11
Mar 14

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

Popular78 comments • 10,352 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. 31
    Andrew Farrell on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #22 now surely no-one could reasonably claim that…

  2. 32
    Andrew Farrell on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #30 After the Watershed (Easy Listening er I mean Early Learning the Hard Way) would argue with that – though if you’re serious about your first paragraph then I don’t know it’s got much chance of convincing you.

  3. 33
    Tom on 12 Mar 2014 #

    I like “Bitter Sweet Symphony”! Might elaborate on why in a few entries, if it fits in.

    It was an incredibly useful (i.e. smug) weapon in arguments about this record’s lack of ‘creativity’ though.

  4. 34
    thefatgit on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Biggie and Tupac eh? The former, as most people have mentioned didn’t feature on my radar until after IBMY. So all of his posthumous output is kind of skewed towards acknowledging and remembering a lost voice, or buying into a death cult depending on your sympathies. Tupac was known to me through his collaborations with Digital Underground, but again there was the whole death cult thing with his posthumous output. It was a very long time after their deaths I heard “Where’s Brooklyn At?” live recording with both rappers sharing the same stage, post IBMY, post Broomfield, post “99 Problems” it felt haunted, despite it being rescuscitated for comedy purposes by Peter Serafinowicz’s character Brian Butterfield.

    Puff Daddy behind the mixing desk was inspired. TLC’s “CrazySexyCool” had his fingerprints on several tracks, but being thrust front and centre after B.I.G’s death meant a level of exposure he probably was not ready for. Oh, he’d hyped and collaborated with most of the Uptown roster, not least Jodeci and Mary J Blige before founding Bad Boy, and set up the label as a credible East Coast challenger to Suge Knight’s west Coast label, Death Row. His shortcomings as a rapper are there for all to see on IBMY. It’s mawkish and definitely overlong. A couple of listens would have been enough, but six weeks? What it does do of course is fit splendidly well into 1997’s narrative, but we can expand on that when the time is right.

  5. 35
    Rory on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #33 The obviousness of the sample bothered me at the time too, but I (hope I) didn’t frame it in terms of lack of creativity. Rather, it was the same problem that I had with “Ice, Ice Baby” – the sample was too big, too immediately recognisable to me (and that one wasn’t even a sample, but a re-recording). By contrast, I was fine at the time with “U Can’t Touch This” because I didn’t yet know “Super Freak”, and “Gangsta’s Paradise” because I hadn’t heard “Pastime Paradise”. And that initial perception seems to have shaped my long-term views of the songs, even though I now know all their sources; I’m still fine with MC Hammer’s and Coolio’s tracks, but not so much with this or “Ice, Ice Baby”.

    The sample on “Bittersweet Symphony”, on the other hand, was always sufficiently obscure (although unfortunately for Ashcroft, by far-from-obscure writers) not to evoke any such uneasiness. For the same reason, I enjoy lots of post-2000 sample-heavy electronic songs, because they don’t sample the smash hits.

    I was trying to think of an analogy, and came up with Duchamp’s painting of a moustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa; but that isn’t quite it. He wasn’t trying to appropriate Leonardo’s genius, but rather to comment on the painting’s place in popular culture. There was no sign that Vanilla Ice or Puff Daddy were doing anything like that, so it felt more like appropriation.

    But to drill down further, why did it feel like appropriation? Because they were making what at another time might have been sold as straight cover versions, with amendments within the bounds of those that cover artists have always made to originals. Why not just bill this as a cover of “Every Breath You Take”? Would it be any less a performance? Cf. the two Fugees songs we encountered a while back, one a straight cover but unmistakably made their own, the other more akin to this – yet even that carried a shortened version of the title of the original track, and the original wasn’t a number 1 by one of the biggest bands of its day.

    I’m not actually that bothered by any of this now, either in this case or “Ice, Ice Baby”. I just don’t enjoy either track that much. This is a 4 for me rather than a 3 because of Faith Evans’ vocals, and that’s about it.

  6. 36
    punctum on 12 Mar 2014 #

    In the struggles of the sixties the villains were clear; the assassins of King, of Evers, of the four little girls, were the enemy. If black shot black (Malcolm X, some still say on the orders of Farrakhan) it was as the result of ideological confrontation; bloody and horrible as it was, there was some reason behind it, an explanation even if that explanation were that the assassin had no reason. But the reason behind the entirely pitiful East Coast/West Coast hip hop feud which ensured the violent deaths of the then leading figures of each seems to have been nothing more than money; violent attitudes as marketing tools, gunslinging face-offs as attractively “other” sales pitch, the presumed need for one business conglomerate to be bigger than the other. Neither 2Pac nor Biggie can be posthumously excused; they encouraged or were encouraged to encourage the rivalry, frothing revengeful death wishes at each other until finally someone took them at their word on both body counts. Such a useless waste, and all to further the well-being of the worship-denying god of Mammon. Didn’t any lessons get learned from the sixties?

