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Mar 14

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

Popular78 comments • 9,899 views

#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. 1
    Andrew Farrell on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Worth pointing out here that it’s far from clear that a lot of the people buying this would have ever heard BIG – his chart positions before his death were 72 / 63 / 34. I’m still not sure what the appeal is, the tracks I’ve listened to have been humourless unentertaining celebrations of violence – but then I’m happy to join the UK public in their general disinterest in ‘flow’.

    As a side effect of which I hated this – fortunately Puff Daddy has never felt the need to do anything to make me re-evaluate him as a howling absence of talent – as per Tom’s last line he’s expanded his ownership of its criticisms into the ‘all money and no class’ area too.

  2. 2
    AMZ1981 on 12 Mar 2014 #

    I didn’t know that I’ll Be Missing You outsold Wannabe but it only wound up the third biggest seller of 1997. It’s quite correct that it had timing on its side as it chimed in quite well with events later on that year – reflecting on 1997 as a whole, I’ll Be Missing You’s second run kicks off a run of six oddly connected chart toppers.

    There’s also one hell of a number two watch here. Because of I’ll Be Missing You holding down number one for six weeks the following records missed out;

    THE VERVE – Bittersweet Symphony
    SASH – Ecuador (Mr Unlucky with what is – for me – his best record. I have a fond memory of watching this on TOTP with a hot audience member in shot throughout)
    BOYZONE – Picture Of You (one of their better songs and – late 1998 bunny aside – arguably their most regularly played today)
    GALA – Freed From Desire (still fills dancefloors today – I have memories of dancing like a loon to this in 2004 with a hellraising mate of mine)

    The point being I have no fond memories of I’ll Be Missing You. It bored me then and it bores me now.

  3. 3
    taDOW on 12 Mar 2014 #

    yeah biggie’s lack of profile in the uk (and europe in general) has always made this thing’s success over there befuddling to me. in the us it made sense – biggie was an icon and in 1997 anything w/ the words ‘puff daddy’ on it was gonna blow up (eg. a month and a half before puffy had hit #1 w/ ‘can’t nobody hold me down’, which was knocked off the top by biggie’s ‘hypnotize’, as ‘mo money mo problems’ would in turn knock this off the top – from mid-march to the beginning of october the only #1 w/o puff heavily involved was ‘mmmbop’) – and its mediocrity somewhat forgiveable – rush job to terrible circumstances, ‘goodbye brooklyn’s rose’ so to speak. fwiw the first legit hip-hop track i heard on adult contemporary radio and in it’s own way fitting in w/ the move away from gangsta and to pop puffy (w/ timbaland and missy – the other dominant unavoidable hip-hop of 97) helped bring in, albeit minus the nouveau riche glee of ‘hypnotize’, ‘mo money’, ‘all around the world’, etc. the tupac-biggie feud was so huge and so central to east coast vs west coast that the death of both artists could help but clearly be the end of that era but i think both could’ve thrived in the more pop environment that came after, jay-z did and he didn’t have near the pop instincts (or the stardom) that pac did w/ ‘california love’ or biggie did w/ ‘hypnotize’. anyhow i gave it a 5, overrating it probably, admittedly.

  4. 4
    Andrew Farrell on 12 Mar 2014 #

    The Verve record’s at least got an odd angle to its relation to Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy – the name, and the video, and getting in the same string arranger, as if Richard Ashcroft woke up one morning and said “The world will know me as the Shara Nelson of being a self-absorbed wanker.”

  5. 5
    MBI on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Back when it came out I detested this song. I still do, I guess. But it got sold to me by a single scene in a movie — “Rush Hour 2,” believe it or not. Jackie Chan believes Chris Tucker is dead, and as he drives away and tries to deal with his grief, “I’ll Be Missing You” comes on. And because he knows it’s a song Tucker’s character would have liked, he grooves along, even though you can tell by the look on Chan’s face that he knows this song is fucking terrible, but it fits the mood regardless. Rush Hour 2 is also awful, in much the same way that most of Puff’s music is awful, but I honestly find that one scene kind of touching, and I guess that scene recontextualized the song for me in much the same way that Tom describes. Back when it was big it was the worst song in the world, but time has kind of elevated it to some level of camp pleasure.

