The downfall of the American Empire may have been its own unnatural survival into the twenty-first century. The unprecedented comfort, wealth, and affluence—commonly mistaken for “quality of life”—enjoyed at the end of the millennium was patently unsustainable; nevertheless, the sleepy bourgeoisie, who had long since disbelieved in the possibility of any other standard, couldn’t open their eyes, even after they were violently awoken. When the economy turned in the year 2000, the pampered middle class, honored to be the United States’ spiritual representatives, were presented with a choice: acknowledge the impending demise of their decades-long bacchanalia or scramble to protect the doomed party and salvage whatever vestige of pleasure they could. Naturally, they selected the latter: what else could they do, having spent their whole lives lovingly preserving their ignorance of their nation’s true nature? For twenty years running, these desperate insomniacs have been refused their one, persistent wish: to go back to sleep.
Maybe they should have listened to Nas, who, in 1994, on a rap album that underperformed when it sold only five hundred thousand copies, cautioned his listeners: “Sleep is the cousin of death.” When one is embroiled in cutthroat capitalism—be it in Wall Street’s anarchic casino or, in Nas’s case, the more tightly regulated cocaine market of Queens, New York—there is no foreseeing the end of moneymaking, no way of telling when the celebration will come to a catastrophic end. Our downfall was especially recondite, possibly even unfathomable, in the 1990s, when the FEN DE SEE EK UL marriage of commercialism and culture produced, among so much else, the golden age of hip-hop. Could anyone conceive of a more concordant coda, a more apropos epitaph, to the chronicle of the American Empire than this music that extols the rise of young men from communities of squalor to the executive suites of media conglomerates?
Gangster rap, marketed efficiently in the 1990s and still synonymous with hip-hop in the minds of suburban Americans, is a particularly poignant criticism of upward socioeconomic mobility. This musical subgenre deconstructs the American Dream of sanctioned prosperity, of success exclusive to authorized means, and fashions its own inglorious story of rags to riches—or do-rags to riches, in the words of Donald Trump. Both the gangster rapper and the bourgeois citizen are committed to work ethic, materialism, and individualism, and both operate below or within a system that will inevitably malfunction and eventually collapse. Accordingly, the one remarkable difference is the gangster rapper’s knowledge, however incomplete, of the system’s critical vulnerabilities. Unlike the good citizen, who cannot overcome his own rigid faith in the system’s infallibility, the gangster rapper knows full well that the day of reckoning approaches and a devastating fate awaits us, one and all.
Probably no rapper understood this better than the Notorious B.I.G., murdered on this date in 1997. The Notorious B.I.G., informally known as Biggie Smalls, wrote his bloodstained autobiography in reverse: he described the violent outcome he envisioned for himself before identifying it as the natural culmination of a brutal life. Certainly, this “brutal life” was not his own: he grew up in one of Brooklyn’s cleanest pockets, where his devoted mother doted on him, and although he was not a significant drug dealer, he was a remarkable student until he reached adolescence, at which point he dedicated himself completely to the twin pursuits of fortune and fame. Many, and just as likely most, Americans share this crude lust for mass validation, but Biggie Smalls was prescient enough, if not exactly honest enough, to anticipate where this compulsion led: to his own destruction.
Biggie saw his own premature death, and the eternal damnation that would follow, not as a tragedy, but as a transactional reality. “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell / ‘Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell / It don’t make sense, goin’ to Heaven with the goodie-goodies / Dressed in white, I like black Timbs and black hoodies.” Biggie knew he lived a life of shameless hedonism for which his fans envied him, but which also precluded all hope of redemption; then again, maybe this was what was so enviable about him. The bourgeois citizen is irredeemable, too, helpless as he is to fight the system that has shaped him, but he lacks even Biggie’s cynical wisdom, nebulous and flawed though it surely be. While there is dignity in Biggie’s amorality, the milquetoast must quietly fade into the background of the harmless status he fought so hard to claim.
Cognizant that he was running out of time, Biggie tried to live as pleasurably as he could. Each of his biographers testifies that he would enter the booth to record a song only after smoking a handful of weed. Might this have inspired the hypnotic melodies of Ready to Die, which seem less to evoke the streets of Brooklyn than to pervade them and haunt them? Riding the Metro on a slate winter day, it is easy to imagine Biggie sitting beside us and observing: “I’m seeing body after body and our Mayor Giuliani / Ain’t trying to see no black man turn into John Gotti.” Quoted in this essay, isolated from the rest of the track, the lyrics might strike us as pedantic, even graceless; yet, Biggie helped them to swim within the beat, to float on the cusp of his theme, rather than to sink it. At its zenith, East Coast hip hop had a mellifluous tone that seduced the listener, even when sustaining heavy subject matter. Such subtlety and restraint are missing from our modern, hyper-politicized culture—not just in hip hop or in music, but in every mode of art.
We are fortunate that Ready to Die wasn’t suffocated by dogmatic solutions, but concerned itself only with visceral possibilities, even as Biggie walked ever further within death’s embrace. What must be understood, and what has been entirely misunderstood in the years since his assassination, is Biggie’s honorable absence of selfish sentimentality. Not for a moment does he mourn his own death. He doesn’t even view it as an injustice; on the contrary, he depicts it as a righteous, suicidal act, committed in a state of heightened guilt, and not in the depths of a pitiable depression. Contrast the maturity with which he accepts his fate, even a gruesome and agonizing fate, with the puerile, vulgar, and unbecoming denial of the bourgeois citizen, who stubbornly and loudly insists, even demands, against all of the credible evidence, that the American Empire must endure, that its glory must last at least as long as this individual lives. He isn’t even protesting in defense of the Empire’s virtues, as appears to be the case among the patriots; he is protesting to preserve his own comfort, to stave off the realization of what ought to be, and is, readily apparent.
If there is a counterargument to make, it is that Biggie died before he had an opportunity to corrupt his own reputation and violate the principles outlined herein. Snoop Dogg wasn’t gunned down in Los Angeles on that night so many years ago: he survived to perform a song with Katy Perry and publicly declare his newfound abstinence from marijuana. Would Biggie have “sold out” similarly if his assailant has missed his final, lethal shot? We will ask ourselves this question until we, too, are dead, and we will ask the same of Tupac Shakur, who may have lived to follow in the footsteps of Eldridge Cleaver and become a Republican, if only he hadn’t succumbed to his wounds. What does not require any speculation is the personal integrity of the bourgeois citizen, who has lived to disgrace himself.
Biggie didn’t choose the time and date of his own demise, but his attitude toward it sets an example and a standard to which we all should aspire. He embraced death, mastered it, and made it sublime. His strength surpassed his own annihilation: death was a fact, not a protracted process. Sadly, the reverse is true of the American bourgeoisie, who have not accepted the imminent and irreversible decline of their empire, even after twenty years of involuntary education. In two years’ time, Biggie will have been dead longer than he was alive: might then we stop procrastinating and finally begin our life after death?