    Because of its coincidental timing, “I’ll Be Missing You” exceeded its target audience to become the first of that summer’s second-hand requiems towards spirits abruptly flown. Hardly any of the 1,400,000 or so Britons who bought the single knew or frankly cared who The Notorious B.I.G. was; Ready To Die failed to trouble our album chart, and #34 had been his living singles chart peak with a double A-side of “One More Chance/Stay With Me” in August 1995. One month after his assassination, the Life After Death double CD went Top 30; one month later still, “Hypnotize” became his first UK top ten hit. It was, from the same damaged perspective which ensured his early demise, a sterling career move.

    The overwhelming emotion one gleans from “I’ll Be Missing You” is that of exhausted numbness. His best friend and his ex-wife try to pay honest tribute, complementing the Police template with the old gospel hymn “I’ll Fly Away,” but both sound shattered; Combs in particular realising just too late what unfettered capitalism does to human beings when taken to its extremes. He mumbles his lines morosely rather than proclaiming them; Faith Evans’ tears buried under convenient harmonies and multitracking except for the one brief moment when she breaks cover at the “One day morning/When this life is over” section. But as the song slowly fades, Combs knows too well that he is trapped, will run on the same money-generating treadmill forever – “And we won’t stop, ‘cause we can’t stop.” There’s the tragedy and the reason why “I’ll Be Missing You” is ultimately inaccessible; we glimpse the numbed, frozen cells of grief in their voices, but still it will be business as usual, no matter how much more blood gets shed (note the subliminal plug for Life After Death at the end of the second verse) – they seem awkwardly reluctant to express unrestrained lament, yet their self-protective inwardness does not equate with grave dignity; rather it is as though Puff Daddy and Faith Evans, even in the depths of their post-traumatic depression, are still hiding something from their audience; the full, unpalatable underlying truth about the system they propagate, the furtive glances of suppressed guilt, of complicity in something which should rightly and long since have been overthrown.

  7. 37
    Jonny on 12 Mar 2014 #

    @30 Best Jagger/Richards credit since 1994 — their ’94 song Thru’ and Thru’ (which was used nicely on The Sopranos) is actually really good. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jbgPHAQVbk Bit slow, but I’m not sure BS is definitely better.

    (And Richards has actually done some surprisingly good work on Tom Waits albums in 1985, ’92 and ’11 — though there’s only one co-writing credit.)

  8. 38
    thefatgit on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Wasn’t there a conspiracy theory about Farrakhan’s Nation Of Islam assassinating Biggie? Not that it has any bearing on anything, but it struck me when Marcello mentioned Malcolm X.

  9. 39
    James BC on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #36 How much of the song’s success are you attributing to Diana’s death? I think its six weeks at number 1 all came before that happened… or were there other deaths at the time that it resonated with?

    (Not sure I agree with you about blaming (or “not excusing”) Biggie and Tupac for their own deaths. A lot of people would say that rap culture at that time was a product of its environment, which they were victims rather than architects of.)

  10. 40
    DanH on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Didn’t have any use for this song then, or any use for anything by P Diddy. My main memory of this was being on a date and dismissing this song (don’t remember how the convo went there), only to find out she connected with that song after losing her dad. Yep, awkward.

  11. 41
    ciaran on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Not much to get excited from this one at all. This is like hip hop’s very own ‘The Living Years’.

    The fact that it was blaring from speakers far and wide for what seemed like an eternity doesn’t make an isolated listen now any more pleasant.

    Such is the ubiquity and familiarity of EBYT on both sides of the atlantic that any sample of it no matter how half-arsed it sounded was going to be a success.

    The worst thing about it was it just seemed like a vehicle for Combs to promote himself rather than pay tribute to his best friend. Agree fully with the comment made earlier about how lazy and cynical this record is. A 2 or a 3.

    One of the worst things about the song was Sting himself joining in with Combs on some awards show mixing EBYT with bits of IBMY. Perfect for him as his 90s solo career had lost a bit of steam.You wouldnt believe how many people would remark about how great a song EBYT was after this came out.

