Look how small Styles P is and how tall Black Rob is. Wierd.
The biggest rapper and producer in 1997 was Sean “Puffy Puff Daddy P Diddy” Combs, a man who never wrote a bar nor touched a drum pad a day in his life. Puffy really is the American dream: work your ass off to become established, as he did in his early days as an intern at Uptown Records taking a 2 hour train ride everyday to NY from DC, then promptly deflect everyone’s shine back to yourself. There’s some deep metaphysics to those shiny suits after all.
I’m not here to bash Puffy or anything–he’s made some GREAT music. Unfortunately istening to No Way Out 11 years later, there’s not enough of it on this LP.
I have to confess: until I bought a copy of this CD on Half.com 3 weeks ago for $1.99 (you can pick up a copy right now for 75 cents HERE), I had never listened to the full album. I had a dubbed cassette version from my homie in high school that manged to pack the great moments from this album onto Side A of a 60 minute Maxell. After getting through the 17 tracks on the CD, that 30 minutes Maxell version is a better representation of what No Way Out COULD HAVE been. It’s like in “Be Kind Rewind”: in retrospect, a 20 minute version of “Rush Hour 2” shot by two guys in Passaic, NJ is much more memorable than the 80 minute Brett Ratner snooze fest. Less is more sometimes, especially in hip hop.
The one thing I hated most about the Jiggy Rap Era was the overuse of two instruments: the triangle and the windchime. This isn’t Jethro Tull we’re talking about here: this is guys like Puffy and Jermaine Dupri hlating every hit single, featuring men talking about guns, drugs, and women, from hitting the manufacturing plant before they sprinkled their most IMPORTANT ingredient, the sounds that transform a rap song from “gritty, raw, and unpolished” to “delectable, bouncy, and mild mannered”–a motherfucking triangle.
And a windchime.
In visual terms, the Jiggy Rap Era, still featuring some of the most disturbing inuendo’s and blatant death threats of all time, contained this on a regular basis:
As a producer, I’ve been scarred from using either instrument when I’m making a beat because it gives me flashbacks to Jermaine Dupri’s “Money Ain’t a Thing” or “Been Around the World.” Listen to No Way Out and take a shot of whiskey everytime you hear a triangle or wind chime introduced: you will be setting fire to your cardigans, eating raw cabbage, and puking on the landlady by track 7, “Do You Know?”
I will give Puffy credit for continuing the big, cinematic feel he used on Life After Death for his debut album. It instantly separates itself from almost every other rap album of that era by how BIG and IMPORTANT things sound. He pulled off the same trick on Jay-Z’s American Gangster last year. “Victory” is one of the greatest album openers in history. “All About the Benjamins” could be most succesful mainstream posse cut since “Scenario,” and the beat change-up for Big’s verse still gives me goosebumps. Even the intro for “Been Around the World” makes you await glory before David Bowie and Lisa Stansfield make uncomfortable love to each other on the beat.
She too has been player hated.
The problem though is that No Way Out came out during the Clinton years of excess. This album personifies the dominance of late 90s wealth, sensationalism, and monopoly of the CD retail chain store. I remember everyone having a copy of this CD or tape but only liking the singles plus “Young Gs,” “I Love You Baby,” and “Senorita.” That leaves us with 10 tracks that are mostly forgettable mainly because Biggie, Ma$e, and the Lox weren’t be featured on EVERY song (though they sure can ghostwrite ’em!).
Listening to Puffy “flow” and “rap” by himself for 4 minutes has historically been painful–and this album is probably his best performance as a rapper. He has no confidence, his inflections are bad derivatives of whomever writes his bars, his delivery lacks charm/swagger/light heartedness, his threats have no credibility, etc. He DOES sound great bragging about money and women (“Benjamins, “Seniorita”, “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”). He DOES sound horrible overacting as the “pained and introspective young man who is left carrying the superstar weight now that his superstar artist has died” on “No Way Out Intro,” “What You Gonna Do?”, “Pain,” and “Is This the End?” It’s like Birdman trying to sing “Tears of a Clown.”
No Way Out though is a great iPod album/overproduced EP. Take the five singles, sprinkle in a few strong album cuts, and you’re on your way to one of the best hip hop albums ever made. It’s fun to listen to Ma$e before Fabolous and Loon sodomized his steez and he quit rap to open a church only to close the church to fetch cherry Slurpees for 50 and co. It’s amazing to think that Biggie quietly dominated hip hop from ’94-’97: outside of his 2 solo albums, his disappearing ink is all over Junior Mafia’s Conspiracy, Lil’ Kim Hardcore and Puffy’s debut. All the memorable singles and hooks feature him, and most of the themes of all three albums contain his DNA.
It’s also a treat to hear the Lox before they became “The Lox.” Jadakiss was a more polished Nastradamus, combining street shit with impressive sounding namebrands. Sheek Louch was the male version of Lil Kim with his harsh yet lighthearted delivery and penchant for rhyming words like “Sosa,” “chocha,” “Minnesota,” “Chevy Novas,” and “Alona.” And Styles still enjoyed offering some murder and punishment every 2 bars.
The Mockneck, the Red Glasses, and the Baldie: I Love the 90s!
The promise that Black Rob showed on “I Love You Baby” had me extremely excited for his debut Life Story, a very solid and overlooked debut album for Bad Boy when they were transitioning from Biggest Label in the Land to Playing Catch-Up to Roc-a-Fella and Ruff Ryders. His voice was the perfect contrast to the soap opera strings and piano, and his storytelling skills showed lots of promise. It’s a shame he and G-Dep never got their props, both gritty NYC storytellers with dope voices.
As much as this write-up sounds like an Anti-Sean Combs piece, it’s more of a realistic review of one of the most important figures in hip hop history and his best solo work to date. There’s no question that No Way Out is a classic hip hop album, but like most hip hop albums of the CD Age, it’s 20-30 minutes too long. However, the great moments are indelible–every single word on “Victory,” Jay’s verse on “Young G’s,” every apperance by Biggie, the Matthew Wilder hook on “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.”
Verdict: Sift Through and Do You