“Notorious” takes its place in the hip-hop movie canon

“Notorious,” the Notorious B.I.G. biopic, made a strong showing recently as the latest blockbuster in the hip hop movie canon. The canon came into existence recently – with its inception in 1985 of the first rap biopic “Krush Groove,” a sly rendering of the rise of Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ Def Jam records. Since the ’80s, successful rap artists have willed their stories onto the screen.In these movies, rap music is more vital than self-expression – it’s the only hope for a different life for the main character. Consistently the same, the hero’s trajectory starts off in the hometown setting of the to-be-famous rapper. Living in squalor, drug-induced mania, or the slums of inner-city degradation, the hero foresees a better future for himself. His poverty not only exists as impetus for his climb to stardom, but also provides him with the necessary “street cred” and raw material for his songs. “Hustle & Flow,” a 2005 entry into the canon, established this tone by sending its female characters into a battered car in a back alley to service their customers. The film’s Oscar-winning song, “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp,” exemplified the mix of glorification and criticism in rap movies’ treatment of the illegal methods through which its poverty-stricken characters get by. As the movie demonstrates the gritty realities of prostitution, it basks in the coolness of its pimping main character and rap artist, DJay (Terrence Howard).The love stories in rap movies are usually muted, as hip-hop is the true sweetheart, and are rendered even more arbitrary with one-note love interests, such as Brittany Murphy’s forgettable Alex from 2002’s “8 Mile.” The plot follows the same basic structure: poor young man struggles, has a calling to become a rapper; he faces resistance to his dream of becoming a rapper, and then, in a blow out showdown (usually at the end), auditions his raps skills before hungry producers and fans. This is his chance, and he knows it — either he’ll get rich or literally, “die tryin’.” This trial has taken the form of B-Rabbit’s (Eminem) big final rap battle in “8 Mile” and DJay’s one chance to impress big-time rapper Skinny Black (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) in “Hustle & Flow.” “Notorious” sticks to the tried-and-true rap movie convention, but its exploration of Wallace’s character buoys it to a higher level of quality than many rap films. Christopher Wallace (played as a boy by Wallace’s real son, Christopher Wallace, Jr.) is sheltered from the inner-city crime of his native Brooklyn until he starts selling drugs and finds it undeniably lucrative. His true passion is, of course, making rhymes. His burgeoning success is threatened by an arrest, but hope arrives in the form of Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, (portrayed flatly as a nice, rich guy) who signs Wallace to his record label.Before long, Biggie is playing to fervent crowds, defining his status as Tupac Shakur’s competitor. The ending won’t be a surprise to anyone, but it is treated with respect and restraint.Jamal Woolard as Wallace and Naturi Naughton as Lil’ Kim deliver standout performances, imbuing their characters with a mix of professional swagger and beginner insecurity. George Tillman, Jr.’s direction keeps the movie in “Behind the Music” territory with its weight of clichés, a pseudo-documentary format depicting the rise and fall of famous musicians. “Notorious” keeps it real-delivering an engaging posthumous portrait of Wallace and a thrilling look back for his many fans.