Life After Death: Who Killed Tupac and Biggie?

US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and systemic narratives

The 9 March marks the 21st anniversary of the death of Christopher Wallace, also known as The Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie Smalls, the standard bearer for Sean 'Diddy' Combs's New York-based Bad Boy label. That spring day in 1997 should have been one of celebration for Combs and Wallace, since it would see the release of his exceptional double-album, Life After Death. It was widely remarked at the time that the record – released posthumously – was eerily titled, presaging, as it did, the unsolved shooting of Biggie in plain sight in Los Angeles. At the same time, fatalistic themes run throughout the rapper's back catalogue too, particularly a macabre sense of the finitude of a life lived in the streets of Brooklyn's Clinton Hill and of the hedonistic or anesthetizing pleasures one might enjoy in the meantime. All of this finds resonance in the USA Network's Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., which began airing in the US last week.


Christopher 'Biggie' Wallace played by Wavyy Jonez in Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G, 2018–ongoing. Courtesy: USA Network / NBC Universal

Christopher 'Biggie' Wallace played by Wavyy Jonez in Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., 2018–ongoing. Courtesy: USA Network / NBC Universal

A carefully-made procedural drama, the show is typical of our current era of 'prestige' (high-quality, important, serious) television and seeks to tell the story of the killings of Biggie Smalls and his chief musical rival Tupac Shakur, who was fatally shot the year before, in September of 1996, in Las Vegas. In the mid-'90s, conspiracy theories abounded as to the connection between the two deaths, though many put the murders down to a gang-related spill-over from the 'East Coast v. West Coast' rivalry that dominated rap music at the time. The murders remain unsolved, and in the pop historicizing tradition of Oliver Stone, the show attempts to add rich detail to a high-profile case two decades earlier, while also undertaking – or at least performing – suggestive forensic work of its own.


Tupac Shakur played by Marcc Rose in  

Tupac Shakur played by Marcc Rose in in Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., 2018–ongoing. Courtesy: USA Network / NBC Universal 

Unsolved is the work of Kyle Long, a director and producer on the 2016 installment of the anthology American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Both of Long's projects revisit mass media events that were formative for a generation now in their thirties seemingly ready to dedicate, or binge on, ten plus hours considering the details – interpersonal and arcane – that were obscured by the headlines. For those not yet alive to see the 'trial of the century', it is difficult to overstate public fascination with it for most of 1995. Simpson's indictment in the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman – and his ultimate acquittal – defined a great deal of popular culture for the rest of the decade. For instance, common white SUV trucks like the one O.J. drove as he fled the police on Interstate 5, or black Isotoner gloves like those shown during a pivotal courthouse scene suddenly took on fresh associations. Moreover, characters from the trial became fodder for other genres – Judge Lance Ito lives on in the world of memes, while the Jackie Chiles character on Seinfeld parodied the Simpson defence attorney.

But as The People vs. O.J. Simpson demonstrated, the trial and its aftermath were a synecdoche for deeper, often unspoken dynamics of race, gender and class, and the entire affair was a perfect site of collective projection (literalized in the televised viewing parties, from Oprah to Times Square, which occurred the day the verdict was handed down and were to birth the genre of the 'reaction video'). In this sense, Unsolved is an important counterpoint to its predecessor, lingering as it does on an inverse kind of story: if O.J. Simpson's case was hyper-litigated, the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls – at the time some of the most commercially successful artists in the world – remain unsolved and, aside from a belated civil trial, were scarcely litigated at all.


Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., 2018–ongoing. Courtesy: USA Network / NBC Universal

Kyle Long, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., 2018–ongoing. Courtesy: USA Network / NBC Universal

Indeed, the exigency of the first episode of Unsolved is provided by a suit against the LAPD brought by Biggie Smalls's mother, Voletta Wallace, some ten years after the case had run cold. In a scene that flashes back to April of 1997, she confronts LAPD Detective Poole (played by Jimmi Simpson) and demands to see 'the man in charge'. He asks what information she can provide, before remembering that it is the responsibility of the police to help her, and not the other way around.

For all of its current pop dominance, hip-hop in the mid-1990s was still seen by conservative leaders and the alarmist media as a corrosive social force, and it is this emphasis on the rapper's personhood that reclaims the case from both the obscurantism of legend and the racism of American popular culture. Ms. Wallace's demand re-centres the case around the murder of a young man, her son, named Christopher, rather than a symbol of urban life.


Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., 2018–ongoing. Courtesy: USA Network / NBC Universal

Kyle Long, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., 2018–ongoing. Courtesy: USA Network / NBC Universal

Twenty-one years ago, the 'third way' Democrats helped lead the charge for the containment of young black men, on the one hand culturally, as in Tipper Gore's quest for 'Parental Guidance' stickers, and on the other literally, as in Hillary Clinton's invocation of 'super predators'.  From the perspective of Tupac or Biggie alike, their work exemplified a violent 'outlaw' form of American capitalism. While they inhabited the archetypes of the poet or world-weary man on the street, much of their material rhapsodized, even glamourized 'the hustle', in effect conjoining the southern California 'gangsta' aesthetic with a northern California (or Wall Street) ethos of entrepreneurialism and conspicuous consumption. Lyrics ranged from the boastful (as in Biggie's 1994 classic 'Juicy', an ode to upward mobility with lines such as 'Condos in Queens, endo for weeks / Sold out seats to hear Biggie Smalls speak / Livin' life without fear / Puttin' 5 carats in my baby girl's ears') to the outright incendiary, as in Tupac's 1996 'Hit 'Em Up', in which he declares 'I'm a self-made millionaire / Thug livin' out a prison, pistols in the air / Biggie, remember when I used to let you sleep on the couch?'

A long-standing defence of these darker passages in hip-hop argues that rappers like Tupac and Biggie were merely messengers of an experience of contemporary life that existed in parallel to a more-polite mainstream. This is not to say, however, that the lives depicted in their songs were not plainly American ones: lyrics connect to a tradition of cowboys or mafia dons and underscore a winner-takes-all system in which we are left to fend for ourselves and, if possible, take what we can. If success in American life is measured by the size of our homes and the cars in the driveway, why should hip-hop be any different? For people like Tupac and Biggie, more institutionalized forms of gangsterism – gaming the system for real estate or finance wealth – were structurally unavailable. Indeed, for Voletta Wallace, Christopher's stories 'brought tears to her eyes.' For all of their violent content that offended white liberals and conservatives, they also mirrored a world wrought by decades of anti-black legislation. An initial argument in Unsolved is that by 'opting in' to an outlaw lifestyle, these men were unworthy – at least in their own lifetime – of protection and justice by the state. Ultimately, Unsolved risks further exploitation, cashing in on a new wave of '90s nostalgia; but it is off to a promising start, measuring the incremental gains we have made in the ensuing years while highlighting the unsettling social undercurrents that persist.

Main image: Kyle Long, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., 2018–ongoing. Courtesy: USA Network / NBC Universal

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, USA.

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018