Rap gets puffy

Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs fathers a return to hip-hop pop

Puff Daddy & the Family's No Way Out is as stunningly slack a piece of work as has ever been issued by a major rap act. Puff Daddy, born Sean Combs, has one of the weakest verbal flows of all time: He mouths wan rhymes in a pinched, charisma-free monotone that sounds more like an attempt to get a level on a microphone than a final take. From a musical perspective, the songs are just as lackadaisical, and Combs' lyrics exhibit all the cleverness of a textbook for second-graders. In short, the disc is totally undeserving of mass acceptance--which is probably why it has become such a blockbuster.

Yes, it's true: No Way Out has spent the two months since its release at or near the top of the Billboard sales chart. (Last week, it was No. 6 on the R&B chart, No. 12 on the Top 200, with more than two million copies sold.) And Combs' influence hardly stops there. He's replaced Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds as the producer of the moment, placing his aural stamp on tunes such as Mariah Carey's "Honey," the best-selling track in the land right now. But unlike Babyface, Combs isn't content with letting artists with whom he works keep the spotlight for themselves.

In the "Honey" video, the primary focus is on Carey's breasts and bootie, but Combs is there, too, pushing his mug at the lens on a regular basis. His camera-hogging has gotten so out of control that it was the subject of a gag during a recent episode of The Chris Rock Show on which Combs guested. After Rock finished interviewing Arsenio Hall, he screened the "Puff Daddy remix" of the conversation, which consisted mainly of Combs standing in front of the other two men.

Far less amusing is Combs' continuing effort to get mileage out of his relationship with the Notorious B.I.G., the Puff Daddy discovery who is the subject of the CD's most recognizable track, "I'll Be Missing You." No Way Out's booklet includes an oh-so-sincere letter written by Combs to B.I.G.: In it, Puff states, "Not a second passes that you're not on my mind...I would do anything to turn back the hands of time and bring you back." But rather than renouncing the gangsta lifestyle and macho posturing that likely contributed to the Notorious one's murder, he celebrates it in "What You Gonna Do?," whose key section sports the lines "What you gonna do when you can't take no more?/You gonna cry like a bitch or take it nice and slow?" In moments like these, Puff's sensitivity is revealed to be little more than a good marketing campaign--a canny move that has effectively broadened his demographic. In the eyes of millions of music fans and mainstream media outlets like Rolling Stone, whose ridiculously one-dimensional Combs profile was timed to coincide with No Way Out's appearance, he's not just another hip-hopper. Rather, he's a heartsick friend trying to find a way to carry on in the wake of a tragedy. And that perception has been good for business.

The cynicism at the heart of this approach gives Combs' current run of luck a bitter taste. But his ascendancy has a significance that goes far beyond his stardom. With only a few exceptions, hip-hop has been in a rut of late, in large part because gangsta rap is so clearly played out: After all, how many ways are there to talk about murder, drug running, getting high, and banging the nearest ho? Nothing, however, has come along to supplant the style--until now. Despite Combs' attempt to cultivate an outrageous image, he's a deeply conservative music maker who believes in the Brill Building verities: melodies, hooks, accessibility. He wants people to be able to dance to and hum along with his music--and consumers have responded in huge numbers. He may be thoroughly unimaginative, but he's managed to tap into the public consciousness. Thanks to Combs, we are entering a new phase: the return of hip-hop pop.

This term is not as incongruous as it might seem. Those of you familiar with the rise of rap in the mid-'70s know that it wasn't invented in a vacuum. It evolved from the rhythm and blues and funk of folks like James Brown, who spent years cutting away the extraneous elements of his music until only its sheer propulsiveness remained. Furthermore, early rappers weren't terribly interested in making statements with their songs; their words were chosen more for their rhythms than for their meanings. In the beginning, rap was music made for dancing, not thinking, as "Rapper's Delight," by the Sugarhill Gang, illustrates. The first rap song to become a Top 40 staple (it peaked at No. 36 in 1980), "Delight" was about nothing but fun. "Good Times," the name of the Chic song that serves as its sonic foundation, would have made an apt alternate title.