  6. 6
    wichitalineman on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Re 4: Wil Malone’s blog doesn’t mention how the string undertow and melody on Bitter Sweet Symphony come from a 1965 instrumental of the Stones’ The Last Time, as scored by David Whitaker (who should by rights have bagged at least some of the publishing on BSS). Quite possibly ‘Mad Richard’ hummed the string part to Malone, but it was pinched (not a word I’d use lightly).

    More of those chaps later, though. IBMY is lame, for all the reasons mentioned above. Is this the only time we come across Faith Evans? That’d be a shame.

    My flatmate Laura was wildly excited when Biggie Smalls was first on The Word (not sure of the date). I was unimpressed by his performance, though amused by his Les Dawson-like name – if only he knew how daft it sounded to British ears! But then I used to think that about Slash, before I heard he was from Stoke.

  7. 7
    mapman132 on 12 Mar 2014 #

    I’ve said many times on this board that I’m not a big hip hop fan (especially 90’s hip hop) and therefore not necessarily qualified to make an unbiased judgement on records in the genre. But in some cases, I have able to re-evaluate certain records I once disliked and recognize them for the classics they are (e.g. “Gangsta’s Paradise”). This, however, is not one of those cases….

    While neither Puffy nor Biggie were that big in the UK prior to this record, the same could not be said of the US. In fact during 1997 we were treated to a 22-week marathon of Puffy-Biggie-Puffy-Biggie atop the Hot 100, broken only by 3 weeks of Hanson in the middle. The two Biggie records actually weren’t that bad, as much as I couldn’t stand him and his ilk personally. The Puffy records OTOH…pure crap (actually I had to look up “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” just now to even remember it). Pretty much random “uh huh’s” and other insipid lyrics over samples of someone else’s work. And even in eulogizing his friend, Puffy couldn’t get it right – it just comes across as a lazy and cynical cash-in record. 3/10, and only that high assuming some sincerity lurking in there somewhere.

    I had no idea this outsold “Wannabe” in the UK – it surprises me a bit. But with 11 weeks at number one in the US, and sales and airplay through the roof, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that IBMY would be Billboard’s top single of 1997 as the summer wound down. After all, what could possibly come along to beat it?

  8. 8
    mapman132 on 12 Mar 2014 #

    A short satire piece that pretty much sums up my opinion of Sean “Puffy” Combs:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/new-rap-song-samples-billie-jean-in-its-entirety-a,4389/

  9. 9
    Kinitawowi on 12 Mar 2014 #

    The God of sampling (in my view) is not too far away from us (he may even be here already – Better Living Through Chemistry is already around – and in certain respects, he was here for some ten years by now…), and all of his big hits teach us one important lesson – don’t rely on a sample where the original is going to dwarf your record. Otherwise, everyone’s going to hear your sample, and they’re going to think it’s the original song, and then it’s going to go in a different direction and they’re likely to be disappointed.

    Such is the story of IBMY. Every Breath You Take is simply too big. Not lyrically spectacular by any means (but that’s a story for it’s own thread), but its sample comes in from miles away and it’s not even cleverly reworked. This is it, says the song. We’ve nicked EBTY, we’re changing a couple of the words in the chorus but still singing basically the same song, and Puffy is going to rap instead of having the original verses. Deal with it.

    I don’t deal with it. If EBTY’s intro starts up, that’s what I want to hear.

    It was all vaguely likeable at the time, mind. I was 16, I’d sort of picked up on the Biggie connection – despite having heard nothing of him, never mind having any clue why he might be deserving of a tribute record – and EBTY was always worth hearing. But EBTY is not what it was, and nor is this. 3 is about right.

    And who even were 112 anyway? They apparently worked with Allure on their not-too-shabby cover of All Cried Out, but I haven’t heard or seen anything of them before or since.

  10. 10
    swanstep on 12 Mar 2014 #

    @mapman, 8. Excellent. And Tom’s said everything more that needs to be said. Strange what can, almost out of the blue, command a huge audience; I just eye-rolled (ear-rolled?) at IBMY at the time, and have never (until now) consciously heard it all the way through since:
    3 (for the basic competence of the backing, and Evans’s sweet voice)

  11. 11
    Weej on 12 Mar 2014 #

    I wasn’t a fan of this at the time and don’t want to defend it now, but rap music and sampling are not to blame here. Notorious BIG’s Mo Money Mo Problems was released shortly after this and made the UK top ten, and it makes a startling contrast – a familiar sample used creatively, spliced to throw a new angle on it, to create something fresh, plus of course memorable rapping and a new vocal section.

