No Way Out Turns 20

No Way Out Turns 20

Puff Daddy couldn’t rap. That was always the standard line during the era when Puff was dominating everything. He was a monotonal mushmouth with no particular sense of rhythm or flow, and he always sounded like he was about to fall asleep. He’d grunt a lot, and it wasn’t a triumphal, pre-verbal expression of his own badassery; it was more the sort of noise that you might make if you were taking a shit. He didn’t even write his own rhymes, something that he bragged about — through rhyme — a few years later. (I always wondered whether Puff actually wrote his “don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks” line or whether he wrote the check for it.) And he pushed an aesthetic of substance-free flash to rap dominance, becoming a much bigger star than any of the much more gifted rappers — writers and technicians and enormous personalities — who were peaking around the same time. All that is true enough. But one of the greatest skills that a rapper can possess is the skill of self-aggrandizement. And if you look at it from that angle, and that angle only, Puff Daddy was one of the greatest rappers of his era.

The self-aggrandizement argument is a tricky one. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rappers are supposed to be artists, not executives, and you shouldn’t be able to measure their work strictly in terms of numerical success. But Puff was an executive before he was an artist — and his skill as an executive played a crucial role in his art — so it makes a certain sense to look at the world-historical success of No Way Out, Puff’s debut album, as a validation of his artistic gifts. If you were a teenager in the late ’90s, No Way Out was inescapable in a way that no other album could really claim. The album sold upwards of seven million copies in the US alone, two million more than Life After Death, the blockbuster final album from Puff’s late protege the Notorious B.I.G. And yet the numbers only told part of the story. In its time, No Way Out was Thriller. It was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It was the fucking Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Its songs absolutely suffused the air. You couldn’t walk outside without hearing it. You could rap along with every word on the singles even if you never sought them out — even if you actively tried to avoid them. They just found you. And then they didn’t leave you alone.

“Every single I drop, at least two or better,” Puff crowed on “Don’t Stop What You’re Doing,” and it wasn’t an idle boast. Of the first four singles from No Way Out, two peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the other two peaked at #2. The biggest of those songs, of course, was the monstrous “I’ll Be Missing You,” a slick and canny work of public mourning. “I’ll Be Missing You” was about Biggie, but it came to be about more than that. It became a song for anyone who ever died; Puffy performed at a memorial concert for Princess Diana in 2007 even though he’d never laid the track while she locked the flow. It became a song about missing people for any reason; years after No Way Out came out, it was the soundtrack for my little sister’s middle-school graduation photo montage. It transcended its origins, which were already pretty monumental. Years later, Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” did something similar. When an elegy has that sense of widescreen sweep to it, people can use it to express whatever; it’s no longer just for Biggie or Paul Walker. And in the case of “I’ll Be Missing You,” that transcendence led it to top the Hot 100 for 11 weeks — basically the entire summer of 1997.

If you wanted to, you could use “I’ll Be Missing You” as another excuse to hate Puff Daddy. His best friend, probably the single greatest rapper on the planet, died suddenly, and Puff, from a certain light, turned that tragedy into a story about himself. In the video, he crashed a motorcycle and danced in the rain. He essentially slotted himself into the place that Biggie vacated by dying. But what was he supposed to do? Puff has said that he gave No Way Out its title because he didn’t see any other way forward after Biggie’s death. (It was originally supposed to be called Hell Up In Harlem, which would’ve been a great title.) In the immediate aftermath of that death, he reworked his ebullient, triumphant debut album, scrapping half of it and devoting that space to spiteful, depressed songs like “Pain” and “Is This The End?” and “If I Should Die Tonight.” On “Pain,” Puff talked about the shooting and about not wanting to go on: “Hard to move on now, fuck making songs now / Wish I could die, I could fly / If they don’t give a fuck, fuck it why should I?” And then Puff imagined an angelic version of Biggie appearing before him and imploring him to keep going: “Make hits continuous, this is what we do.” In that one gesture, Puff reframed the whole context of the album. He was going to keep making hits as a defiant gesture in the face of death. And if those hits worked as catharsis for him, they worked the same way for what felt like the entire rest of the world.

