As I Come Back: No Way Out

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:

 

And this:

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

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14 thoughts on “As I Come Back: No Way Out

  1. I really can’t stand Sean Combs (I refuse to call him anything else anymore) but I do have respect for him as well on how he came up, and his success in keeping his many names out there. There’s just a lot about him that I hate.

    And you really couldn’t wait to make a “Be Kind Rewind” reference could you? I finally watched it and I honestly thought you’re reference would have had something to do with the Ghostbusters song.

  2. Zilla,

    Nice reflection on an LP that I would otherwise have never – ever – have dug out again. I’m blowing the dust off this mother right now…

    Hope you’re good mate,

    Dan

  3. blah. No Way Out is still a classic. Albums don’t evolve. People do. They are what they are. If you truly loved it back then you still love it today.. so I guess you didn’t truly love it. You had an infatuation.

  4. Ciz:

    I never had an “infatuation” with this album nor did I ever love it. Like I said, I just had a dubbed cassette with the 8 best songs on there from ’97 until a month ago. Wish I still had that tape though!

    You love the album TOO much to admit it’s flaws–mainly that it’s too long, Puffy can’t rap for shit, and most of the beats haven’t aged well. However, if you’re a Bad Boy diehard, then it’s a bonafied classic.

  5. This album was the start of Puffy (that’s what he’ll always be to me, screw the aliases) losing his original focus for the sake of becoming a star….when Big died, the boy was assed out, because he had no one to step in that void…..except him. Zilla, you hit it on the head, ’cause there are really only 7 or 8 bangers on this, the rest is just filler. Thanks for the way back, homie.

  6. I remember I almost got fired from my summer job, because I went on my lunch break to buy the cd the day it came out and ended up coming back about an hour late after having to wait in line to get it (this, obviously, was back before the days of zshare and sendpace…). I don’t know if I listened to any other cds that summer, other than No Way Out and Wu-Tang Forever.

    I’m sure a lot of it is its nostalgic value, but I still listen to this album fairly often. There are some weak tracks on it, no doubt, but it earns classic status strictly on the strength of Benjamins. I could listen to Biggie rap over that Jackson 5 sample all day long.

  7. Zilla Puffy was far from the star of the album. He flows as his writer for that particular tracks flows (i.e. Twista on Is this the End) and how do beats not age well? I didn’t understand that one when you first uttered it in Rhode Island. Victory is still one of the most flowed on tracks ever. I love Been Around the Word but the remix shitted on it. All About the Benjamins is still the shit as is Young G’s, I Love You Baby, Friend and Senorita… the only tracks that annoy me now are Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down and Don’t Stop What You’re Doing.. the first because I heard it sooo much and the second because of that chicks voice saying you don’t really wanna stop. As I revisit the tracklisting I feel the same way I felt in 97. Being a fan of the Bad Boy roster (which was the greatest since Motown in the 60’s) I can admit who fell off and whatever since this album but this was the height of the Bad Boy kingdom..and its still a classic.

  8. a few things:

    + you’re right about a lot of the beats not aging well (i.e. every track after 10, excluding “senorita”), but “what you gonna do” is a top-tier beat. he should have given that one to biggie (if he were alive when puff recorded it), or the lox. fuck it, even ma$e.

    + i think “quietly dominating” is the wrong term for biggie’s ’94-’97 run. not only was he regarded as the face of east coast rap, not only did he have two of the best-selling rap albums of the ’90’s (not to mention them being– oh, two of the best rap albums in history), not only was his pen all over anything (thus making hard core possibly the best-ever rap album performed by a female), but let’s not forget that many people (myself included) hailed him as the greatest rapper of all-time even while he was still alive. and he may not have answered “hit ’em up” (unless you believe that bullshit about the first verse of “long kiss goodnight” being about ‘pac), but he did take on the other “best rapper in new york,” nas: “who you thought ‘kick in the door’ was for?”

