When you think about the greatest creation of a man whose legacy is not just impacting culture, but literally creating chunks of it, how can you pinpoint an answer? Just listen to Diddy at his best with No Way Out.
When No Way Out was released on July 1, 1997, we were going through a new renaissance in hip-hop. We were just months removed from losing two of the greatest artists music has ever known, Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., and there was still tension in the air. Both lost their lives in brutal, highly publicized, public assassinations. But the culture was starting to recover. Music was helping to get us through. Pac's posthumous Makaveli: The 7-Day Theory (released in 96) was still going strong and Biggie's Life After Death -- arguably the greatest hip-hop LP ever -- had taken over the world. Coming just days after Big's death on March 9, 1997, Life After Death had become a staple in the streets, the clubs and on the radio. With "Hypnotized," "Ten Crack Commandments," "Mo Money, Mo Problems" (the latter officially released as a single on July 15, 1997), Biggie was physically gone but his presence loomed larger than ever. Wu-Tang had just dropped a phenomenal double LP called Forever in June of 1997, and a couple of weeks later Capone-N-Noreaga came with the classic War Report. Nas, Busta Rhymes, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Mobb Deep, Snoop Dogg, Redman all had heralded projects out as well. Hip-Hop was not dying as some outside the culture predicted. The artists and fans rallied around each other and the music was thriving.
Still, Puff Daddy and the Bad Boy legacy were at a pivotal place. Their greatest artist was gone and if No Way Out failed, who's to say that it would have been an interest for some of the younger artists on the label to come out subsequently. Luckily we'll never know.
First of all, Puff wasn't an MC; he was a maestro. Biggie himself told the world that Puff was working on an album way back when Fab Five Freddy and the "Yo! MTV Raps" cameras first busted into the Bad Boy offices in 1994. Nobody really took Puff serious back then, though. Especially with Craig Mack's "Flava In Your Ear" and Biggie's "Juicy" and "Unbelievable " out.
As we all know, Bad Boys move in silence and Puffy kept his project under wraps until around the top of 1997, when he released the first single for an album called Hell Up In Harlem. The record "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," was fly, inspirational, and made you jump on that dance floor. Sure, Ice Cube had flipped that same Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five sample for "The Message" for "Check Yo Self" just a few years prior. But when Puff, Mase, and The Hitmen touched the beat, it was an entirely different beast. The flow was so laid back and conversational, the rhymes were luxurious. Puff and Mase sounded so great together, it seemed like destiny for them to be a group somewhere down the line. Plus the video felt like a motion picture: explosions, high fashion, exotic cars. They brought that lifestyle. In fact, everything about No Way Out felt enormous. Every video felt like it could have been released in theaters - they were Michael-Jackson-must-see.
When Biggie passed, "I'll Be Missing You" was a universally resonant farewell that made the world get teary-eyed. His performance with Sting and company at the 1997 MTV Music Awards remains a top ten highlight in the company's broadcast history. But right on the heels of the heartfelt smash, Puff dropped what can be arguably called not just the song of summer, not just the song of the year or decade: "All About The Benjamins" is arguably your the greatest hip-hip song of all time.
Ask yourself: what other song than "Benjamins" has gotten spun every night, in clubs across the world since it came out in 1997? You can still hear it during peak club hours to this day. The production is as pristine as a Steph Curry open three point shot. It sounds like an alarm to dance. And while the revelry is at a zenith musically on the record, the verses are filled with potent quotables of grandiose living and enthralling bravado by Puff, The LOX, and Biggie, while Lil Kim steals the show with sex appeal and ferocious charisma (she had us at "wanna rumble with the bee, huh?!").
With "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," "Missing You" and "Benjamins" all certified smash hits before No Way Out had even dropped, the album was a must have. Those records were just a taste of what more he had in store. The LP was a monumental send off for B.I.G., a megastar turning milestone for Puff, and a grand scale introduction of The LOX, Mase, and Black Rob, who would each become stars with albums on Bad Boy down the line.
"Victory" was intense! Biggie gave Puff two of his greatest verses (people used that line "Ty-son, Jor-Dan, Jack-Son.." so much over the years it's been put on tee-shirts) and Busta's growl on the chorus sounds so truculent, he could raise the dead. "I Love You Baby" is a masterful story where Black Rob gets Slick Rick-vivid on his narration; you can almost see him throwing bottles at his would-be assailants when his gun runs out of bullets.
Beside Reasonable Doubt's "Brooklyn Finest", "Young G's" is the best song with Biggie and JAY-Z on it. Jigga raps "I keep it ghetto like sunflower seeds and quarter waters" for Christ sake. JAY comes gangsta, drops jewels, get abstract, gets esoteric, and blunt on his bars. Meanwhile, Biggie drops his patterned water faucet flow, making the intricate sound effortless.
The rest, Puff put together the movie like Fredrico Fellini. He sewed together a cohesive masterpiece filled with samples from all genres of music that highlighted the decadent partying lifestyle ("Been Around The World"), and peeled back the layers to reveal the vulnerable, "trapped" feelings that caused Hell Up In Harlem to be re-titled No Way Out ("If I Should Die Tonight," "Pain," and "Do You Know").
No Way Out debuted number one on the Billboard charts and spent 28 weeks (albeit non-consecutively) at number one. The album went on to sell seven million copies won Best Rap Album at the Grammys in 1998 and spawned a historic tour that featured Busta, JAY-Z, The Firm and a teenaged Usher. It remains Diddy's best work.