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Mar 14

PUFF DADDY, FAITH EVANS AND 112 – “I’ll Be Missing You”

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#770, 28th June 1997

IllBeMissingYou I don’t normally pay too much attention to the length of a song’s stay at Number One, but the scale of “I’ll Be Missing You”’s popularity is significant. It ran three weeks at the top, was knocked off by the comeback single of the country’s biggest band, then came back the week after for another three – and all this before Princess Diana died, giving it another surge. It outsold “Wannabe”. It was colossal.

The point of this sudden attention to stats is to show that, in the UK at least, “I’ll Be Missing You” cleanly transcended its obvious context – the bloody climax of the Death Row/Bad Boy hip-hop feud that left Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur dead – to be bought on its own merits as a pop requiem. Tupac and Biggie were well-known figures, huge with the British hip-hop audience, but not six-weeks-at-number-one huge. Criticisms of “I’ll Be Missing You” have been plentiful – it’s cynical, it’s lazy, it makes a saint of a criminal, it’s a fairly terrible piece of rap music. Some of the attacks are on point, others miss the point. But most of them come from some knowledge of rap and of this song’s place within it. It’s worth first trying to hear it from the point of view of someone who bought “I’ll Be Missing You” with no conception of or interest in that context – since my bet is those people kept it at Number One for so long. What would they have got out of it?

A familiar song, for starters: Sting got 100% of the publishing here. On the “Every Breath You Take” thread there’s a pushback from an angry googler arguing that to spawn two major hits makes a song ‘critic-proof’, and he’s right – that bassline holds a fell attraction for music listeners no critic has ever dented. Puff Daddy, whose voice I marginally prefer to Sting’s, and Faith Evans, who is considerably better, find a new use for Andy Summers’ guitar line – taking its claustrophobic monotony and turning it into stately, clasped-hands monotony.

Our straw-person buyer also gets a very straightforward song about death, with a friend and a widow talking through their regret, bafflement and pain. Here’s where I think Puffy – as performer, not mogul – has more to do with this record’s success than he generally gets credit for. He has the kind of flat, legible, very straightforward non-flow the British public seem to rather like, and his style makes “I’ll Be Missing You” a highly gendered expression of grief – a man stoically, stiffly showing his regret; a woman keening and mourning. That contrast, corny though it is, sells the record as much as The Police do.

Dropping back from that wider context, Puff Daddy’s rapping is actually right for the role he’s playing here – the ad libber suddenly forced to find his own voice, a sideman pushed into an unwanted spotlight. Mourning an MC whose power lay partly in how easy, slick and dangerously charming he sounded, Puffy’s stumbles and rigidity demonstrate the hole left by his friend’s passing. Notorious B.I.G. would have sold a rhyme as contorted as “making hits, stages they received you on / still can’t believe you’re gone”, which dies as it comes out of Puff Daddy’s mouth. That’s the point.

So you can spin an argument to make “I’ll Be Missing You” sound good on paper. Even at the time it was a record I was tempted to defend, because a lot of the criticisms played into wider, murkier, prejudices about hip-hop in general. Yes, Notorious B.I.G. was no angel, but a friend’s eulogy shouldn’t be treated as a balanced obituary. No, rapping about violent acts doesn’t mean you deserve to be gunned down at 24, any more than singing about drugs means you deserve to overdose or lose your mind. Yes, it’s completely dependent on a massive sample – you’ll be taking that “Bitter Sweet Symphony” back to the shop, then? And so the conversations turned across most of a summer.

Except, ultimately, all the hypocrisies in the world couldn’t make “I’ll Be Missing You” into a very good record, or even a slightly good one. It’s mawkish, pious, and horribly overlong by at least two minutes. Puff Daddy ends every verse with heavy-handed product placement for his friend’s last album. The man’s limitations as a rapper may illustrate what a loss Biggie’s talent is, but that doesn’t make them any more entertaining. The big-sample approach to hip-hop can work, but “Every Breath You Take” is too sullen and draggy for such reanimation. For years, saloon bar critics and minor league stand-ups had made lazy jokes about hip-hop: it’s just guys talking, they said. Over other people’s music, they said. And now here we have probably the biggest hip-hop single in Britain up to this point, and it has to be the one which sounds exactly like they always said rap did.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Mark M on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Puffy wasn’t the first, or the last, hip-hop producer to promote himself to frontman despite lacking any natural flow. I still think he’s the one I least like to hear, although he has made tracks that disguise his shortcomings more cunningly than this one.

