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No Way Out

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Gangsta rap is often depicted as the aural equivalent of action flicks, all bad attitude and gratuitous splatter, and aimed at thrill-seeking young men. That’s part of the reason rap bashers find the genre so pernicious; in their fevered fretting, it’s only too easy to imagine vicious verbiage translating into atrocious acts.

That’s silly, though. What draws many rap fans to gangsta isn’t its verbal violence so much as its sentimental streak. Cue up 2Pac’s ”Dear Mama,” Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s ”Tha Crossroads,” or Sean ”Puffy” Combs’ tear-stained tribute to the Notorious B.I.G., ”I’ll Be Missing You,” and you’ll hear just how softhearted hardcore rap can be.

But if you really want a sense of how gangsta rap has romanticized despair, sit down with Puff Daddy’s chart-topping smash No Way Out. Combs is at the heart of the gangsta rap controversy: Not only did he bring East Coast gangsta into being as producer of the Notorious B.I.G.’s seminal Ready to Die, but some believe the turf war between Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment and Marion ”Suge” Knight’s L.A.-based Death Row Records may have played a part in the violent deaths of Tupac Shakur and B.I.G. So it’s no wonder that Combs, not content merely to mourn his buddy B.I.G., finds himself pondering the meaning of death itself. The song titles say it all: ”No Way Out,” ”If I Should Die Tonight,” ”Is This the End?”

And you thought Billy Corgan had cornered the market on self-pity. Puff Daddy may never let his music get quite as whiny as Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins work, but that’s not to say he doesn’t play his death-obsessed ruminations for all they’re worth. No Way Out opens portentously, with Puffy offering a desperate prayer as a nameless choir intones a requiem, then proceeds from there. With ”If I Should Die Tonight,” the maudlin mogul wonders if death wouldn’t be ”a release from all the pressures and negativity,” while ”Pain” even finds him entertaining thoughts of suicide. By the time he gets to the relentlessly percolating ”Is This the End?” Puff Daddy paints himself as a jittery recluse, wondering if each moment will be his last.

Still, all that death-addled dread would be a tad easier to take had Puffy played down the album’s gunslinging violence. But Combs and his crew insist on having their cake and destroying it, too, and so charge ahead without considering the obvious contradictions within their shoot-first, mourn-your-friends-later attitude. There are even a few tracks, like ”Young G’s” and ”Victory,” that find B.I.G. himself extolling the virtues of violence with unwitting irony.

Why would Puff Daddy continue to talk tough even as he laments what this culture of violence has wrought? Partly because it makes for much better musical drama. The blunt brutality of the dog-eat-dog rap in ”What You Gonna Do?” makes a striking contrast to its lush, ’70s-style backing track, while the shoot-’em-up ”Victory” pulls tension and momentum from a dark, dramatic loop built around an orchestral fragment from (of all things) Bill Conti’s Rocky score.

”Victory” is more imaginative than many of the tracks here, though. Some, like ”I Got the Power” or ”It’s All About the Benjamins,” are lean but functional, pulling maximum impact from simple, bass-heavy loops. But others are shamelessly derivative, with the platinum-selling single ”Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” coming on like a karaoke version of the Grandmaster Flash classic ”The Message.” Likewise, ”I’ll Be Missing You” badly rewrites the Police’s ”Every Breath You Take,” while ”Don’t Stop What You’re Doing” is just the Yarbrough & Peoples oldie ”Don’t Stop the Music” with a sex rap attached.

Clearly, originality is not Puff Daddy’s strong suit. But it’s hard to be original when you’re devoting so much energy to self-dramatizing despair. That Puffy would picture himself as a sort of hip-hop Hamlet is, in itself, not so terrible; at least we were spared ”Alas, poor Biggie. I knew him well.” But like the Danish prince, he may find that all this dour deliberation keeps him from seeing the truth — that something’s rotten, and it sure ain’t in Denmark. C+