Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Mixing Messages

By Michael McCall

AUGUST 18, 1997:  In the opening of his album No Way Out, hip-hop artist and producer Sean "Puffy" Combs mutters a dispirited curse as the voices of an operatic choir wrap a gentle blanket around his bleak words. It sounds like a man mumbling profanity as he enters the gates of heaven--which is exactly the effect Combs desired, for this musical passage reflects the painful spiritual struggle he has experienced in recent months. He is, in fact, a blessed performer living through a hellish experience.

As a music-maker, the Harlem native is the hottest pop-music property of 1997. He's also the most tortured soul to reside in the Top 10 since Kurt Cobain. For just as the young music mogul's fast-climbing star was poised to soar to heavenly levels of commercial success, his partner and close friend, rapper Notorious B.I.G., was assassinated in a spray of gunfire on a Los Angeles street.

American pop-culture tragedies being what they are, the death only served to assure Combs' popular ascension. B.I.G.'s album, Life After Death--a title chosen, ominously, prior to the murder--spent several weeks at the top of the pop album charts. Similarly, Combs' tribute to his friend, "I'll Be Watching You" (a rap remake of The Police's "Every Breath You Take"), just finished its 10th week at No. 1 on the pop singles chart. Combs' streak continued with the late-July release of No Way Out, the first album in which he steps out as a lead songwriter and rapper. Released under the stage name of Puff Daddy & the Family, No Way Out entered the Billboard pop albums chart at No. 1.

At the time of the album's release, three of the four best-selling singles in America were produced by Combs. The sharp-dressed entrepreneur is also partly responsible for the recent million-selling debut of rapper Li'l Kim. As with Babyface, whose polished soul productions dominated the charts in 1996, Puffy Combs seems to have a golden touch. He's done so by marrying deep-grooved bass lines and hardcore rap rhymes to saccharine pop melodies, many of which are lifted (with appropriate songwriting credit) from classic pop hits.

Basically, the smart, ambitious Combs--who fumes that he "can't relate to muthafuckas who ain't got no cash"--has taken the sound of the street and smoothed it out for mass consumption. Musically, he's been criticized for his lack of new ideas and for the artless simplicity of his song structures. Lyrically, he's been dogged for depicting himself as a cold-blooded, gun-slinging hustler who's quick to pull the trigger and who always leaves women satisfied.

But just as his carefully calculated tunes have exploded, Combs' own life has ruptured as well. Twenty-four-year-old Christopher Wallace--also known as Biggie Smalls and Notorious B.I.G--was more than Combs' best-selling artist. He also was his friend, his manager, his collaborator, and his partner. Since Wallace's death--Combs was a car-length in front of him when a gunman jumped out of a vehicle and opened fire--Combs has been haunted by the 300-pound rapper's ghost.

"Damn, I never thought it would have been like this," Combs says in his grainy, high-pitched voice at opening of No Way Out. As he speaks, the sounds of helicopters, sirens, and gunfire join the voices of the choir. After stating that "life is crazy," Combs launches softly into prayer, asking God to watch over his family, to forgive his enemies, and to protect him from evil.

His troubled soul-searching is genuine: In public appearances and press interviews, Combs has come across as deeply despondent over his friend's death; the shadowy circumstances surrounding the killing have only added to his feeling of unease. Since B.I.G.'s murder closely followed that of Tupac Shakur, and since B.I.G. and Combs had been trading insults and threats with Shakur and Death Row Records president Marion "Suge" Knight, Combs has had plenty of reason to fear for his future.

Dealing with the threat of impending death is another recurring theme on No Way Out. "What You Gonna Do?," a catchy pop chant featuring Combs and Li'l Kim, ponders how a man should act when he realizes he's about to be executed: "You gonna cry like a bitch or take it nice and slow?" Combs asks in the chorus. It's a harsh way of putting it, but the line captures the hardened attitude and misplaced pride associated with old-time gangsters and Wild West figures.

These themes--mourning the premature death of a close friend and worrying about the possibility of meeting a violent demise--provide the most effective moments on No Way Out. Of course, the same issues reverberate through many urban communities, especially in African American neighborhoods, where statistics suggest that young, black males have a far greater risk of suffering a violent death or of knowing someone who has. In this way, Combs' frank depiction of his spiritual conflicts and tumultuous frustrations serves as a powerful representation of what many inner-city residents confront in their lives.

In this way, Combs has truly kept his music real. Too bad he undermines these effective songs by pairing them with tunes that still trade on unrealistic urban fantasies. B.I.G.'s voice rises regularly from the tracks, usually assuming the role of a bad-ass gangsta gunslinger who's too tough, too cold, and too smart to be touched. In "It's All About the Benjamins"--a reference to Benjamin Franklin's image on the $100 bill--Combs opens by suggesting that only "ball-less" men don't get rich in the ghetto. Then, after Combs taunts those who're jealous or critical of his success, B.I.G. steps in and clips the rhymes: "Player haters get away or my lead will spray, squeeze off until I'm empty, don't tempt me, or to hell I'll send thee--it's all about the Benjies."

After B.I.G.'s death, Combs reportedly scrapped about half of the finished recordings for his debut album. Instead, he felt it necessary to create what he considered a more mature, more somber collection that reflected his state of mind. Even so, Combs didn't go far enough. Violent scenes rife with exaggerated boasts of gunplay and sexual conquests show up often on No Way Out. They all sound monstrously out of place amid Combs' maudlin ramblings about how much he misses his old friend and about how the violence has got to stop.

For Combs, the argument no longer holds that gun-happy gangsta rap is simply a dramatized depiction of life on the mean streets. He has seen two of rap's most distinctive stylists go from romanticizing the hustler lifestyle to being mortal victims of their way of life. In the end, though, Combs hasn't been disturbed enough by the recent deaths to stop exploiting and glorifying violence; instead, he's broadening his scope beyond misanthropy and misogyny so that he can now exploit his own sentiments and emotions, turning them into self-aggrandizing personal statements.

Maybe Combs doesn't recognize the difference between conviction and commercialization. But he could have paid a better tribute to his fallen friend by removing from his album all the songs that celebrate violence. Instead, Combs shares his pain while perpetuating the same social climate that has wrecked his life.

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