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's 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's 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. (At this writing it's number five, with more than two million copies sold.) And Combs's 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 to 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's continuing effort to get mileage out of his relationship with the Notorious B.I.G., the Puff Daddy discovery who's the subject of No Way Out'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, Puff 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 such as 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 such as 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's current run of luck a bitter taste. But his ascendance 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? However, nothing has come along to supplant the style -- until now. Despite Combs's 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 who are familiar with the rise of rap in the mid-'70s know that it wasn't invented in a vacuum. Instead, it evolved from the rhythm and blues and funk of folks such as 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 actual 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 number 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 labelmates 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 due to a strong undercurrent of social consciousness, while "White Lines (Don't Do It)" argued persuasively that cocaine was an integral factor in the oppression of ghetto dwellers. The sheer quality of these songs inspired other hip-hoppers to take more lyrical chances, leading directly to the appearance of outfits such as 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 such as Straight Outta Compton. This 1988 disc by N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) birthed gangsta, a genre that in a few short years went from a politically crucial declaration of independence to an exercise in anti-intellectualism.

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