“I’m shutting down the studio!”
It’s officially the end of an era in hip-hop, as Sean Combs has announced that he is closing Bad Boy Records after twenty years (the label’s first release was Craig Mack’s Project: Funk Da World in 1994.) The label was, for a time, a cultural touchstone. In the mid to late ’90s, its reign was unstoppable, spawning Platinum records from The Notorious B.I.G., Ma$e, 112, Faith Evans, and Combs himself (as Puff Daddy, and later P. Diddy or just Diddy.) The hits more or less dried up a decade or so ago, as Bad Boy went through several distribution deals and started pimping out reality-TV product from Danity Kane, Day 26 and Da Band (Dy-lon, Dy-lon, Dy-lon!), and the label is going out with a whimper as opposed to a bang.
(There may be a reprieve! A rep for Combs says that Bad Boy is, in fact, not shutting down. Yay??)
At any rate, in celebration of Bad Boy’s run in the sun, here are the five best albums (IMHO) Bad Boy ever put out. Be warned that the quality drops off hard really quickly.
Honorable mention: New Edition One Love
In the summer of 2003, I saw New Edition at the Beacon Theater in New York. Among the celebrities attending the show were Mike Tyson and Sean Combs. The crowd was electrified, and New Edition themselves were tighter than spandex. This show allegedly set the wheels in motion for Combs to sign Ronnie, Ricky, Mike, Ralph and Johnny to Bad Boy Records, who released One Love in the fall of 2004. Although the album debuted in the top ten, it stalled out around 400,000 copies or so sold, and there was only one single released from it. N.E. apparently had some issues with the album, and while One Love is not the equal of Home Again or the masterful Heart Break, it’s certainly not a bad record. Some of the issues lie with the in-house Bad Boy production team. Not only was it a different team than the one Bad Boy rode to glory in the mid-Nineties, but their writing sensibilities were geared towards a younger audience. New Edition was not B2K. New Edition would’ve eaten up B2K for lunch and spit Omarion’s braids out. They shouldn’t have gotten songs geared towards that audience. Nevertheless, “Re-write The Memories” and “Newness” (both written and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis) are among the 10 or 15 best N.E. songs of all time.
Now, the top five…
5. Faith Evans Faith
Puff’s first major successes were with Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, so it’s no surprise that he would try to replicate their successes (to an extent) with Faith Evans and 112. Faith’s debut album was certainly influenced (strongly) by Mary’s My Life. After all, the two boasted similar writing/production teams, and Faith herself provided some writing work (and background vox) to Mary’s magnum opus. Mary returned the favor with a slow-burning cover of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” (which was taken off the album for a while only to reappear a few years later.) Although Faith does get a little dreary in spots, the mixture of smooth vocals with hip-hop breakbeats was still fresh, and Faith remains to this day a masterful arranger (who far too often records material beneath her voice.) “Come Over” might be my favorite song on the album, but opening track “Fallin’ In Love” is top notch, as are the two hit singles “You Used To Love Me” and “Soon As I Get Home.”
4. Puff Daddy & The Family No Way Out
Suge Knight was right at that infamous Source Awards ceremony. Puff was obviously trying as hard to establish himself as he was the artists he managed/produced. This became obvious as 1996 wore on and the news came that Puff himself was working on an album. No Way Out was a Grammy-winning monster hit for a couple of reasons: 1) no matter how you want to frame it, Puffy capitalized in a major way after the murder of his greatest talent. I remember Janet Jackson questioning his motives (and the level of actual grief that he was feeling) in an interview around the time Puff was omnipresent, and she was spot-on. 2) The level of talent Puffy assembled was pretty stunning: No Way Out reads like a who’s-who of ’90s R&B and rap: aside from his Bad Boy roster, there was Jay-Z, Foxy Brown, Lil Kim (who, remember, was not a Bad Boy artist,) Ginuwine, Busta Rhymes, Twista, and many more. 3) The production was ridiculous. No, I don’t condone obvious sample jacking, and there’s plenty of that here, but you can’t deny that songs like “Been Around The World” make you smile and dance around like an idiot. Plus, even the tunes that weren’t as pop-friendly (“Victory”, “Young G’s”) are still bangers.