To be sure, the flashy shiny-suit anthems sit uneasily next to the performative teeth-gnashing. But they make for weird juxtapositions the same way that the romantic subplots always sit weirdly in Michael Bay movies. In attempting to make an album that could be all things to all people, Puff risked incoherence, but he did it with grand, majestic style. On “Victory,” from beyond the grave, Biggie rapped about “trying to make dough like Jurassic Park did,” and that’s really what Puff was going for. His competition wasn’t other rappers; it was global escapist summer entertainment. (There must’ve been some sort of inchoate shared public longing for that kind of thing in that moment. Later in 1997, Titanic did the same public-catharsis thing on an even bigger scale than “I’ll Be Missing You” had.) Puffy turned all of his music videos into huge spectacles, full of exotic locations and outrageous costumes and guest stars and helicopters and explosions. On the crime-life narrative “What You Gonna Do?,” he filled the track with sound effects. He wanted you to be able to see everything happening in the album. He wanted it to be an experience.

Almost all of the guest rappers on No Way Out were from New York, but No Way Out isn’t really a New York rap album. The New York rap of the ’90s — at least the stuff that we remember best — was spindly and ominous and rickety and raw. With Life After Death, Puffy had already helped to assemble a blockbuster album that helped to dismantle that sense of regionalism. But on No Way Out, he went beyond that, diving instead into the recent past to find a whole new sonic language. That was another big knock against Puffy: He wasn’t original. Instead, he lifted his hits wholesale from the ’80s, artlessly jacking already-huge songs and coming away with songs that became even huger. But sampling has always been a part of rap; if anything, Puff just took away the dusty-fingers New York aesthetic that had only been in vogue for a few years. His samples were big and bold and obvious, and that’s why they worked. It’s not like anyone wanted to hear Puff Daddy rapping over DJ Premier beats anyway.

In his sample choices, Puff instead called back to another era of pop slickness, drawing parallels between what he was doing and the late-’70s/early-’80s moment when soul and disco and new wave and early hip-hop and middle-of-the-road pop all overlapped. The songs that Puff jacked — David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around The World,” New Edition’s “Is This The End” — didn’t really belong to any particular genre, and that was probably a big reason why they were as big as they were. And in translating and reinterpreting those songs, Puff drew in the people who’d loved those songs a decade earlier, who weren’t necessarily going to feel the same way about an eerie soundscape. The incredible operatic beat for “Victory” went even further; it’s essentially a triumphal film score — specifically, it’s Bill Conti’s “Going The Distance,” from the Rocky score — with drums underneath it. And I’ve always thought there was something sneakily transgressive about the way Puff, on “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” took Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five’s “The Message,” the first big rap song that devoted itself to chronicling societal ills — and transformed it into a good-life anthem.

To make an album like No Way Out, Puff had to surround himself with a lot of very smart people. There was his production crew, the Hitmen, who had to figure out how to translate the sort of demands that Puff was making into actual music. There was Biggie, of course, who contributed some of his final verses. There were plenty of the most talented rappers working at the time: Twista, Busta Rhymes, Foxy Brown, a magisterial Jay-Z. And then there was the entire Bad Boy team. Like Dr. Dre with The Chronic — probably No Way Out’s most direct precursor, both in terms of reach and impact — Puff knew the value of showcasing every member of his extended team on an album that he had to know would be huge. No Way Out isn’t technically even a solo album; it’s credited to Puff Daddy & The Family, a vague enough moniker to describe all the people that Puff had working with him. And like The Chronic before it, it’s essentially a glorified label compilation, one that gives star turns to people like Mase and Lil Kim and the Lox and Black Rob, not to mention Faith Evans and 112 and Carl Thomas. With that cast, Puff was only nominally the star. Much of the time, he was more like a coach or a director. He was the authority figure, there to get the best out of his collaborators.

