By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Puff Daddy & The Family
No Way Out
THERE'S BEEN MUCH ado lately about the unprecedented career path of Sean "Puffy" Combs, from successful business executive to platinum recording star. But one listen to the hubris and hypocrisy that suffuses No Way Out--the CD that made Combs the most successful artist on his own record label--indicates exactly how Puffy pulled it off: This is the work of a self-promoting bean-counter who found himself in the middle of a gripping, life-and-death soap opera and decided to milk it for all it's worth.
By now, everybody knows about the West Coast-East Coast rap rivalry: a war waged with words, and, some say, bullets over the past few years between Tupac Shakur and Death Row record label co-founder Suge Knight on the West Coast, and Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls) and Bad Boy record label-owner Combs on the East Coast. Shakur and Wallace have been murdered, maybe as a result of the beef, maybe not. Knight is in jail on a parole violation. Combs, the only person currently able to comment on a situation that has horrified and transfixed not only the hip-hop community but the general public, is on top of the charts.
"It's fucked up. I've gotten my fame through tragedies," says Combs in a Rolling Stone cover story published on the same day No Way Out was released in late July. "My successes have been overlooked. You think that's pleasant for me? That's not pleasant for me. I'm even more popular now because of the tragedy of Biggie.... I mean, this shit ain't right. To white people, I'm that guy who's in that East-West thing. I'm not that motherfucking guy!... I'm the guy that just wants to make good music."
No Way Out belies those words. As producer for Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, and Biggie Smalls, Combs has made music that's better than good--groundbreaking material that ably fused elements of hip hop and R&B. But precious few tracks on the new record exhibit that level of creativity. The first two singles, "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" and "I'll Be Missing You"--both monster hits--nakedly appropriate Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" and the Police's "Every Breath You Take," respectively. We're not talking about a sample or two here: The melodies have been lifted whole cloth, in a manner not heard on a #1 hit since M.C. Hammer hijacked Rick James' "Superfreak" on "U Can't Touch This." (As for the raps and the rhymes: The late Biggie Smalls, Busta Rhymes, Twista, and Foxy Brown all turn in great cameos--all far superior to Combs's own flow. His best moment is the sexy intro to "Señorita.")
Yet the attitude Combs displays on No Way Out sounds as suspect as the music. He may have told Rolling Stone that his heightened notoriety in the wake of Biggie's murder is "fucked up," but it doesn't stop him from describing the danger and the grief he's felt since then in the kind of heroically melodramatic terms best suited to an episode of Rikki Lake. Given the crucible he's endured, one would think Combs has a compelling, nuanced take on the prospect of his own mortality. But in the repetitious chorus of the tune that deals most directly with life-and-death violence, he chants, "What you gonna do when it's your turn to go/You gonna cry like a bitch or take it nice and slow?" Later, against the bathetic strings of "If I Should Die Tonight," he states, "I've never been afraid to die." Religion is the reason for his nonchalance, we eventually discover, but the message to millions of listeners is not to "cry like a bitch" or be afraid to die; Puffy isn't, and never has been. He's been through tremendous sorrow, however: a situation he describes to the sound of crashing thunderstorms on "Pain." In this darkest hour, the voice of Biggie himself comes to Combs, exhorting, "Don't forget the kids." Rejuvenated, Combs completes the couplet, "That's when I knew that Bad Boy lives."
Lives to profit another day, that is. As the forthcoming single from No Way Out reminds us, "It's All About The Benjamins"--as in Mr. Franklin's face on $100 bills. In perhaps the most kinetic track on the CD, "Young G's," Combs notes that he has "nice watches, nice cars, nice bitches and rings/I have nice things," before going on to tell those who would hit him up for a loan, "Get your own nigga/That's what I did." And he got it with projects like this one.
Combs is not just lucky to be alive; "the Billboard charts" tell us he's something special, he raps, adding, "Why the ruckus?/Because the release date is bigger than Mandela's, motherfuckas." Now boasting is such a time-honored staple of the rap game that we shouldn't begrudge even a pop-oriented hip hopper like Combs. But if you're going to favorably compare your latest release to the liberator of apartheid South Africa, it's best not to wax sensitive or attempt to seize the moral high ground elsewhere. No Way Out succeeds best on its highest priority: making money, by any means necessary.