie’s 50th birthday, “It Was All a Dream” could’ve been an opportunity to reflect anew on his brief life and unparalleled talent, or to examine how his music is relevant to our current conversations on race and entertainment. Regrettably, readers looking for new insights or original appraisals will be disappointed.
Tinsley, a senior reporter with ESPN’s The Undefeated online platform (recently rebranded as Andscape), has covered the intersection of music, sports and race for nearly a decade, applying a journalist’s reportage and analysis to a hip-hop head’s passion. A young writer with extensive knowledge of sports and Black culture, Tinsley has established himself as a critical thinker on contemporary issues and a stalwart student of Black American history, one recognized for his original voice and sharp-edged evaluation. “It Was All a Dream,” however, struggles to distinguish itself from earlier accounts — despite personal interviews with consequential figures from Biggie’s life, such as former Junior M.A.F.I.A. member Chico del Vec and popular Brooklyn DJ Mister Cee, who was among the first to support Biggie’s nascent rap career. Tinsley leans heavily on existing documentaries, previously published interviews, and biographies, particularly Cheo Hodari Coker’s 2003 book “Unbelievable” and the 2005 memoir by Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace.
Where “It Was All a Dream” seeks to set itself apart can be found in its subtitle: “Biggie and the World that Made Him.” Tinsley broadens his scope to observe what the country was going through while Biggie was growing up — the crack epidemic, a precipitous rise in violent crime, Reaganomics — and how these developments affected Black urban communities, most acutely in New York.
“Between 1980 and 1989, New York City averaged 2,042 homicides a year, peaking in 1990 with 2,605,” Tinsley writes. “What drugs did to New York was vicious. Street corners became makeshift offices for countless young Black men who saw money in the street as a better play than flipping burgers at McDonald’s or working at a laundromat.”
Tinsley deftly notes how the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs became a war on lower-income Black families and how, for young Black men without viable employment opportunities, hustling was often the only way to put food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads. It has long been a matter of debate whether the federal government deliberately funneled cocaine from Latin America into Black communities or merely turned a blind eye to what was happening. But what is beyond dispute is that the government responded to the rise in drug use and violent crime with draconian measures of repression and mass incarceration.
It’s not quite clear, however, if the young Christopher Wallace was particularly affected or motivated by these social ills and anxieties. While far from prosperous, his mother, Voletta, a Jamaican immigrant, was a college-educated preschool teacher who loved and doted on her only son. His interest in hustling was motivated less by survival and more by the most archetypal American justification: There’s money to be made, so why shouldn’t I make it?
Biggie’s nonchalance, often coming across as ambivalence, follows him into his next occupation, rap star, as he routinely delegates artistic decisions to others, first Mister Cee and then Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs — record producer, creative director, songwriter, executive, visionary — whose tireless (also arrogant and hostile) work ethic was fundamental in turning the little-known street hustler from Bedford-Stuyvesant into a worldwide superstar.
Soft-spoken and diffident, Biggie gets lost within the pages of “It Was All a Dream,” upstaged by more purpose-driven or brassier peers, including fellow rapper and early career mentor Tupac Shakur. Biggie’s fate will forever be linked to Shakur’s, whose death by drive-by shooting six months earlier is widely seen as the catalyst for the retaliatory killing of Biggie. Shakur’s and Biggie’s murders marked the ugliest chapter in hip-hop history and the loss of two of its biggest talents. It was a moment of intense soul-searching for the culture in general, but for Brooklyn, to lose Biggie was to lose of one of its brightest stars, whose unlikely ascendancy had been an inspiration to the blighted borough.
“A piece of Brooklyn’s soul, a piece of its very identity, had been snatched away,” Tinsley writes. “Big, a first-generation American kid, was Brooklyn. The borough was responsible for so much in hip-hop culture, and Big represented so much of that in one body. One massive, beautiful body that bucked at normal standards for what beauty could look like artistically and spiritually. Throughout his career, the one thing that remained true always was the space he made in his soul for Brooklyn.”
The Notorious B.I.G. will always have a place in conversations about hip-hop. His music will continue to bring down clubs and house parties, and he will be reliably named in “top five” best rapper lists. Nevertheless, as “It Was All a Dream” reminds us, even the most massive and most beautiful talents must someday be laid to rest.
Santi Elijah Holley is a journalist, essayist and the author of “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads” and the forthcoming “An Amerikan Family.”
It Was All a Dream
Biggie and the World That Made Him
By Justin Tinsley
Abrams. 420 pp. $28
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