40 years in, hip-hop has aged enough to feature a classicist contingent. Apart from the interminable arguments about what constitutes real hip-hop, this contingent has helped fuel interest in the posthumous appearance industrial-complex, whereby the voices of the deceased are continually repurposed under the guise of exaltation. Hence we hear Tupac Shakur’s “interview” on To Pimp a Butterfly, Pimp C’s awkward guest spot on the glossy Views, the steady flow of unmined J Dilla songs—all of this part of some rich tradition, we’re told, or at least a lucrative one.
To date, the Notorious B.I.G.’s booming flow hasn’t been exhaustively exhumed. His greatest moments are unpacked in the two studio albums he completed before his passing, and the two posthumous releases following Life After Death are only notable for their banality. The King & I, a new project done in the style of Natalie Cole and her father Nat Cole’s duet “Unforgettable,” seeks to prove there’s still a fresh angle of Biggie to explore, by way of his widow Faith Evans. Predominantly composed of already heard Biggie bars grafted to original Evans songs, the 25-track effort comes 20 years after Biggie’s murder, and dropped on his birthday weekend. On-the-nose timing aside, The King & I has the advantage of being guided by a singer with an actual intimate connection to the deceased, who, at her best, expressed bedroom vulnerability and the resulting dance floor catharsis with platinum-charting efficiency.
Yet The King & I is bogged down by that added focus. The album, loosely structured to follow a romance from its spark to its traumatic ending, officially kicks off with “Lately,” which repurposes Biggie’s “Would You Die for Me” verse before Evans’ harmonized premonition, “I knew from the very first moment / That you were a king fit just for a queen.” It’s a sweet sentiment, but The King & I wastes too much energy centering a known relationship on these formless descriptions, a flaw that turns a 72-minute project into a poshly produced endurance contest. The classicist early-aughts R&B is informed by Evans’ nostalgic impulse, but the effect is often touristic rather than resonant, like in “Sky’s the Limit”-sampling “Tryna Get By” and “Fuck You Tonight”-by-way-of-ballpark-organs “A Little Romance.”
Part of the inherent trouble of remixing Biggie comes with the rigidity of his legend: His bars are so inextricably tied to an era and shared experience that the idea of reframing them becomes a hard sell. Even with familial additions like Yonkers tough guys the LOX and Mama Wallace—who shows up to tell a sweet story about meeting Evans—The King & I’s lack of songwriting definition is yet another handicap. None of the songs here are Duets-level clunkiness, but songs like “Ten Wife Commandments”—which refashions “Ten Crack Commandments” into relationship platitudes like “Gotta be a lady in the street / And you gotta be a freak in the sheets”—at least broach it.
The King & I offers some glimpses of great posthumous Biggie, mainly when it practices some discipline. “The Reason” combines starry production and Evans’ marmalade-like vocals to make a pleasant 106 & Park throwback, with Biggie efficiently used for a slick back and forth. The funky Snoop Dogg-featuring “When We Party”—the project’s standout by a couple of notches—converts “Going Back to Cali” from an ironic love letter to a genuinely joyful bi-coastal shindig, envisioning an alternate reality that doesn’t feel all that distant. We hear it after 16 songs, and almost an hour into the project.