By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
Appearing on half of Hits, B.I.G. is Puff's prototypical "Bad Boy," capable of being fearsome on "Warning" and flossin' on "Big Poppa." And, though much less gifted or compelling, so is Mase, who's equally convincing busting out of jail in the "24 Hours To Live" video and driving the Reptar wagon for Blackstreet's Rugrats theme video. As an artist, Puffy plays the "Bad Boy" as ever-desiring, all-consuming id, insatiable and unstoppable. Even when he's mourning, it's all about him.
Musically, it's long been acknowledged that Puff's chart-topping hip hop/r&b hybrid is just a stripped, slowed-down take on Teddy Riley's New Jack Swing. But five minutes dancing to one of Riley's fevered tracks and you've sweated out your perm and silk shirt. Sean Combs gave us music we could step, strut, and pose to, like the languid atmospheric bump of Faith's "You Used To Love Me" and the sexy throb of 112's "Only You (Bad Boy Remix)." When Puff later decided to kick the beat up, he turned to fellow believers in uplift through style Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards, most recently using "Chic Cheer" for Faith's new skate-jam "Love Like This."
Of course, the most popular way to slam Puffy is through his use of samples. Admittedly, and because of my age perhaps, all the '70s shit Puff sampled on Mary J. Blige's classic My Life struck me like hearing from a childhood friend, while his "hits from the '80s" often gag me with a spoon. Still, this whole sampling debate is getting slept-through-class stupid. Is it really a surprise that people with a stolen past would create and embrace a form of music built from fragments of the past, or have less distinctly Western notions of creativity and originality? A fairer criticism to aim at Sean Combs is that he takes the spotlight away from his artists. For well over a year every Bad Boy resource seemed devoted to Puffy's multiplatinum No Way Out.
Now, almost as a penance, Bad Boy releases sophomore albums by Faith Evans, 112, and Total all in the same month. While the albums differ in quality and theme, the covers all mark a notable image change, toned-down and designed to help them avoid the sophomore slump syndrome where newly blown-up artists lose touch with the daily realities of their core audience. The marked exception is on Faith's Keep the Faith when she sings, "I got three children to think about first/I've got so much to do/Little time to work." For most of us stiffs, taking care of our brood means going to work.
No traditional male fantasy sexpot, Faith has always seemed an unlikely product of the Bad Boy dream factory. But as her late husband Biggie's voice spoke to our playa fancies, Faith's airy yet strong soprano sounds like the dreams you believe in standing at the altar, committing yourself before God. That's why she's most fully in her element singing "I wanna give my heart, my soul, my love to you, oh baby" on Keep the Faith's Babyface cut "Never Gonna Let You Go." And whether you want to believe "My First Love" is about Biggie or not, Faith brings a knowing power to lines like "We never had the chance to make it get better/We never said goodbye." But though there's much great singing on Keep the Faith, there are too few great or even good songs. While the mostly self-penned tunes on her debut at least had a fluid quality befitting her dewy vocals, on Keep the Faith they just seem aimless. If you're not paying attention to every twist and turn of her spiraling melismas, the album passes by like a summer breeze, pleasant but neither distinctive nor memorable.
112's Room 112 is too often similarly unremarkable, with the Atlanta-based male quartet over-relying on their trademark milquetoast harmonies and lead vocalist Slim Scandrick's boyish whine. Oxymoronically dubbed "the Gentlemen of Bad Boy," 112 play like the love interest of a Terry McMillian novel: the sweet, sensitive Southern boy who softens the hardened heart of the urban 'round-the-way girl. But their homogenized drone can't sustain the fantasy: urban honey will soon get bored with 112 and be on Jerry Springer confessing her affair with DMX. That said, Room 112 does hold a few interesting surprises. "Stay With Me" reveals Shawn Colvin's "Sunny Came Home" to be as ripe a sampling source as Edie Brickell's "What I Am." Mike Keith's grainy vocal on "Whatcha Gonna Do" shows that he should sing lead a hell of a lot more often. And any song produced by group member Daron Jones proves that he is well on the road to becoming the next Babyface (who started in his own mediocre group, the Deele). Jones, who also produced B.I.G.'s sexy lampoon "#!*@ You Tonight" and the slow-burning crush of Kelly Price's new "Secret Love," helms peak album cuts like the funk-bounce ballad "Anywhere" and the earnest devotion ode "Love You Like I Did."