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."
But hands down, the best new Bad Boy release is Total's Kima, Keisha, and Pam, though maybe because the bulk of it is conceived by r&b's other big dreamer, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott. (And a genuine big-up to Missy for doing so many sides for a group outside of her camp.) Like fashion magazines where scantily clad women traipse alone and unscathed through exotic locales, Kima, Keisha, and Pam paints a mouth-watering, female-centered fantasy world of sexual indulgence and erotic possibility. It's the kind of world where you can fuck your best friend's man and justify it with "I know I'm wrong but I can't help it." And it's the kind of world where you can boldly say to someone else's man, if your girlfriend don't like it, "tell her she can come participate."
Overt homoeroticism has always been part of Total's appeal, with their videos often featuring Pam, the deep-voiced dark chocolate butch, slapping the ass of Keisha, the big-legged, honey-dipped femme. Total speak to a sexual fluidity that exists even within hip hoplike how all those brothas get down-low booty when they're locked down and how Queen Pen rhymes about ballin' girls on her album, then the next thing you hear she's fuckin' one of them fine Next niggas. Total also add a refreshing perspective to hip hop's seminal gender battle. When they sing "There Will Be No #!@ Tonight," it's not like Foxy Brown rapping "If we skip Prada/You get nada," a power play that still places the woman as the object of a game. Total hold out to heat you up, not cut you off.
Though producer Heavy D. crafts an infectious Prince-like funk thump on "The Most Beautiful," most of the album's musical kudos go to Missy, whose tracks are as sex-drenched as Total's vocals. On "Do Something," the start and stop, sputter, and steady drums trace the course of desire from slow pursuit to fervid sex to afterglow, while "Trippin'," the Missy-produced first single, teasingly pulls you crossways with frantic mad scientist trills against the slow descent of a synth bass. But since Puff is not about to gamble the success of this whole project on these radio-risky jams, the album is literally anchored for success by the last cut, "I Don't Wanna Smile," a Diane Warrenpenned, MTV Jams Countdown ready-made that's bearable mostly because it allowsas Missy raps"those Total bitches" to be such bad asses on the rest of the album.
Whether any of these new releases will finally give Puffy the dream weaver respect he deserves is doubtful. Nor is he likely to get a respectability payoff with new artists like Jerome, whose youthful charms fail to impress me any more than that older honey he's jockin' on Hits's "Too Old for Me," or Shyne, whose sounds-like-Biggie prerelease hype is dangerously reaching Canibus-like proportions. Since, like pornography, Puff plays to our most crass, materialistic, and selfish desires, he'll probably never get his due. But at least he'll be the most paid martyr in hip hop.