20 Albums 20 Years Later

Tragedy Transformed Hip-Hop, And Puff Daddy Led The Charge To A New Era For The Genre That Still Resonates Today

Puff Daddy and the Family's "No Way Out" turns 20 this year.

20 Albums 20 Years Later remembers and explores the music that touched us back then and still resonates today. Join A Plus as we take another listen to albums released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions not only to the charts but to our lives.

Sean Combs — aka P.Diddy, or Diddy, but definitely Puff Daddy back in 1997 — was one of music's most powerful acts during that calendar year. How powerful you ask? Well, between mid-March and early October, only one song topped the Billboard Hot 100 that didn't have his fingerprints on it. That would be Hanson's "MMMBop." But the rest —  the Mase-featuring "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," which paved the way for Puff's ad-libbed mumbles on Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize," who would get tributed by Combs on "I'll Be Missing You," before the pair and Mase topped the charts with "Mo Money Mo Problems," ahead of the summer closing out to the co-written/co-produced jam that was Mariah Carey's "Honey" — collectively guaranteed he was the biggest influence on the soundtrack of your youth that summer.

Having had a heavy hand in guiding R&B and hip-hop to converge in the early '90s via Mary J. Blige, his debut set — technically attributed to Puff Daddy and the Family and titled No Way Out — did more of the same, only this time, he was at the center of the blending of genres by infusing hip-hop with "hits from the '80s," materialism and bling, and adding enough "jiggy" that even Will Smith was (theoretically) envious. Combs and associates did much to make hip-hop palatable to the mainstream and crafted one of the genre's most hit-filled albums.

“Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down”

Rarely does it hurt to sample Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," which, when slowed down here and accented with a few technological advances in sound, pairs perfectly with the newly introduced flow of Puff's protégé, Mase. The "rise up" hip-hop anthem borrowed a bit of Matthew Wilder's "Break My Stride" to create a certified jam that was prescient of things to come: "Now with Sean on the hot track / Melt like it's hot wax / Put it out, all the stores / Bet you could shop that." Nearly similar in message and in sound was "Don't Stop What You're Doing," which features Lil Kim, and beat-borrows from Yarbough & Peoples' "Don't Stop the Music" and Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Done Nothin'," which again demonstrates Puff's ability to flip and fuse melodies.

“I’ll Be Missing You”

A bit of a heartbreak, Combs teamed up with the Notorious B.I.G.'s widow Faith Evans and R&B group 112 to pay homage to the late rapper, who was gunned down in a Los Angeles shooting in March 1997. The tune got slack from The Police guitarist Andy Summers, who apparently asked "What the fuck is this shit?" when he heard the song for the first time in 1997, noting how Combs had built his tune off the famous riff from the band's "Every Breath You Take." However, another member of The Police would co-sign Diddy's use of the track. That would be Sting, who famously joined him on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards to perform a mash-up of the two songs.

"I'll Be Missing You" would be complemented on No Way Out by "Pain," a tune in which Combs seems to reflect on the hardships he and others faced in life, though his approach to life-ending matters is perhaps less poetic — and less thought out — than some of Biggie Smalls' earlier work, both of which can be considered a blessing.

“It’s All About the Benjamins” (Remix)

The remix to "It's All About the Benjamins" deviated a bit from the pop-friendly singles that preceded it, packing hard-core, East Coast grit, and featuring guest verses from Styles P, Jadakiss, and Sheek Louch — collectively known as The Lox — and Lil Kim, along with a posthumous appearance by Biggie. "Benjamins" would go on to become one of Combs' signature songs, catering to the sensibilities of all the emcees and hip-hop heads looking for grimier output among the songs released to radio. It's a sound that would replicate itself on the Biggie and Busta Rhymes-featuring "Victory," though "Benjamins" still excites crowds when it gets thrown on at parties.

“Been Around the World”

Though fans were drawn in by the mixture of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" and Lisa Stansfield's "All Around the World," the mini film of a music video featured a pop culture milestone. Not just guest appearances from Vivica A. Fox, Wyclef Jean, Quincy Jones, and the Magically Reappearing Mase, but also Jennifer Lopez — hot off her performance in Selena, and a few years shy of her and Combs becoming Hollywood and music's "it" couple. The heat can most definitely be felt as the two demonstrate some intricate dance steps near the latter quarter of video, showcasing the obvious talent and chemistry between them. Sadly there'd be no repeat of this pairing in a music video for "Señorita," the closest thing to a ballad No Way Out would contain, though "Is This the End?" revisited New Edition's take faithfully with its chorus crooned by Carl Thomas and Ginuwine.

No Way Out would serve as a seven-times platinum opus for Combs and his label, Bad Boy Records. With Biggie's death — following months after that of Tupac Shakur — the East Coast-versus-West Coast feuds had all but ended, clearing the lane for Puff Daddy to drive forward and steer hip-hop toward the mainstream. No Way Out was also propelled by the success of the Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death album and would be followed up by Mase's Harlem World, all three together interchangeably dominating the charts and defining the sound on the radio for well over a year. The nearly wall-to-wall presence of Bad Boy Records is one of the longest in hip-hop, raising Puffy's prominence and elevating him to one of the most important figures in the genre — and in music and pop culture.

In telling Rolling Stone in 1997 what his highlight was that year, Combs answered, "Just reading Billboard — seeing how many weeks I've dominated the No. 1 slot for rap, for pop, for R&B, and seeing the records I broke. I wake up every morning and I feel blessed." But his closing commentary is the most touching and perhaps the most relatable, even if accounting for all the times his voice was heard throughout the year and how influential he would go on to become. "Statistically, this was one of the best years of my life, but personally, it was one of the worst. I would rather not have this. I would do anything — I would turn the hits into negative hits if I could just be with Biggie again."

No Way Out is available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and Spotify.

Cover image: Bad Boy Records

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