Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, and 112 – “I’ll Be Missing You”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in June 1997
Let me begin with the good things about “I’ll Be Missing You,” the elegy to the slain Biggie Smalls. Faith Evans’ chorus vocal is nicely restrained. Too long accused of distracted or inept rapping, Sean Combs’ clumsiness is a prime example of the fallacy whereby weaknesses become strengths (for a while). The clippity-cloppity use of the Police sample has the gait of pallbearers entering a church; that too familiar Andy Summers guitar, decelerated and robbed of its quiet confidence, is turned by Puff into the equivalent of a funeral march. It reminds me, as most things do, of Rush Hour 2. Believing Chris Tucker is dead, Jackie Chan keeps his cool as “I’ll Be Missing You” blasts on the car radio. What’s fascinating is how Chan the actor knows the songs sucks but is moved anyway. At my eighth grade prom Kenny G’s “Songbird” sounded like Haydn. Awful but moving then — death is the masterful equalizer.
But the rest? “I’ll Be Missing You” is as well-intentioned and boring as a eulogy by the buddy who insists his slain bro was a great guy who did anything for you, etc. Puff’s mushmouthed, halting delivery loses its pathos after a verse; he has little to say and a meager talent for expressing it. “I’ll Be Missing You” uses its mournfulness as shield and moral force; the performers sounded blasted, enervated, so they surrender to the unrelenting pulse of the Sting hook, treating it like penitents immersing themselves for baptism. As another example of how extra-diagetic forces gave The Notorious BIG’s tribute its meager strength, look at the chart in 1997. With the exception of a three-week break for Hanson’s “MMMBop,” Puff and Biggie and Puff and Biggie-related Puff projects ruled the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for twenty-two weeks. Toss in the success of Ma$e’s “Feel So Good” and the funeral train kept a-chugging.
So did Puff Daddy, who christened himself Diddy and joined Diddy Dirty-Money with Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harper of Danity Kane. Last Train to Paris remains one of the 2010s best records: a glistening, sharp R&B and hip-hop revue. I can’t speculate on how he remembers the phase of his life when the death of best friend launched the superstar phase of his career.