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.