    I think I reviewed Ready To Die for Select. If so, I’ve barely listened to it since. I understand Biggie’s talent, but I never really enjoyed his rapping. Tupac, meanwhile, I think was a dull MC but potentially a terrific actor.

  2. 52
    Jonathan on 13 Mar 2014 #

    @35: That argument seems like a case of expecting hip-hop to conform to rock music’s norms. Rappers have always rhymed over familiar breaks, often ones very familiar to their audience. It’s not a cover; it’s a new song because according to rap’s decentralized system of production, the rapper creates new songs by spitting new rhymes.

  3. 53
    Garry on 13 Mar 2014 #

    @52 I agree it’s not a cover. But the issue for me Diddy is not only sampling the music but vibe and perceived emotions evoked by the originals. This is more than a nostalgic sampling for a beat, but a sampling of the perceived emotions the original songs express.

    The other immediate – and much better though not great – example is 2Pac’s refashioning Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is.

    As someone else said, I didn’t hear Gangsta’s Paradise or Superfreak, but they this was unimportant to appreciating (or otherwise) the new songs built from them. But I get the feeling Changes and IBMY require a interrelationship between themselves and the originals – The Way It Is was only released n 1990 – that part of their success required the listener being aware of the original, remembering the emotions they stirred up, however hazily. This was more than crate digging, this was song selection to emphasise the rappers’ points.

    As an aside example of this type of song borrowing is Robbie William’s Supreme. Unlike the other two songs above, he rebuild I Will Survive from the ground up and updated it for a new, disconnected generation.

  4. 54
    Rory on 13 Mar 2014 #

    #52: I know, and in 1997 (and earlier) that’s how I would have thought. I don’t so much now, which is why I gave good scores to the Fugees tracks, for example. But for better or worse, my 2014 reaction to IBMY (and “Ice, Ice Baby”) is influenced by my lingering 1997 reactions, which probably drags them down a point or two in my current estimation.

    I was mainly trying to explain why Tom’s comparison with the sampling in “Bittersweet Symphony” wouldn’t have persuaded me at the time. Now I’m fine with it, but still much prefer the Verve.

  5. 55
    Tom on 13 Mar 2014 #

    #53 I don’t get that IBMY needs the vibe of EBYT at all, he’s changed the mood of the song from creepy/claustrophobic to pious and placid, IMO. Gangsta’s Paradise, on the other hand, gets more dimensional when you think about its source material (though it doesn’t NEED that dimensionality, but the songs are talking to one another in interesting ways)

  6. 56
    punctum on 13 Mar 2014 #

    #46: well, exactly.

  7. 57
    Tommy Mack on 13 Mar 2014 #

    Re: blurring of line between sampling and cover version: Was this before or after N-Trance’s updated cover versions of disco hits? I don’t think I’m risking bunnyable offence when I say “Get raw with the fever on the dance floor!”

  8. 58
    Tom on 13 Mar 2014 #

    Alas you are not. We will be meeting a couple of tracks in that style I think. Though not its peak, Bus Stop’s amazing “Kung Fu Fighting” remake.

  9. 59
    Ed on 13 Mar 2014 #

    @51 So how did you rate Ready To Die, do you remember?

    My impression was that while alive Biggie made very little impact in Britain, both in the charts – as Andrew Farrell @1 and others have said – and among critics. It was certainly possible for me to have never heard a single syllable of his work, without ever thinking “I really must check him out.”

    So it wasn’t until last year that I really listened to him for the first time – prompted by hearing Jay-Z talk about him, I think – and discovered that he was absolutely fantastic. And as far as I can tell, there is now a general consensus that he was “the greatest ever”, insofar as that type of question can ever be universally agreed. Obviously there is some post-mortem solemnity and myth-making in that verdict, but as with similar examples such as Jimi Hendrix or Ian Curtis, I find it impossible to think that the reverence is undeserved.