    I’ll Be Missing You, on the other hand, takes the bassline from Every Breath You Take and does precisely nothing with it. What’s worse, we lose the middle eight (“since you’ve gone I’ve been lost without a trace….”) entirely, turning the track into one long cold non-build-up with no pay-off. Puff Daddy’s embarrassed muttering sounds like he knows he’s made a stinker, but fuck it, nobody will notice, and Faith Evans’ vocals are nice enough, but they are ultimately nothing more than karaoke stuff. It sounds like the complete opposite of a heartfelt tribute, and I can’t for the life of me work out how a best friend and a widow could have made it so soon after their bereavement – or why anyone bought it, let alone made it into such a massive hit.

    The British public would buy rap in the 90s, but usually only if it was mawkish, a novelty, or both. Fortunately this trend fizzled out in the 00s, but for now it’s a bit of an embarrassment.

  12. 12
    Chelovek na lune on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Mawkish is exactly the word. High point: the female vocals. I will quite happily never listen to this again.

  13. 13
    Weej on 12 Mar 2014 #

    One odd thing I was just thinking about – can anyone think of another A&R man who became a pop star? The nearest I can think of it one J King, but he did the pop star stuff first.

  14. 14
    Tom on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #11 Yeah, in a way it’s weird Puffy dropped the “When you’re gone…” bit – which is the best part of EBYT. TOO brazen? Or requiring him to sound too vulnerable? But, to be fair, the “Some bright morning…” bit from Faith serves the same payoff purpose. So the real problem is that it’s allowed to resolve nothing and we get the interminable stretch of murmured “I miss you”s afterwards.

    (Another triumph here for the “Related Posts” algorithm I notice, finding room for J-Don and the Arcade Fire but not actually the Every Breath entry…)

  15. 15
    wichitalineman on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Re 13: J King did it simultaneously, writing and producing Hedgehoppers Anonymous’s It’s Good News Week (#5 Nov ’65) at more or less the same time as his own faux protest song Everyone’s Gone To The Moon (#4 Aug ’65), which was covered with aplomb – and not even tongue in cheek – by Bobby Womack.

    Puffy produced Mary J Blige as well as A&R-ing her, and did a pretty good job, but I’m Goin’ Down is a long way from IBMY.

  16. 16
    Kat but logged out innit on 12 Mar 2014 #

    We do indeed see Faith at a later date on Popular (as a sample).

    I’d never heard of Biggie until this record, and I have to say hearing it didn’t really make me want to immediately seek out his back catalogue (it took me years to realise that ‘Juicy’ and ‘Hypnotize’ were absolute tunes). Diddy seems to be getting a roasting here and I think that’s understandable, but there’s much better from him to come.

    Anyway: MIND AND SENSES PURIFIED

  17. 17
    Alan not logged in on 12 Mar 2014 #

    I don’t *think* I see it mentioned here or in the EBYT comments…

    https://destroyerofharmony.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/every-sample-you-take/

    Summers’ beef about the sample royalties going to Sting, despite it being basically him (Summers), and something he came up with in the original track session

  18. 18
    lonepilgrim on 12 Mar 2014 #

    I like Faith Evans’ voice on this and I have some residual connection to the original melody but the whole thing seems static and listless. Not good.

  19. 19
    JLucas on 12 Mar 2014 #

    I’m reminded of Tom’s review of an earlier dodgy cover version borne of a tragedy – the Ferry Aid recording of Let It Be.

    There was even less to that record than there is to this, but just like Kate Bush’s brief contribution to that song briefly cuts through the crap, so does Faith Evans vocal on this one. Obviously it’s a bit mawkish to put a widow on the record, and the she was separated from Biggie at the time of his death anyway after he cheated on her with Lil Kim, but there’s a lovely dignity to her performance that Puff Daddy’s clunky verses can’t possibly match, but also fail to undermine.

