Great moments in post-modernism, pt. 1 (More Money, More Problems)

I came across this old nugget while doing research for my forthcoming comprehensive appreciation of Missy Elliot’s work. This track, credited to Notorious B.I.G. (his second posthumous #1 hit single, an all-time record), is really a Puffy vehicle, and one of the strangest bits of art to make it onto MTV in the 90s. We open with a parody of a climactic moment of a golf tournament, Puffy playing a Tiger Woods character, cut to a “conventional” rap video, back to a bit of golf footage, back to rap video, then to some home-video of Biggy rambling, then cut to more rap video footage, now with a primo verse of posthumous Biggy spliced in from some abandoned track* (this is far and away the highlight of the whole thing), and then back to the previously scheduled song. The hook is lifted from a Diana Ross track (re-recorded), but what holds the track together is the line “more money, more problems,” repeated in the golf skit and in Biggy’s candid monologue.

When I saw this video in 1997 I loved it immediately, and for two reasons. One was the (* not so conventional, really) completely new vision of a bright shiny approach to hip-hop. Credit for this of course goes to Hype Williams, who directed the video, and who’d certainly directed equally eye-popping videos before. This one, though, sunk into my consciousness as much as (and just before) Missy’s I can’t Stand the Rain. The 90’s were a desolate time for rap, where the gangsta (sp?) ruled, and it was all about pictures of yourself and your crew in baggy denim and Timberlands in a bleak urban landscape, and all about your flow. It seems quaint now, but the idea that rap could be Glam again (like it had been in in the mid 80s) struck like a hammer. So did Mase’s lackadaisical flow, which seemed like a challenge to the silver-tongued MC’s of the day (e.g. DMX, who you may not remember being that fierce, but really, he kind of was) that ruled in those days, and of course Puff Daddy’s rapping was that much closer to a joke from a conventional perspective — dude got over purely on personality, and plus being the dude who’s business acumen built the building in which the party was taking place.

But much more then that, what hit home was the song’s frank discourse with reality. The toss-off line “more money more problems,” which the posthumous Biggie attributes to Puffy (who’s really creating the song, follow?), seems to accuse the whole post-barter system of human trade of being a way of keeping the little guy (ie the black man) down. Success = problems, or so it sounded to me at the time. I don’t think anyone cared at the time whether this very real critique held any merit — what was so powerful was that it sounded true, and that it helped break the mold of a pop-song, propelled it into something that looked like a particularly biting form of social commentary.

This really strikes home in the middle of Biggy’s verse, when we’re treated to a brief shot of a party with several dozen women dancing, while the song tries to to sell the idea that its grandiose concept is based on a seed in B.I.G.‘s words. Of course, this leads us to an inevitable conclusion: that Biggie’s death was somehow the result of his success. More money leads to more problems, most money leads to getting gunned down by a never-to-be-identified assailant. That is some strong medicine, and in terms of the alleged exploitation of the Notorious B.I.G.‘s death for commercial gain, challenges even the sappy ballad I’ll be Missing You.

So there it is: a weird/powerful truism about social politics delivered in a catchy, post-modern package that uses parody, found video, and cutting-edge video techniques (and let’s not sell Hype Williams short for a second — check out the shots of Puffy and Mase in the yellow suits — I mean, what the hell is that?!), all montaged together with an off-handed mastery (check out how some of the transitions are deliberately not on-beat) to create something that felt so like the future that it could never really be the future. Just like all videos for pop singles, it was dug, and it was forgotten. And so it goes. Somewhere out there there is a list of videos that really truly did something new, and this one belongs on that list.

Correction: While the single and the album it appears on were released after Biggie’s death, the song was almost certainly created while he was still alive, with everything as it appears except the 2-part golf skit.

9 thoughts on “Great moments in post-modernism, pt. 1 (More Money, More Problems)

  1. Blast from the past. It’s a post-modern heir to those Thriller-era superproduced Michael Jackson videos (before Usher and Kanye ran with the concept). Not in love with the oversuse of the fisheye. Yes, Biggie’s part is the most powerful of the song. I always thought his “run with lame dudes too much” was really directed at Puffy.

  2. Re fish eye, two things. 1, I think the fisheye thing, Hype Williams’ trademark, really was sort of new at this time. You had this song, you had Da Rain, and it really took off after that and became cliche. 2, If you look at the shots in the video, a lot of them actually use rectilinear lenses. The problem seems to have happened in the editing room, when the shot of Puff and Mase in the red suits, one of the lamer setups, got way too much play.

  3. Great, if but for one thing: while it seems like it was patched together posthumously, the song in this form was already on the Life After Death album before Biggie died.

  4. wow, you’re right! The album was released a few weeks after Biggie’s death, but obviously created while he was alive. In some way that makes it even more impressive… it’s a really odd way to create a song. Thanks for the catch — I appended a correction.

    Also: I’m pretty exited about getting a link on Fimoculous.

  5. It reminds me of the Backstreet Boys’ videos. It looks to me like that teeny bopper pop hijacked the style, and perhaps that is why it could never be the future. It wasn’t the future for rap but rather for a teeny bopper pop that itself was fleeting. And here’s that video:

  6. Just followed the link from Kottke. I think your analysis is spot on. I forgot about this video and it is really interesting to look back and reflect.

  7. very nice analysis. personally, i’ve always preferred “hypnotize” – the video for that is straight bond pastiche and isn’t as interesting as you show “more money…” to be, but after your post inspired me to simply think of it, not even listen to it, i know the hook is going to be in my head for at least the rest of the day.

  8. Justin~

    First, sorry for stealing your blog name. To your point, I agree that hypnotize had a pretty great video. The hook is from Slick Rick’s Lodi Dodi, but what I found weird Biggy using it is that it had been used a few years earlier on Snoop Dogg’s version of Lodi Dodi from his first album, which was a huge success, and so even casual rap fans would have found it familiar (which I was and I did).

    Needless I think to say is that one of the things that makes Mo Money Mo Problems (yes, I got the title wrong) interesting for a Biggy song is how little Biggy is on it.

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