    + puff wasn’t much of a writer or producer, or even performer for that matter, but the man had ideas. i agree with you on the cinematic nature of life after death and this record. not only that, but he was unquestionably great at sequencing the albums he was involved in.

    + imagine where ‘kiss would be now if he had just written puffy’s verse for “mo’ money, mo’ problems.” that dude would have been all over this album.

    + totally co-sign on black rob. he was in the right place at the wrong time. not sure about g-dep, though. he was a really good lyricist, but the dude had no charisma. if you’re going to monotone on everything you spit, you better have MF DOOM-level “did you hear what he just said” replay value.

    + as much as there was wrong with puff, none of us can deny that in bad boy’s glory days, he was a finder and incubator of talent on level with berry gordy.

  9. Douglas:

    Great points! Here’s my take, number by number:

    1. “What You Gonna Do” is a dope beat but I couldn’t get into it ’cause of Puffy’s rapping. I’m spoiled by hearing other dude Bad Boy artists on KILLER beats, or at least featured with Puff. I can’t stomach him for more than a verse at a time. His contribution to “Victory” as a rapper is what he should always do–set it off, hand it off, mop up, go home

    2. When I say Big was “quietly dominanting,” I mean that people call him the GOAT because of his 2 solo LPs. Junior Mafia, Kim, and Puff’s albums are really Biggie LPs to me and writers/critics, etc never mention that when talking about Big’s brilliance. His albums are bonafied classics all day and the 3 albums he ghostwrote or what have you are right there too. His solo greatness rightfully overshadows his outside work as songwriter. I just wanted to give him more credit for something that kinda flies under most peoples radars.

    3. Puffy is an outstanding record producer. Rick Rubin can’t play an instrument, sing, or rap, but he like Puffy knows what to do in the studio to make a great cohesive piece of work. I wish Puff did that more instead of coining catchphrases on MTV.

    4. At the time, Ma$e had way more commercial potential than Jada, so I can see why he got minimal shine. Plus, he was in a group too. I do wish Puff and the Lox could work on an album together like Puff did with Jay for AG. That would be ree-dick-you-lus.

    5. Yeah G-Dep was tolerable on hot beats. He’s a headphone rapper. His voice was just ill and his guest apperances were usually hot as shit (“Special Delivery Remix”–ill!). He would probably be great in a group.

    6. You’re 100% correct in terms of Puffy and Berry Gordy. I just wish Puff didn’t get distracted with the 19 other business ventures he has right now. Multiple revenue streams are key, but he’s a great producer first, pitchman/icon of cool/fashion mogul second, third, and fourth.

  10. I HATED this album because at the time I was an uber underground backpack Hip Hop emcee and aficionado and the wind chimes and cowbell/triangle sound was the equivalent of a Hip Hop death knell to me. I immersed myself in vinyl and CD’s from Sandbox Automatic. All that being said I believe that this was an extremely important album even though I haven’t heard it in about 10 years.

    Then I got jobs working for record stores and I couldn’t avoid this mainstream music anymore. I had to deal with it head on. I remember one time a girl asked me when Mase’s next album (after “Harlem World”) back in early 1999 when I worked at Tower Records as a manager. My response was “Why?”. You can take the backpacker out of the Fat Beats but you can’t get the Fat Beats out of the backpacker I guess.

  11. quite funny when you say: ”Is This the End?” It’s like Birdman trying to sing “Tears of a Clown.” i forgot about 1/2 the tracks you mentioned on that cd. “Is This the End” was the only one that came to mind when I started reading this. Wasn’t Twista on that?

  12. Really nice article man, completely on point from start to finish. Word up on Black Rob and G-Dep. It’s a shame how this rap game can chew a emcee up and spit em out. Both them dudes were putting out material pre-Bad Boy, now post-Bad Boy they are nowhere to be found. Check out my blog: ReddKing.blogspot.com

    I do a radio show Wednesday afternoons, you can find a link to it on my blog. Check it out if you get a chance, I’m sure you will enjoy it.

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