The fact that Christopher Wallace often toyed with death did not make his demise any easier to understand. The rapper known as the Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls, or quite simply, Big, was 24 when a vehicle ambushed and shot through the passenger side of the dark-green GMC Suburban he was riding in, on March 9, 1997. Four bullets entered his body but one alone struck the fatal blow, ravaging his heart, lungs, and liver. His final album, which dropped 16 days later, had already been titled Life After Death. It was a sequel to his 1994 debut, Ready to Die.
“I never knew that you could feel so sad, or feel so hurt, or feel so empty,” Sean Combs says in the opening moments of the new Netflix documentary Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell. Solemn undersells the pain surrounding Biggie’s funeral. (“It felt like everyone wanted to give up,” Combs says.) Yet, he recalls, a balm did eventually arrive. There was a procession after the service, a pilgrimage through Brooklyn. Bystanders radiated praise, thanks, joy, and love—as Big once chronicled. The MC’s physical being may have been laid to rest, but his music and memory lived. The suggestion is that because of this, a part of Biggie did too. “His story,” Diddy says, “doesn’t have to be a tragedy.” It’s a statement that has a tinge of uncertainty.
Released Monday, I Got a Story to Tell is one of several grasps at closure since Biggie’s death—a litany of content that includes Life After Death, other posthumous releases, books, and documentaries, and, in 2009, an ill-received but estate-approved biopic, Notorious. The volume is understandable considering the man in question. Has anyone ever really been better at the sport of rap than Biggie Smalls? Has anyone ever had a more natural proclivity toward the rhythm and sounds of the genre? To know that such a being existed and was slain so young is to behold the terrifying and unsettling truth that this world may not adhere to reason. As a result, the works made in his honor are often sticky and flawed attempts at grappling with a profound tragedy in a culture with an aversion to the mere language of death.
I Got a Story to Tell includes previously unseen archival footage provided by Biggie’s lifelong friend Damion Butler. It is executive produced by both Combs and the MC’s mother, Voletta Wallace. This level of access and the film’s commitment to interviews from those who knew Biggie best make it an upgrade from preceding efforts. But the motivation at the heart of the film is the same as other works related to the rapper. I Got a Story to Tell wants viewers to believe that how he lived and how we remember his life makes his death, if not less brutal, then less final. It goes through a great deal to prove that point, beginning with the rapper’s origin.
If there is a central figure in the documentary besides Biggie, it’s Voletta, who takes up the most interview time of any subject. I Got a Story to Tell tracks her roots in rural Jamaica and the dilemma she faced in choosing whether to build a life at home or chase the allure of American opportunity. “I always daydream[ed] of being a filthy rich lady. A lady of means with three children,” Voletta says early in the film. “I did not see that in the country for me. That was not my life.”
Her son’s status as a first-generation American is foregrounded throughout the narrative. As a child, he is imbued with a touch of melomania—at once a fan of country Western ballads, island dancehall grooves, sultry R&B, and bruising ’80s hip-hop. To explain the artist’s virtuosity on the mic, viewers are furnished with stories of Biggie bringing music back to the States after summers in Jamaica and late nights spent at kickbacks with family members.
The landscape of late ’80s and early ’90s Brooklyn holds similar weight. Friends Suif Jackson and Michael Abrahams recall tales of a wily and ambitious Biggie bound to outgrow the world around him. When he was little, Voletta did not allow Biggie to traverse past nearby Fulton Street, where the neighborhood dealers operated. From the window of their apartment, “his mother used to watch him all the time,” recalls Abrahams. But this was the height of the crack epidemic. Eventually, Biggie would leave his apartment building’s stoop and begin selling drugs himself. “Especially for a young Black kid, it was easy to get lured into the streets,” laments Jackson. Narcotics were everywhere and, for those willing, they could provide everything. In a neighborhood purged of options, dealing was a ticket to mobility. By the time Biggie reached his late teens, he was fully immersed in the trade.
I Got a Story to Tell documents his rise as a drug dealer alongside his musical maturation: his first attempts at rapping, the cassettes his mother bought him, and the amateur freestyles that became a staple of his teenage years. In one interview, Donald Harrison, a saxophonist who lived up the street from Biggie, describes trying to sway the adolescent prodigy toward jazz by having him rap in conjunction with a modal tune. Immediately afterward, a solo from the drummer Max Roach is juxtaposed with a clip of Biggie freestyling. The resemblance is uncanny.
The documentary is quick to chart the ways in which his path to stardom was not a straight line—Biggie frequently returned to the streets out of a sense of pessimism and fear over his career prospects—but it is equally engaged with how the people around him made his success possible. Each interlude of unseen footage provides a glimpse into how Biggie passed on that goodwill as an adult. In sequence after sequence, viewers can see the day-to-day intimacies that filled his life. The same figures from Biggie’s late childhood appear again in tour buses, hotel suites, and photo shoots during his career. Junior M.A.F.I.A., the group of protégés that Biggie led, is shown as a collection of friends and family, all unambiguously empowered by his rise. His life leading up to the shooting is shown as something that was celebrated communally. There is a certain bowtie-finality that the film posits in this layout, one that assumes the only thing that Biggie carried forth into his all-too-short adulthood was growth. The truth, of course, is far messier.
The only women who knew Biggie who appear in I Got a Story to Tell are his mother, grandmother, and ex-wife, the singer Faith Evans. The most glaring omission is his one-time lover and collaborator, the rapper Lil’ Kim. She was there for his rise, after all. They met when they were teenagers and were connected until the day he died. They also dated before, during, and after Biggie’s marriage. Yet, based on the film, one could be excused for assuming that they had barely even met. Kim was not the only woman to appear on Biggie’s long list of infidelities, but she is the most high-profile one. She also has publicly stated that Wallace was violent toward her. After the producer Jermaine Dupri recounted an incident in which Biggie threatened Kim with a loaded gun, she appeared on Ebro in the Morning in 2017 saying, “We did have a very violent relationship … for a while, that was all I attracted: violent [partners].” Years earlier, Kim also said that Wallace once choked her in an elevator.
This side of Biggie is hidden from view in I Got a Story to Tell, which is typical of situations in which the treatment of women is brushed aside by the focus of fame. It is also a reflection of the shortcomings of the discourse that has surrounded Biggie’s life and death. The documentary has no problems delving into certain aspects of his life, but it conceals others in an attempt to make sense of how he died. The truth is that growth is not the only feature in the story of Christopher Wallace—even knowing how much of it he may have lost out on.
There is no rationalizing a 24-year-old shot dead in a passenger’s seat. But sometimes a thing happens and it makes no sense—it just is. Biggie did things that were fantastical and also horrific, and was killed before he could show anything different. He may not have done so. We can’t really know. His story is over. Yes, the music lived on, but he didn’t.
There’s an interview at about the three-fourths mark of I Got a Story to Tell when Biggie’s grandmother, 96 at the time of filming, is asked how she found out about her grandson’s death. She says she saw it on the TV and was shocked, but knew in her heart it had to be true. Then she furrows her brow and looks at the camera and says, “I just can’t understand why they had to take away his life like that.” After all these years, it still seems, neither can we.