/  07.22.2022

Puff Daddy’s on the run. It’s dark and raining in Los Angeles. Behind him, an airplane cabinet explodes, fire storming through the cockpit windows, a ball of inferno clipping his heels. Overhead, four jet black helicopters blasting spotlights into a dark alleyway. On foot in pursuit is what looks like a six-man SWAT team unit, racing to apprehend him. Through the speakers, The Hitmen’s staccato snares and emergency alarm bells riot beneath The Notorious B.I.G.’s nasally baritone counting, “One. One two. Check me out right here, yo.”

Then there’s a shot of the downtown Los Angeles skyline, a couple of beats, then a cut to a close-up of Sean Combs towering in the downpour. He then delivers those monumental bars:

“Yo, the sun don’t shine forever. But as long as it’s here, then we might as well shine together. Better now than never. Business before pleasure. P. Diddy and the Fam(ily), who you know do it better?”

Diddy is running throughout the “Victory” video — really, the whole time he’s being chased. He’s being chased by dump trucks in narrow alleyways, by rollerbladers hanging onto the back of a motorcycle. He’s jumping over cars and dropping down manholes. Busta Rhymes is there, atop a perch busta rhymin’ in a luxurious black feathered coat. Diddy’s chased all the way until he’s cornered on a high-rise rooftop as the SWAT team closes in. Storm raining down on him like Seattle. He’s trapped. It’s life or death. There’s no way out.

The video is amazing for so many reasons. First, even now in 2022, it’s still the 10th most expensive music video ever made, clocking in at a cool $2.7 million to create at the time (which would be over $4.5 million today). It feels like the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Running Man or Jennifer Lawrence’s Hunger Games. It has the dramatic tension and release of a Broadway play or a Michael Jackson production. Danny DeVito and Dennis Hopper are even in it.

Second, the investment is understandable — expected even. Along with Busta Rhymes, the track features the late, great Biggie Smalls. Biggie and Diddy are family, and “Victory” is the last song Biggie ever recorded. Life After Death in every possible sense.

“Victory” is triumphant, powerfully produced, conquering, anthemic — all grandiose adjectives apply. It’s a raucous signal of the dawning of an explosive new age while simultaneously signifying the end of an era all too brief. The passing of not only Bad Boy’s biggest artist, but also hip hop’s most unifying gravitational force, looms large as the unfortunate backdrop to one of the most successful albums in rap music history. Puff Daddy & The Family’s No Way Out was released 25 years ago. It sold over seven million copies, spawned two Billboard number two hits, two number ones, and was released 135 days after the cataclysmic loss of the King Of New York.

Looking back at that timeline is wild in retrospect. “Can’t Hold Me Down” (featuring Ma$e), the first single from No Way Out, was released on January 3, 1997. It would rise to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Biggie’s “Hypnotize” arrived on March 1, 1997. It would also rise to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Wallace was murdered on March 9, 1997. His chart-topping sophomore double disc album Life After Death was released two weeks later on March 25 and would become the number one album in the nation posthumously. Puff Daddy’s tribute to Biggie, “I’ll Be Missing You” (featuring Faith Evans and 112), lands in late May and spends the next 11 weeks as the number one song in America. Then on July 22, 1997, No Way Out drops, selling 561,000 copies in its first week and also topping the charts.

In the first 200 days of 1997, Bad Boy notched three number one songs, two number one albums — all while weathering the loss of one irreplaceable rap titan. If there’s ever a curiosity as to what “can’t stop, won’t stop” means, just look back at that incredible seven-month run.

No Way Out Recording Sessions

As lore goes, Combs organized a two-month production camp at Sound Basin Studio in Maraval, Trinidad in early 1996 to escape the tension of the East Coast versus West Coast beef. He crafted a family-style working getaway so the Bad Boy family could focus on the mission ahead: ensuring the imprint dominated the charts over the following two years.

Production team The Hitmen (composed of Harve “Joe Hooker” Pierre, Jeffrey “J-Dub” Walker, Nashiem Myrick, Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, and Stevie Jordan, among others) were filing in and out of the studio, along with Puff Daddy and the rest of the mid-1990s Bad Boy luminaries. According to Axel Niehaus — who engineered the project along with Stephen Dent, Tony Maserati, and Michael Patterson — the bulk of No Way Out (as well as other projects) came from those recording sessions.

No Way Out wasn’t the original title, though. Neither was the moniker Puff Daddy & The Family. Originally, their name was intended to be Puff Daddy & The Goodfellas, an apt name for the mafioso kingpin energy of the era. The photoshoot for the album cover featured Diddy, Ma$e, Black Rob, and The Lox suited-out, standing in a tropical Miami driveway.