    It’s a six from me, thanks to her. I always found Puff Daddy/P.Diddy impossible to take seriously, though he produced some amazing songs. Around the time of this song he also dragged Mariah Carey out of premature middle age with the inspired ‘Honey’, and Dreams ‘He Loves U Not’ is one of the great underrated pop songs of the early 00s if you ask me…

  20. 20
    Rory on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Fourth-highest-selling single of the year in Australia, between “MMMBop” (5th) and “Tubthumping”, and number one there for five weeks that August and September. A similarly anomalous hit to the UK, because Puff Daddy’s prior Australian peak was a 27 for “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”, although he went on to reach number 10 as featured artist on The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” and with Jimmy Page in 1998 for “Come With Me”.

    I was in the “what’s the point of this EBYT rip-off” camp, and can’t hear anything to change my mind now. 4.

  21. 21
    anto on 12 Mar 2014 #

    This track is astonishingly bright sounding for a eulogy to a young man whose life was clearly troubled and who met a violent, tragic end and that’s mainly because of Faith Evans’ contribution. It also sounds very summery. Could that be another reason for it’s success? It’s air of youthful recollection touching on something nostalgic in the listener.
    It turned out to be particularly apposite for the summer of 1997 which turned tepid in June with a lot of beige days where the brief sunny spells seemed almost begrudging and where borrowed grief seemed to characterize daily life in Britain at one point. A very strange time now I think about it.

  22. 22
    enitharmon on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Andrew @ 4 Massive Attack? I’d swear that BS was a rehash of a 1965 number one.

    “Well I told you once and I told you twice but you never listen to my advice…”

  23. 23
    Jonathan on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Re #1: It’s so bizarre to see someone describe Biggie as humorless! One of the last adjectives that comes to mind when I think of him.

    Re “IBMY”: Obviously it’s better than “EBYT” — there’s no Sting on this one.

  24. 24
    Tom on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #17 Man! Yet more reason to hate Sting.

    Yeah, maybe I should have upped it a point because of Faith Evans, but she doesn’t make up for the song being soooooo long, not that “IBMY” is nearly the worst culprit in 97-98 number ones.

    And yes, obviously I agree with the people saying that Sean Combs has had a hand in a lot of records far better than this one (does he actually show up again himself). Particularly pleased to see Dream get a mention!

    I don’t remember much about the weather during Summer ’97, I remember the sunshine towards the end of August. From March through about July I was in a pretty bad way: my worst bout of depressive illness (still a great deal better than many sufferers have had it, but debilitating enough for my memories of this time to be generally grim. This at number one certainly didn’t help.) Anyway, around the time this finally left #1 I overcame my stubbornness, got medical help, and not to chance the bunny but the drugs did work – well enough for the rest of the year to be less awful, anyhow.

  25. 25
    James BC on 12 Mar 2014 #

    I would stick up for this. I hadn’t heard of BIG before it was released, but it came on the radio and they told the story and I found it pretty moving. I like how Faith Evans doesn’t over-emote in 90s diva style – it’s enough just to sing beautifully. But Puffy’s rap works for me as well, sounding desperately sad in its matter-of-fact flatness.

    I’ve got no idea what 112 do, though. I assume they are credited in an effort to promote them.

    Re A&Rs who went into recording: does Bill Drummond count?

  26. 26
    Tom on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #25 He does! And he even did a bit of rapping.

    (112 are doing the soft “every X you Y” backing vox on the coda, I assumed)

  27. 27
    Rory on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #26 “every X you Y”: Puff/Coldplay mash-up ahoy!

  28. 28
    iconoclast on 12 Mar 2014 #

    First off, in the interests of accuracy: it’s not the “bassline”; it’s Andy Summers’s guitar line, recorded with a little slapback echo.

    Anyway, on the one hand this is (or at least sounds like) a heartfelt tribute to a lost friend; on the other, as Tom said, it’s little more than people talking over other people’s music. I’ve nothing else to add about the choice of sample that hasn’t already been said; the song itself gets monotonous and eventually runs out of steam altogether. FOUR.

    (Interestingly, “I’ve nothing else…” onwards also describes my feelings about “Bittersweet Symphony”, which is even harder on the ears.)

  29. 29
    Tom on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #28 Oops – corrected. Where would I be without a comments crew to help me with the most basic questions of instrument identification?

  30. 30
    anto on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Everyone seems to have a real downer on ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ which baffles me. Few other hit singles have ever cut through the airwaves quite so majestically, I think.
    It’s also fair to argue that ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ is the best song Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have been credited on since about 1981.

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