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.