    Fortunately Combs dire ‘Come With Me’ didnt get to the top in 1998. Best discuss that though when we get to a chart topper the same year!

  12. 42
    Izzy on 12 Mar 2014 #

    I remember that Sting/Puffy collaboration. PD’s dancing during Sting’s bits hilarious as I recall – not hilariously bad or anything, just strange, like he was ice skating or something. In my mind he’s even in white tuxedo, tails & topper for full strange effect.

  13. 43
    Izzy on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Watched it again and it’s not that bad, Puffy adding a certain awkward grace, almost, to proceedings.

    An oddity of the video was his bike crash at the start, which wasn’t prompted by anything, just a little wobble while riding in a straight line. Contrast with similar kicking off Unbreak My Heart, which is scarcely graphic but was unambiguously a crash that was gonna hurt.

  14. 44
    23 Daves on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #6 I hadn’t thought of that one before, but “Busta Rhymes” was a source of similar amusement to a friend of mine, who felt his monicker sounded like the name of a blue working man’s club act. “Evening all, Buster Rhymes here! Whoops madam, PARDON!” And in a parallel universe this may even be true, with Jethro and Roy “Chubby” Brown being shot in some turf warfare.

    Other than that… Popular seems to be going through a run of number ones I really don’t care that much about one way or the other. This sounded incredibly lazy to me at the time, and still does, but the source material is bearable enough for me to find it tolerable. In fact, the absence of Sting does remove the song of a key irritant. As tributes go, though, it doesn’t feel as if it says enough – there’s barely a single word present about what Notorious BIG did, what made him unique, and most of the focus is on Puff Daddy’s grief. I’d forgive that by itself, but even when he finally does get on to talking about NBIG’s abilities, the “we” word comes into play – “seems like yesterday we used to rock the show”. If I’d been tasked with writing an eulogy for a friend at a funeral, I’d feel very awkward about taking the tack of solely talking about how wonderful we were as a team, not focussing on my friend’s own individual attributes and achievements at all.

    For my hip-hop loving friends, this was definitely a favoured track for a short while (if put to one side before the end of its long reign at the top) so it did reach into some of the audience. I always got the impression that they liked it because it felt like a key closing chapter in a specific story, rather than because they felt it was a fantastic record. If a record marks the death of somebody who was important to you in some way, I suppose you’ll overlook many of its flaws in order to pay your respects – and there will be more of that talk soon, I imagine.

  15. 45
    Mark M on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Re39: Obviously, the deaths are unsolved, and other people in hip-hop have been killed without connections to public beefs. But the Bad Boy-Death Row feud was loud, public and very dumb. And Tupac, raised in New York, Baltimore and the Bay Area, had no long-standing tribal allegiance to LA (he wasn’t repping for his hood) but he became Death Row’s biggest mouth.

  16. 46
    Tom on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #45 The argument isn’t just that people in hip-hop have been killed without connections to beefs, it’s also that public beefs, even if they are loud and very dumb (no argument there), should not be expected to lead to people getting killed. “Doing stupid stuff that might get you killed” shouldn’t be allowed to morph into “deserves to actually die” – I think it’s important to draw that line.

    (If I’m reading Punctum right, though, he’s saying that the participation of both men in turning the feud into a money machine can’t be posthumously excused, not that they can’t be excused for their own deaths.)

  17. 47
    flahr on 12 Mar 2014 #

    #9: two particular nadirs of this tendency from last year: “Play Hard” by David Guetta (which is nowhere near as good as “Better Off Alone”) and “Feel This Moment” by Pitbull (which is nowhere near as good as “Take On Me”).

    However, I seem to remember Devlin’s version of “All Along The Watchtower” being better than both originals, and Wretch 32’s “Unorthodox” was pretty good too, so there is hope for the budding big-sampler.

  18. 48
    hectorthebat on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Sample watch:

    Aside from the obvious, no mention of the “some bright morning…” being from “I’ll Fly Away” by The Humbard Family?

  19. 49
    Mark M on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Re46: Yes, sorry, obviously I should make clear that I absolutely don’t believe that either man ‘deserved to die’. Nor, as I said, do we know that there was necessarily any direct connection between the feud and their deaths. I just wanted to edge away from ‘well, this is what happens in hip hop’.

  20. 50
    Mark M on 12 Mar 2014 #

    Re various: There is an art to actually rapping over much of, or (it sometimes sounds like) the whole of an existing track – Ghostface Killah is the master of it.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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)

  26. 56
    punctum on 13 Mar 2014 #

    #46: well, exactly.

  27. 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!”

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

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