Several tracks across the project still include remnants of the initial title. You can hear it when Lil Kim brands herself “a Goodfella kind of lady” on “It’s All About The Benjamins” and when Ma$e smoothly delivers, “Goodfellas, you know you can’t touch us dudes” and “I’m a Goodfella fly guy, sometimes wise guy, spent time in H-A-W-A-I-I” on “Can’t Hold Me Down.” Jadakiss kicks a Goodfellas reference on the Jaz-O-produced “I Got The Power.” Puffy kicks another on “Young G’s” (featuring JAY-Z and The Notorious B.I.G.). A thematic crime family aesthetic is ingrained throughout the project.

Diddy also flirted with the album title Hell Up In Harlem. Traces can be found on “What You Gonna Do?,” which opens with “There’s a hell up in Harlem, fuck it, another day, another dollar”— a foreboding yet soulful narrative that finds Sean Combs barely evading a robbery. Spoiler alert: Bad Boy family member Lil Kim comes to the rescue.

But for all of the “Goodfellas” talk and mafia imagery included, from the album cover to the content, the moniker Puff Daddy & The Family and title No Way Out weren’t decided until after Biggie Smalls passed. Considering the surrounding circumstances of his death — gunned down in Los Angeles six months after Tupac Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas, with East Coast vs. West Coast rap tension at an all time high — softening the presentation not only makes sense in retrospect from a branding perspective, but also when considering the crippling emotions running within the Bad Boy family following the loss of Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace.

There’s a chilling scene about halfway through the documentary Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story. Sean Combs and Lil’ Cease are recounting the night of Biggie’s murder over a train of archival footage. Diddy describes the moment in painful detail, emoting everything that was at stake:

“As soon as them shots went off, I knew,” he says. “Even when I run to the car and I seen him, I knew … Everything came crashing down. The whole entire castle, empire, everything. The most tragic story ever. I died that night in that car with Big … Big was killed. They tried to kill me. My whole life was over.”

Maybe that’s why No Way Out feels so beautifully bi-polar 25 years later. For every anthem, every stadium-ready offering, there’s a corresponding moment imbued with extreme sadness and a fatalistic live-by-the-gun, die-by-the-gun aura. For every “Been Around The World,” there’s a “Pain” where Puff Daddy reflects on all of the losses he’s weathered in his life — from witnessing his father’s murder to witnessing the murder of his best friend, Biggie. All of the empowering exuberance of “Don’t Stop What You’re Doing” is mirrored by “Do You Know?” and its solemn depictions of a mogul on the brink of breaching his breaking point. The explosive celebration and chart-topping success of “Can’t Hold Me Down’’ is counterbalanced by “I’ll Be Missing You” — a powerful, pop psalm millions worldwide still lean on when reckoning with lost ones.

Michael Patterson, who engineered No Way Out, recalls the creation of “I’ll Be Missing You” in a 2007 conversation with BadBoyBlog.com. He explains how it took seven days to finalize the track, and how focused the entire Bad Boy family was in making sure that track came out absolutely perfect:

“I just remember we were in the studio late one night and Puffy came in and he was like, ‘Do me a favor. Can you go get The Police album Synchronicity?’ So, I walked to Times Square to get the album because he wanted to sample it and he said he had an idea. So, we looped the song into the MPC and then, I think it was Stevie J., came in and started to do his thing. And, by the end of the night, we had the track and that was pretty much all I worked on for seven straight days. But, you know, those seven days of working on it, everyone was just like — Puffy was focused, everyone was just focused because we knew this was the right thing to do. Like, it was something we were all working towards. It’s kind of amazing. I don’t know what to say other than that.”

Twenty-five years later, from mic to plug, No Way Out feels like a funeral and a family reunion built out of triumph and tragedy simultaneously. It’s one of the most successful albums in rap music history, selling seven million copies, spawning two Billboard number one hits, two number twos — despite being released four months after the shocking loss of Christopher Wallace. In a sense, it’s a marvel the album even materialized.

Here’s the thing about the end of the video for “Victory.” When Sean Combs is cornered on that high-rise rooftop as the SWAT team closes in, he doesn’t surrender to the apprehending forces. He doesn’t give up. He doesn’t quit. Instead, he takes a leap of faith and lunges backwards, falling into the abyss. He doesn’t die, though. No. Instead, the video cuts to him still racing through the alley below, still running for his life. Across the screen reads: “I’ll see you when I get there. Notorious B.I.G. Forever.”

But I like to think that the only reason Puff Daddy didn’t crash to his death or spiral out of control was because of the love and support of the people around him — the energies and entities he assembled as part of the Bad Boy family. That’s when footprints carry you … when there’s no way out.

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