That’s a cynical approach, and No Way Out worked the way that cynical approaches are supposed to work. But sometimes it did something more. Consider: “All About The Benjamins,” one of the most magical and perfect rap anthems from a period that wasn’t exactly starving for magical and perfect rap anthems. “Benjamins” started out as a track on a 1996 DJ Clue mixtape, and it just had Puffy and the Lox; Kim and Biggie’s verses were added later. And in the context of No Way Out, “Benjamins” keeps the rawness and energy of a mixtape track. For the first time, Puffy sounded truly larger-than-life on “Benjamins,” swimming in women in they own condominiums and demanding to be heard everyday on your Hot 97. (In the 20 years since the song came out, I think it’s possible that Hot 97 hasn’t gone a single day without playing at least one Puffy verse.) Jadakiss and Sheek Louche, sounding young and hungry, freak three-quarter reptiles and cop those colossal-sized Picassos. Kim, in the most iconic verse of her entire career, projects dangerous levels of defiant toughness. And for once, Biggie’s verse, over a completely different beat, sounds almost like an afterthought. To this day, every time I’ve been in a large group of people when “Benjamins” has come on, chaos has ensued. That song does something to people.

Now, let’s be clear: I couldn’t fucking stand Puff Daddy in 1997. Every single strawman argument that I’ve made in this piece is an argument that I made in real life, as an arrogant young music dork. A lot of the time, I was trying to convince people who loved Puffy’s music that they shouldn’t love Puffy’s music, which is basically the worst thing a music dork can do. (It’s our original sin.) I wasn’t alone. Puffy’s rise, even in the face of Biggie’s death, represented the pinnacle of flashy, seductive, celebratory pop-rap, and it caused reactions. The late-’90s Rawkus underground, the organic back-to-basics thump of Mos Def and Talib Kweli and even Company Flow — essentially flourished as a direct reaction against Puffy’s largesse. (The musicians might not have felt that way, but their fans sure did.) DMX, whose stratospheric rise came less than a year later, seemed more exciting and immediate because his raw intensity stood in such stark contrast to what Puff was doing. (It wouldn’t take long for the Lox to agitate to leave Bad Boy and join Ruff Ryders, promising “no more shiny suits.”) And the chaotic rumble of No Limit and Cash Money could’ve also gotten a boost from how alien they sounded when compared to the clean, universal Bad Boy sound.

But listening to No Way Out today, all that is gone, and I’m left marveling at what an achievement of craftsmanship and pop dominance it represented. For a guy who couldn’t really rap, Puff Daddy made an album full of sounds that people really wanted to hear, setting new standards for slickness and grandeur and making himself an icon in the process. Even the hard rap that would come out later would bear his influence; consider, for instance, just how much both 50 Cent and Kanye West sounded like Mase when we first met them. These days, I am sure there are people who still get mad when they hear Bad Boy records, but those people are a dying breed. When heard from the safe distance of two decades, with that inescapable dominance a distant memory, there’s something undeniable about what Puffy was doing on No Way Out.

A quick story to end things: In 2011, during SXSW, I went to the Fader Fort to see Lil B put in a much-hyped headlining performance. At the time, B was the biggest story in underground rap, a former teen star who had found his voice by carving a new lane for deep and cultish weirdness, inventing a whole new context for rap stardom. Puff, a born vulture with a gift for showing up wherever the energy is, was there. He put in a surprise appearance, introducing B, and the crowd — Lil B fans, underground rap kids who would’ve once rejected Puff outright — went absolutely buckshit. Lil B hit the stage with focus and intention, but within 20 minutes, he was doing the rambly, fuzzy lecture thing that he does so often in live shows. That crowd — a crowd that had been rabid to see him — visibly deflated. People started wandering off. Eventually, after B had spent the better part of an hour flopping around like a dying fish up there, Puffy returned to the stage and took the mic. He acted like he was going to bring Lil B back, but the DJ threw on the “Victory” instrumental, and what was Puffy going to do? Not perform “Victory”? He performed “Victory.” And then “Benjamins.” And then I think “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” These got a huge response, just as they will always get a huge response, in any situation. And Lil B never came back to the stage.

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