"Who else put flows out, that put clothes out
Flee the cold weather, short sleeves with my toes out?
Nine-six Big showed me what to do
But deep in my heart, this is 'No Way Out II'..."
That sample, taken from last year's return to form, "Press Play," is quite a claim - and in all honesty, even though the LP spawned some massive singles, a claim that could never ring true. Back when Diddy was Puff Daddy (I will be referring to him by his various 1997 monikers), "No Way Out" was a huge album. I'm talking massive. It opened first week with 561,000 copies flying off the shelves; it sold over 3.4m in 1997 alone (bear in mind, it was released in August of that year). Alright, Puffy has never endeared himself to hip hop aficionados or critics, mainly because of his use of ghost producers and writers - whilst still taking the credit. In fact, the list of reasons to dislike him is almost as long as the amount of videos he used to dance in - hijacking Biggie's classic songs (people forget the Notorious one would've been in jail without Puffy's intervention); wholesale sampling of classic songs (hip hop provides too many easy targets on that count); leaving talented artists like The Lox to rot; even overstating his friendship with Biggie Smalls, and profiteering after his death... And that is just the tip of the iceberg. But eventually, Puff moved onto to a bigger stage, entering the fashion world, reality TV and celebrity gossip columns. Until "Press Play," music was no more than a side issue for the mogul, and while it is fair to say that Bad Boy Records was partially built on the success of "Ready to Die," Puffy's debut (in conjunction with "Life After Death") helped usher in a new era. No, an actual ERA - commonly referred to as the 'Bad Boy 97' era. And it is undeniable that hip hop is now as big as it is PARTLY because of this era - the glamour and glitz, the plans to get rich... The seeds were planted over a decade ago. And on "No Way Out," a grand and incomparable shadow looms large over the album, both in its inception and final execution - that of the Notorious B.I.G.
Of course, this is actually a product of "Puff Daddy & The Family" - a good coordinate to fire off a sidewinder. For anyone who comes from a large family, with many extensions and cousins, you'll understand how - although never liking to admit it - we hold our older or more talented cousins in such high regard at various points, especially when you're about 16 and they are a couple of years older and going through all the things you're so impatient to experience. Clubs, alcohol, girls, college... You hang on their every word, trying (but miserably failing) to look cool in front of them. If you're lucky, you'll have a cuz that looks out for you - and even lets you live vicariously through them, telling you stories that they'll forget within a minute, that you'll remember for life... Eventually, of course, you grow apart or family politics get in the way, but certain memories stick. "No Way Out" is the album that my first cousin used to bump in his car, on repeat whenever he was driving us all around. And like many family relationships, not all of it is perfect or likeable, but it remains remarkably consistent - and, more importantly, contains some real and truly stunning highlights.
Perhaps it might be pertinent to address the many nay-sayers first of all. A 'compare and contrast' look at the 2007 Diddy finds a grown-up man who claims little writing or production credit, knows he isn't the greatest MC ever, and just wants to entertain the listeners - one of the reasons why "Press Play" worked so well, in addition to a self-assured vocal delivery. As for his debut, "No Way Out" features incredible production, great drama and, most importantly of all, the giant footprints of the Notorious B.I.G. However, it also features an excessively overblown ego from someone who claims credit over much of the album, with slightly messy rapping ability and an over-reliance on guests. If we had known then what we do now, maybe there wouldn't have been so much hate thrown his way over subsequent years - but, like 'The 48 Laws of Power' claims, taking credit for your sub-ordinates efforts can work, and it certainly helped boost him to another level. Does that make it morally right? No, but that very year Lauryn Hill released her universally-lauded "The Miseducation Of..." album - claiming that she wrote, produced and arranged practically every song. In the years that followed, many lawsuits were filed against her by the actual writers and producers, claiming they weren't paid - and, to put it in context, Lauryn Hill was critically bulletproof in 1997. So, although we may not like it, this is the way that many aspects of the music industry work - get your foot in the door, at any costs.
Following a short and poignant introduction, the album launches into "Victory," laced with a chorus from Busta Rhymes – and it may well be Puffy's best performance, even to this day:
"Yo, the sun don't shine forever
But as long as it's here then we might as well shine together
Better now than never, business before pleasure
P. Diddy and the Fam, who you know do it better?
Yeah right, no matter what, we air tight
So when you hear something, make sure you hear right
Don't make an ass outta yourself, by assuming
Our music keeps you moving, what are you proving?
You know that I'm two levels above you baby..."
As the sixteen bars come to a close, a simple sonic boom of "UH!" shakes your eardrum until none other than The Notorious B.I.G. spits venom from the fires of Hell, real venom:
"In The Commission, you ask for permission to hit 'em
He don't like me, hit him while wifey was with him
You heard of us, the murderous, most shady
Been on the low lately, the feds hate me
The son of (*Satan*), they say my killing's too blatant
You hesitating, I'm in your mama crib waiting
Duct-taping, your fam' destiny
Lays in my hands, gat lays in my waist
Francis, M to the iz-H phenomenal
Gun rest under your vest by the abdominal
Rhyme a few bars so I can buy a few cars
And I kick a few flows so I can pimp a few hoes
Excellence is my presence, never tense
Never hesitant, leave a nigga bent real quick
Real sick, brawl nights, I perform like Mike
ANYONE -- Tyson, Jordan, Jackson
Action, pack guns, ridiculous
And I'm, quick to bust, if my ends you touch
Kids or girl you touch, in this world I clutch
Two auto-matoes, used to call me fatso
Now you call me Castro, my rap flows militant..."