Plus, “It’s All About The Benjamins.” Mic drop. I’m gone.
3. 112 112
There’s only a short list of titles to choose from when considering Bad Boy’s best R&B album. There’s the first three Faith albums, Carl Thomas’ first two albums (both good, not great,) the aforementioned New Edition album, Janelle Monae’s two albums (which don’t even feel like Bad Boy albums and are thus disqualified in my mind,) Cassie’s album (you’re kidding me, right?) and the first few albums released by R&B quartet 112. Oh shit, there’s also Danity Kane and Day 26, but, as with Cassie, let’s not even go there.
Back to 112. Armed with dual vocalists Daron Jones (the whiny one) and Quinnes Parker (the one who occasionally sounds like Michael McDonald,) the Atlanta natives auditioned for…and were signed to Bad Boy after an audition in front of the club that the group took its name from. Much like Dru Hill (who came out around the same time,) 112 were a self-contained writing and producing unit, and their debut album, while not faultless, is damn solid (hell, it’s the only album from them I still own, which says something.) The interplay between the two vocals (not unlike the contrast between brothers K-Ci and JoJo Hailey in Jodeci) was solid, and heavy hitters like Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris and Al B. Sure! added to the mix. Midtempo club bangers like “Come See Me” and “Only You” were good, but the money was with the ballads: “Now That We’re Done,” “Just A Little While,” the smash hit “Cupid” (promptly ripped off by ‘NSync for “God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You”) and the romantic “This Is Your Day.”
2. The Notorious B.I.G. Ready To Die
COME ON. How could you not possibly think that Brooklyn’s Finest wouldn’t nail down the top two spots here? Biggie’s albums are light years ahead of everything else that was ever released on Bad Boy, and if not for him, it can be argued that the label would’ve been a flash in the pan. I flip-flopped Ready To Die and Life After Death a few times on this list, and in the end decided to go with his 1994 debut as the runner-up. Even without its historical significance as the last great album of hip-hop’s golden age, Ready To Die is a classic. One of the most unbelievable (pun intended) storytellers in music history (disregard genre) is matched with production that mixes radio-friendly with straight gutter. East Coast intermingles with West Coast. The lyrics of someone who was quite obviously a bookworm and an “A” English student mixed with a cat out on the street causing trouble and hustling. Biggie and I came up around the same time just a couple of neighborhoods away from one another. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was one of the geeks he robbed on the train. Hometown pride has nothing to do with why I like this album, though (please, there are a ton of rappers from Brooklyn that I either dislike or ignore.) The reason I like this album as much as I do is because it’s good. PERIOD.
1. The Notorious B.I.G. Life After Death
Life After Death is Ready To Die on steroids. While the 2 1/2 years between the album brought Biggie his first taste of success-there was more than enough drama to fuel the fire. Marriage issues, criminal accusations, and plenty of rap beef that spilled into real-life beef and changed the rap game forever. Biggie took all of that and poured it into two CDs of genius-rap’s only great double album. A cast of many was brought in to serve as foils for biggie-he and Jay-Z breezily trade verses on “I Love The Dough,” Lil Kim joins in for the sleazy battle of the sexes “Another,” and RZA’s production is a perfect fit for the paranoid “Long Kiss Goodnight.” Yes, there’s filler. “Miss You” and “Sky’s The Limit” are both extremely drippy, with the former damn near unlistenable. “Nasty Boy” and “The World Is Filled…” are also both pretty damn week. But we’re still looking at a pretty high slugging percentage. The fact that B.I.G. was murdered a month before Life After Death’s release really has no bearing on how good the album is. It would have been a classic regardless.