Even now, it’s hard to imagine. A top rapper was shot to death on the eve of the release of his long-awaited sophomore album — the eerily titled Life After Death. But that’s what happened 20 years ago — on March 9, 1997, when the Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace) was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. His death came just six months after 2Pac was shot to death in similar circumstances in Las Vegas. Biggie was just 24 when he died.
Biggie’s star was clearly on the rise. His debut album, the also eerily titled Ready to Die, had been certified double-platinum (it’s now quadruple-platinum). It had spawned a pair of top 10 hits on Billboard‘s Hot 100 — “Big Poppa” (which received a Grammy nom for Best Rap Solo Performance) and “One More Chance/Stay With Me.”
Biggie’s killing focused even more attention on his follow-up, a double-disc album that was released just 16 days after his death. The album sold 690K copies in its first full week of release. That set a record (which still stands) for the greatest one-week sales for an album by a deceased artist since Nielsen began tracking U.S. music sales in 1991.
Life After Death spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. That was the longest run on top by an artist who had died since John Lennon’s Double Fantasy (a collabo with wife Yoko Ono) logged eight weeks at No. 1 in 1980-81.
Moreover, Life After Death spawned two No. 1 singles on the Hot 100, “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money Mo Problems” (featuring Puff Daddy and Ma$e). Biggie remains the only artist to land two No. 1 singles posthumously. (Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jim Croce, and John Lennon are the only other artists to land a No. 1 single posthumously as a lead artist.)
Biggie was also the subject of the tender “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans (Biggie’s widow) and featuring 112, an R&B group from Atlanta. The song, which samples the Police’s 1983 classic “Every Breath You Take,” was released on May 27, 1997, just 10 weeks after Biggie’s death. The single entered the Hot 100 at No. 1 and held on to the top spot for 11 consecutive weeks. It is, to this day, the only hip-hop single to spend its first 11 weeks at No. 1. Remarkably (and fittingly), “Mo Money Mo Problems” bumped “I’ll Be Missing You” out of the No. 1 spot.
Sting joined Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, and 112 to perform “I’ll Be Missing You” at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 4, 1997. That remains one of the most iconic performances in the history of the VMAs. “I’ll Be Missing You” won a VMA that night as Best R&B Video; Biggie’s “Hypnotize” was named Best Rap Video.
“I’ll Be Missing You” was Billboard‘s Song of the Summer for 1997. It ranked No. 3 on the magazine’s year-end chart. Spin magazine crowned the Notorious B.I.G. its Artist of the Year for 1997 and named “Hypnotize” its Single of the Year.
Life After Death was the sixth best-selling album of 1997, according to Nielsen. This is one of four times in the Nielsen era that an album by a deceased artist has ranked among the year’s top 10. 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me was the sixth best-selling album of 1996. Michael Jackson’s Number Ones was the third-best selling album of 2009. Prince’s The Very Best of Prince was the eighth best-selling album of 2016.
Biggie received three posthumous Grammy nominations in early 1998: Best Rap Album, Best Rap Solo Performance (for “Hypnotize”), and Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group (for “Mo Money Mo Problems,” which lost to “I’ll Be Missing You”).
The Notorious B.I.G. returned to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with two more posthumous albums — Born Again (in December 1999) and Greatest Hits (No. 1 in March 2007). He is one of only three artists to land three No. 1 albums posthumously since Billboard first published an album chart in 1945. The others are 2Pac and big-band leader Glenn Miller.
Biggie also reached the top five with Duets: The Final Chapter (No. 3 in January 2006). The soundtrack to Notorious, a biopic based on his life, reached No. 4 in January 2009.
In January 2000, Life After Death received a Diamond award from the Recording Industry Assn. of America, representing shipments of 10 million copies. It was just the second rap album to receive a Diamond award. The first, in April 1991, was M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. (Note: The RIAA counts double albums, such as Life After Death, as two albums.)
The Notorious B.I.G. has sold 17 million albums in the U.S., according to the RIAA. That puts him in fifth place among solo rappers, behind Eminem (42.5 million), 2Pac (36.5 million), Jay Z (26 million), and Nelly (22 million). (Again, bear in mind that the RIAA double-counts double albums.)
Though “I’ll Be Missing You” topped the Official U.K. Singles Chart for six weeks, the Notorious B.I.G. didn’t land a No. 1 hit in the U.K. until February 2006, nearly nine after his death. Biggie achieved the feat with “Nasty Girl,” which featured Diddy, Nelly, Jagged Edge, and Avery Storm. (The song peaked at No. 44 in the U.S.)
Faith Evans revealed the album cover for her long-anticipated posthumous duets album with her late husband on March 9, a project she’d been discussing since 2014. The King & I is set for release May 19, two days before what would have been his 45th birthday.
There is a sad postscript to this story. At the MTV Video Music Awards in September 1999, Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, and 2Pac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, met for the first time. They were introduced onstage by Will Smith, who joined them to present the award for Best Rap Video. The two women embraced, mothers whose sons achieved their dreams but lost their lives to senseless gun violence.