    Back when he was alive, though, my impression was that he was barely covered – and sometimes actively derided – by the mainstream rock media. Even in the places that tried to nudge readers out of their guitar-based comfort zones, there was a lot more serious attention paid to the Wu-Tang Clan. Perhaps Biggie didn’t seem indie enough.

    So as I’ve perceived it, he has undergone a Black Sabbath level of reappraisal: ignored or mocked by taste-makers while he was creating his best work, but now widely acknowledged to have been the best at what he did.

    But maybe that’s unfair. Perhaps I just wasn’t paying enough attention while he was alive.

  10. 60
    Ed on 13 Mar 2014 #

    @55 Listeners have always wanted to hear EBTY as a sincere and uncomplicated love song: playing it at weddings, etc. IBMY just formalised that response. And that is its one true flash of inspiration.

  11. 61
    Tom on 13 Mar 2014 #

    re. critical reception, here’s Simon Reynolds’ “Most Overrated Of The 90s” write-up (from 1999 I guess).

    “The odd nifty catchphrase and deft rhyme, but c’mon, this man was a pig—Notorious P.I.G. more like; Piggy Smalls, heheheheh-and with a little help from his buddy Sean he almost singlehandedly set rap down its current path of spiritual bankruptcy. And he had the most unappetising vocal timbre in all of rap- asthmatic and adenoidal and mucus-bunged-up and fat-fuck wheezy all at once.”

  12. 62
    Tommy Mack on 13 Mar 2014 #

    The one time I listened to Ready To Die, it seemed a pretty unflinching look at a world without hope or compassion (to the extent that I haven’t really been in the mood for it since): there didn’t seem to much that was celebrating a criminal lifestyle (“When I die I hope I go to hell, coz I’m a piece of shit…”) Even the Rolex/Benz/Cristal track seems to be more about the relief of no longer having to undergo the humiliation and hardship of crushing poverty. I don’t know how ‘authentic’ this was; those who know seem to be divided about how ‘street’ Biggie’s background was.

    I never listened to any Bad Boy stuff back in the day. When I got into rap, I was a Death Row and Wu Tang fan (still am): Dre and Snoop could be funny as well as hard whereas (to my teenage ears) Biggie and Puff were fat blokes boasting about their big watches. Plus Puff Daddy’s name was too easy for schoolboys to take the piss off. Things like that were more important than you’d care to admit.

  13. 63
    Ed on 13 Mar 2014 #

    @61 Ouch. I can understand the urge to push back against the piety, but that is just crass.

    It probably explains how I came to miss how good Biggie was, too: I took Reynolds’ opinion very seriously back then.

  14. 64
    Tommy Mack on 13 Mar 2014 #

    Reynolds always seems a bit like my dad: quite a binary attitude to music: if you’re not ostentatiously pushing forwards (or at least in some unexpected sideways direction) then you’re holding things back. I can’t imagine he has much time for sentimentality.

  15. 65
    Tommy Mack on 13 Mar 2014 #

    And that by ‘forward-thinking’ he means in quite traditional scholarly terms.

  16. 66
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 13 Mar 2014 #

    “asthmatic and … fat-fuck wheezy”

    Sean “Puffy” Combs shd totally have marketed blinghalers: “The Notorious B.E.C.otide”

    (this joke largely courtesy the site’s designer)

  17. 67
    Garry on 13 Mar 2014 #

    @55 and @60 Thanks Ed, that’s exactly what I was trying to get at by saying the perceived emotion of the song – what Sting sung and some listeners wanted to hear into it, if they heard deeply into it at all, were two different things.

    I just had a look on All Music and major label compilations EBYT has appeared on includes Love: A Collection of Everlasting Love Songs; The Love Songs Album; and 100% Pure Love. I’m sure the compilers knew their target audiences.

    And in that I take Ed’s point about IBMY formalising this feeling.

  18. 68
    thefatgit on 13 Mar 2014 #

    As with any critic, it all boils down to “who do you trust?”. I’m not sure I would trust Reynolds on Gangsta Rap as much as I would trust Reynolds on House Music.

