Fifteen years ago, a mogul who’d lost his best friend to murder and had his name implicated in the murder of an enemy changed the world of rap music despite the fact that he could barely rap. Remember? Maybe the glare from this glimmering jumpsuit will refresh your memory.
Sean “Puffy” Combs. Puffy Woods. Poppa Daddy. P Diddy. Diddy. Daddy?
I’ll call him Puffy or Puff Daddy from here on out, and maybe I’ll mix it up, go the New York Times route and refer to him as Mr. Combs, too. Anyways, when I think of him, I usually think of his numerous aliases, a hilarious Dave Chapelle joke about Cambodian breast milk and the Jeffrey, a super-drug that only exists in a world where Russell Brand is a rock star.
In a different era, he stood for so much more. In 1997, he released No Way Out. It changed rap music and the way mainstream America thought of rap music. It was No 1 for several weeks, featured four top-two singles and sold more than seven million copies. Yet it was a rap album performed by a producer here-to-fore known for his yawn-inducing lyricism and his stupid background effects (“come on,” “ye ye,” “uh-huh”) in the songs of artists, namely Notorious B.I.G., who had far greater skills than he did. It was kind of a mess.
It was also the first rap album I ever owned*. Somehow as a fifth grader who lived in the richest county in Kansas, still bought Star Wars toys and knew about hip-hop from seeing “Sister, Sister,” I decided I wanted to listen to rap music. I think maybe those shiny suits from the “Mo Money, Mo Problems” music video entranced me. Or maybe I wanted to keep up with the Joneses. A few of my friends had started listening to rap music. It was likely a combination of both.
*Technically, I first owned Master P’s “Ghetto D,” but I received the Wal-Mart edited version as a Christmas gift. Needless to say, I wasn’t about to listen to a record that didn’t include 763 usages of the f-word when it clearly should, so I returned it to the store.
Like the other millions who bought it and told their friends about it, I loved No Way Out. The album’s success paved the way for the viability of two contrasting hip-hop movements.
- Everyone who was like Mr. Combs – These rappers generally recorded songs about the ESSENTIALS in life, mainly money, women and partying. It contained the explicit messages of gangsta rap but with catchy, sometimes R&B choruses that caught the ears of many people. Many people meaning, as Master P once said, potential listeners “from the ‘burbs to the streets, from the south to the east.
- Everyone who was not like Mr. Combs – These rappers were the Romanticists of this era. They wanted to return to simpler times. They didn’t necessarily rap about politics or calls to change, but they spurned the popular excesses of Puffy and the others. Black Star reignited this fervor in 1998.
Whichever path an artist chose, he or she could find unprecedented commercial success. The year after No Way Out, Jay-Z released Hard Knock Life: Volume Two. Suburban white kids weren’t just listening to that album. We were rapping its songs during karaoke sessions at middle school dances.* It sold almost eight-million copies worldwide. As we now know, Jay-Z pretty much runs the world, or at least New York.
*What?! You mean I was the only one?!
As for the serious rappers, the conscientious contrarians, they could have at least afforded the diamonds, gators, grills and Bentleys they didn’t want to rap about. Mos Def, on a tiny label called Rawkus Records, sold more than 500,000 copies of Black On Both Sides in 1999, and his song “Umi Says” played in a Michael Jordan commercial. MTV started a TV show featuring several of these musicians called “The Lyricist Lounge Show*.” Outkast, albeit on a major label, used this alternative rap, music far different from anything Mr. Combs could have dreamed, and won the Grammy for best album in 2004.
*Where you at yo? THE LYRICIST LOUNGE SHOW
None of this would have been possible without Puffy. In addition to helping set the standard for the sub-types of the genre circa the late 90s and early aughts, Puffy pioneered the music’s newfound popularity. Though earlier rappers like LL Cool J and Run DMC had crossed into the pop charts, none did as swiftly and completely as Puff Daddy. No Way Out was No. 1 for six months. “I’ll Be Missing You” was No. 1 for eleven weeks.
“Hard Knock Life” sounded gritty yet hopeful and innocent because a year earlier we’d watched Puff Daddy rap next to Sting on an MTV stage packed with a choir. He differed from those who had come before him. He made songs based on samples we all knew and loved, his choruses were easy and catchy, his song “I’ll Be Missing You” made us feel genuine sympathy for him and he wore those COOL jumpsuits!
Puff Daddy obliterated the white picket fence separating hip-hop from the mainstream culture.
At some point, not terribly long after No Way Out, it became fashionable to hate Puffy. He changed his names too many times. He was soft. He was too trendy. He couldn’t do anything without the Notorious B.I.G.
Suburbanites like myself were saying this, and so were actual rappers. After a prolonged dispute, the rap group The Lox left Mr. Combs’ Bad Boy Records and quickly took to bashing him. In “We Are The Streets” they dissed him, with one lyric pointing out that they’d poison the food he ate in the Hamptons. Funny, a rap group was criticizing Puff Daddy for bringing down the state of rap music on an album that included tracks titled “Ryde or Die Bitch” and “Rape’N’ U Records.” So classy, The Lox.
Either way, Puff Daddy had the last laugh. No matter who criticized Puff Daddy, he had the last laugh. He recorded an obscure rebuttal to the Lox titled “Shiny Suit Man.”
“I just wanna get the record straight,” he said. “That when they talking about the shiny suit man, they talking about me. And I own this five-hundred million dollar shiny suit.”
I continued to listen to No Way Out into high school. Its seventeen tracks provided a lengthy enough soundtrack for my discman when I’d embark on ten-mile solitary training runs for cross-country. Then I got an IPod shuffle.
Like there wasn’t a need for a clunky Sony CD player that SKIPPED EVERY THIRTY SECONDS, there wasn’t really a need for the rap mogul anymore. We forgot about Puffy because we can quickly download songs from numerous artists we might not otherwise have heard of before the Internet and before Apple’s resurgence. I bet you that you didn’t even know a former LAPD officer accused him of plotting to murder Tupac last year. That’s how irrelevant Mr. Combs has become. We don’t even register news that he has been accused (somewhat sketchily) of the unsolved murder of rap’s most-famed subject.
I thought of Puffy the other day because I still own that same IPod Shuffle. His song “Senorita” came on as I ran. I listened. I realized it had been fifteen years. Later, I listened to the entire album on a drive to Pittsburgh. The album is a collection of contradictions, brought on largely by the death of his friend the Notorious B.I.G. Puffy goes from gangster to rich kid to mourner. He glorifies the very violence that killed Biggie on “What You Gonna Do.” It doesn’t fit together.
He’s at his best when he’s Shiny Suit Man. He’s at his best in “All About The Benjamins.” Puffy has the first verse and details the best parts of his lavish lifestyle: “Swimming in women with they own condominiums/five-plus-five who drive Millenniums/ it’s all about the Benjamins, what.”
The next track is “Pain.” It’s about what the title sounds like. When you mix those tracks together too often, the whole becomes too muddled and for that reason the album falters, even though its commercial success revolutionized the game.
The popular artists of today, from Wale to Drake to A$AP Rocky, don’t really resemble those from either movements I discussed above. With enough talented musicians and a fragmented but still hungry audience, the genre has spread out in many positive directions.
These artists are different. They’re better. But I can guarantee we wouldn’t be listening to any of them if Puffy hadn’t recorded a musically-forgettable album that we should never forget.