Soon thereafter, substance began to sneak into hip-hop. Although Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were label-mates of the Sugarhill Gang, they were considerably more militant. Flash's "The Message," an early-'80s classic that's easily among the two or three most important tracks in the history of hip-hop, was an angry, evocative screed that avoided exploitation thanks to a strong undercurrent of social consciousness; "White Lines (Don't Do It)" argued persuasively that cocaine was an integral factor in the oppression of ghetto dwellers. The quality of these songs inspired other hip-hoppers to take more lyrical chances, leading directly to the appearance of outfits like Public Enemy, whose 1988 salvo It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back still packs a punch, and Boogie Down Productions, a KRS-One vehicle that refused to traffic in superfluousness. The latter's Criminal Minded, from 1987, also incorporated a new level of street sense that resulted in opuses like Straight Outta Compton. This 1988 disc by N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) birthed gangsta, a genre that went from a politically crucial declaration of independence to an exercise in anti-intellectualism in a few short years.

Although the press fixated on rap's revolutionary threats or its glamorization of violence and misogyny, a generation of radio listeners gravitated toward the children of the Sugarhill Gang--performers who were less interested in gangbanging than in fighting for the right to party. And like the Gang, these acts didn't go to the trouble of disguising their samples. M.C. Hammer lifted the entire groove of Rick James' "Super Freak" for "U Can't Touch This," and Vanilla Ice turned "Under Pressure," by David Bowie and Queen, into "Ice Ice Baby," a terrible tune that nonetheless became one of 1990's biggest breakthroughs. There's little ingenuity involved in such de facto thefts; they're the equivalent of karaoke. But if the source material is good enough, that doesn't matter. Ask Coolio, who owes his career to the 1980 Lakeside number that's the flesh and blood of 1994's "Fantastic Voyage." He followed up this entertaining ditty with 1995's "Gangsta's Paradise," which is essentially Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" with rapping on top. For committing this crime, Coolio was rewarded with a No. 1 single.

Combs has turned such appropriation into a personal style. No Way Out's "Been Around the World" uses the music from David Bowie's "Let's Dance" (Vanilla Ice would approve), while the Police's "Every Breath You Take"--hardly an R&B classic--serves as the foundation for "I'll Be Missing You." Most egregious of all is "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," which pillages "The Message," replacing its indelible themes with a predictable display of self-aggrandizement. The same methodology epitomizes Combs' production efforts: Witness Lil' Kim's "Not Tonight," a mimeograph of the 1980 Kool & the Gang offering "Ladies Night."

Because of the borrow-a-smash mentality that Combs has brought to the fore, hip-hop is now awash with one-hit wonders. Outfits like Freaknasty ("Da' Dip"), DJ Spankx ("Monkey Pop [Raise the Roof]") and Magoo and Timbaland ("Up Jumps Da Boogie," which as of last week had been the No. 1 rap single for seven weeks) have come out of nowhere, which just happens to be the place to which most of them will soon return. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Whenever a music scene stagnates--usually as a result of a trend running its course--disposable pop reasserts its supremacy. The same thing is happening right now in the modern-rock field, where the death of grunge has opened up a window of opportunity to approximately three million interchangeable ska purveyors and combos like Smash mouth. This group will probably have all the staying power of a fruit fly, but its signature cut, "Walkin' on the Sun," is thoroughly entertaining. Odds are good that it'll sound good on oldies radio in 15 or 20 years--and that's more than can be said for a lot of tunes.

In a very real sense, hip-hop is the perfect medium for pop recycling. The music is predicated on the borrowing of sounds, and while the more artistically inclined hip-hop practitioners, such as DJ Shadow, take pride in deconstructing samples until they are no longer recognizable, individuals with more commercial instincts see no reason not to take advantage of a good thing. Moreover, it is possible for top-notch work to be done employing this technique. The Fugees' "Killing Me Softly" could have wound up being little more than a generic remake of a fairly lugubrious '70s ballad by Roberta Flack, but instead it emerged as a soulful piece that more than stands on its own. Likewise, Nas' "If I Ruled the World" is a strong, personal statement that transcends its musical origin--the early-'80 effort "Friends," by Whodini.

It's doubtful that Combs will be able to create anything as affecting. He's too concerned with the bottom line: In "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," he chants, with becoming honesty, "If it ain't about the money/Papa just don't care." But you shouldn't worry that Puff Daddy will continue to plague radio for years to come. His upcoming tour should be a monster; tentative dates in Texas are reported to be December 13 (Houston) and 14 (San Antonio). But in the music business, he who lives by pop shall die by pop--and Combs will be no different. The only thing that remains to be seen is if, when the day of reckoning comes, he cries like a bitch or takes it nice and slow.

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