  19. 69
    Mark M on 13 Mar 2014 #

    Re59: I would guess I gave it 3/5 – can’t imagine having given it less, not sure I had the enthusiasm for a 4.

    As for the wider point, among people who wrote about hip hop, he was major news from the start. But, yes, I think in terms of selling him to an audience that bought a couple of hip hop albums a year, though, there was less of an obvious hook than with the Wu Tang (there’s lots of them! Chess! Martial arts!) or Snoop (the look, the name, the humour, the instantly distinctive voice).

    I don’t read The Source or Vibe these days, or indeed much music criticism beyond FreakyTrigger and The Singles Jukebox, so I have no idea how the current canon of great MCs stacks up. For me, Biggie is nowhere near Rakim or the young Nas or Ghostface, for starters, but that’s a personal thing.

    Re62: Biggie’s background – poor but respectable, his (single) mother was a teacher from Jamaica. I don’t think there’s much doubt that he was selling drugs as a kid, though.

  20. 70
    Tommy Mack on 13 Mar 2014 #

    #68 I’d go with that: Critics’ and fans’ reasons for disliking something are rarely as interesting and thought through as their reasons for liking something.

  21. 71
    glue_factory on 13 Mar 2014 #

    Re:59, I’d always thought the critical-consensus held Rakim as the greatest-ever. But having said that, I just found an online top-63(!) which has Rakim at 61 (2Pac at #1, Biggie at #2)

  22. 72
    Ed on 13 Mar 2014 #

    @67 Thanks. I love those songs that have different private and public meanings: Born in the USA being the classic example. It’s too simplistic to say listeners are misunderstanding them: they are responding to something else that’s in there.

    The deeper truth, I think, is that the songs are like oxymorons, holding mutually opposing ideas in balance.

    You can love your country and still hate what it does. All-consuming devotion is bit creepy, and obsession can be romantic.

  23. 73
    Steve Mannion on 13 Mar 2014 #

    #68 That’s a problem though isn’t it – the idea of only being able to ‘trust’ a critic on certain genres? I’ve never developed a penchant for any particular critic/criticism on that basis.

  24. 74
    thefatgit on 13 Mar 2014 #

    #73 I’m only speaking as the punter though. When it comes to Reynolds, there’s a whole ton of stuff he’s said over the years I tended to disagree with, but I’m not going to reject his opinion off the bat, because he’s got few things right as well. And I’m not going to make a choice about purchasing an album on just one person’s say so. I made that mistake too many times when I was young. When the BPM’s are higher, in my experience I’ve found Reynolds at his most enlightening.

  25. 75
    Cumbrian on 14 Mar 2014 #

    I’m somewhat surprised that there are accusations of insincerity knocking about with this record. There are two moments on it that seem to me to be so obviously sincere that it hurts to listen to them. The first is Puff Daddy’s sullen spit of “I’d give anything to hear half your breath” – so human, so honest – who, when having lost someone, doesn’t have those same emotions? Resentment that they’re gone, guilt that you didn’t let them know one last time how much they mean to you, sorrow that you’ll never get that chance.

    The second is Faith Evans but not the main part she sings. Right in the middle of the second chorus is a sweet, unshowy, even plaintively, sung “I miss you”. For me, it’s utterly heartbreaking – even if they had broken up by that time.

    That I think it’s sincere doesn’t, of course, mean that the record is automatically any good. I don’t think it is at all – many of the problems with it have been more eloquently expanded upon than I am capable of doing – but it’s not the nadir of hip-hop. Not anything like it.

    Not a huge fan of Sean Comb’s other work, with the exception of “Bad Boy For Life” which rides on a rather fine, jerky guitar riff. Please tell me that the Jimmy Page collaboration isn’t bunnied? That might actually be the nadir of hip-hop. I’d certainly rather listen to Vanilla Ice than it anyway.

  26. 76
    Tom on 14 Mar 2014 #

    The Page collab is unbunnied.

  27. 77
    Tommy Mack on 14 Mar 2014 #

    I quite enjoyed the Page collaboration, even Diddy’s ropey singing on the middle eight and the silly video where he squares off against Godzilla.

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