It is an exercise in futility trying to explain how good this verse actually is, indeed the song itself. Incidentally, the video for "Victory" cost upwards of a cool $2.7m, featuring Dennis Hopper and Danny DeVito – and it wasn't even one of the main four singles. The Bowie-sampling "Been Around the World" became a massive club hit, featuring Ma$e on the verses and Biggie singing the chorus. And the next sequence of three songs and skit flows well, even if individually the tracks aren't exceptional. It all builds up to stunning core: the B.I.G. and Jig-featuring "Young G's" finds Jay-Z coming out on top over an understated but special beat; Black Rob admittedly gets screwed over, with Puffy hi-jacking his top-notch song and chucking on a verse at the end, but the strings on "I Love You Baby" are perhaps the best I've ever heard in hip hop; and the posse remix to "It's All About the Benjamins" has the kind of cross-genre appeal that artists kill for... Puffy kicks off proceedings:
"Now... what y'all wanna do?
Wanna be ballers? Shot-callers? Brawlers -- Who be dipping in the Benz with the spoilers
On the low from the Jake in the Taurus
Trying to get my hands on some Grants like Horace
Yeah living the raw deal, three course meals
Spaghetti, fettuccini, and veal
But still, everything's real in the field
And what you can't have now, leave in your will
But don't knock me for trying to bury
Seven zeros, over in Rio Dijanery
Ain't nobody's hero, but I wanna be heard
On your Hot 9-7 everyday, that's my word
Swimming in women wit they own condominiums
Five plus Fives, who drive Millenniums
It's all about the Benjamins, what?"
Jumping on next are The LOX, Lil' Kim and Biggie who, once again, drops such a hot verse your speakers may well spontaneously combust. The next sequence of four solid album tracks throw up guest appearances from Foxy Brown, Twista and, once again, The Lox, with the singing courtesy of Carl Thomas and Ginuwine. The final three songs display the various talents that Puffy had. "Senorita" undoubtedly helped at least three of my 1997 friends get laid (crude, I know, but they really didn't have that much going for them); the final track, "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," helped to end the album on a happy and uplifting note, whilst hitting the top of the Billboards too; and sandwiched between them was the anthem that really and truly broke Puff Daddy into international consciousness, "I'll Be Missing You." Recently in England, at the world-famous Wembley Stadium nonetheless, he performed the song at the personal request of Princes William and Harry in a tribute to their late mother, Princess Diana, nearing the ten year mark after her death. Lest we forget, it was also a decade since The Notorious B.I.G. was tragically killed – the event that prompted the emotional outpouring over a Police-sampling backing track. Everyone knows this song, and many know the following words off-by-heart too:
"Seems like yesterday we used to rock the show
I laced the track, you locked the flow
So far from hanging on the block for dough
Notorious, they got to know that
Life ain't always what it seem to be (uh-uh)
Words can't express what you mean to me
Even though you're gone, we still a team
Through your family, I'll fulfil your dream
In the future, can't wait to see
If you open up the gates for me
Reminisce some time, the night they took my friend
Try to black it out, but it plays again
When it's real, feelings hard to conceal
Can't imagine all the pain I feel
Give anything to hear half your breath
I know you still living your life, after death"
To put the album in context, it contained two singles that went to #1 on the Billboard charts, and a further two songs that hit the No.2 spot. It also won a Grammy for Best Rap Album, as well as selling the kind of numbers that 99% or artists dream about (four times platinum within six months, seven million in the US alone). There is a reason for that – it is a bloody good album, regardless of all the rocks and stones that critics can throw at it. If you're a fan of Biggie or Puffy, and have never managed to hear "No Way Out," I suggest you buy it pronto, and let it wash over you. Don't analyse it to death – it's not that kind of album. It is meant to be as entertaining as it is poignant, and it wholeheartedly succeeds in pretty much all of its objectives. The replay value is astronomical, and the album is packed full of great beats, classic singles and excellent guest appearances – including two of the greatest MC's ever, Jay-Z and Biggie, in fine form. As the booming voice of the late great Brooklyn Bastard says in the outro to "Pain" - "Try to get everything you can out of these motherfuckers, yo: ain't no guarantee they gonna love you next year". Puffy knew this only too well, whilst Christopher Wallace could have had no idea how much love he would receive from now until our generation bites the dust. As for "No Way Out" it isn't even all that controversial to state that, even ten years on, it is a better album than most of the major hip hop releases so far this year. Although "Press Play" was a solid and enjoyable comeback record, the albums that followed "No Way Out" bear no comparison – do yourself a favour a go to the source of what made him so big, with verse assists from brilliant guests boosting the lyrical content. For once, ignore the critics – screw it, ignore my analytical bullshit! – and, if you never have done, give this classic album a chance.
Music Vibes: 9.5 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8.5 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 9 of 10
Originally posted: September 25, 2007