"Maybe I dance this hard because grief is a country my family is always fleeing."
“Who wants this chain? Who wants this? I don’t give a fuck.”
Puff Daddy is leaning forward over the front of the stage at Brooklyn's Barclays Center, a choir of outstretched hands reaching for the sky and grabbing at the air close to his feet. Less than 10 minutes into his opening performance at the first night of the Bad Boy Family Reunion, Puff has already been relieved of the massive gold chain that was hanging from his neck. It shook itself free in the middle of a vigorous dance routine set to his 2015 song “Finna Get Loose,” one that included vintage Puff Daddy dance moves backed by a group of teenagers in all black. As the moment came to a close, Puff noticed the chain near its falling point, still somehow hanging to his shirt, a child not willing to leave the arms of its father. He snatched it off, held it in his outstretched hand, and threw it into the crowd. A sacrifice, falling almost in slow motion to the pit below.
The atmosphere outside of the arena a couple of hours earlier felt like a late-’90s block party. At least, a party where the main objective is standing in one line in order to stand in another line. A man walking around with three balloons shaped like the letters “B,” “I,” and “G” shoved them into the willing arms of anyone who would have them, took pictures, gathered the balloons back from the strangers, and walked on to another group. Cars rolling down Flatbush blared a wide range of classic Bad Boy hits, a bounty of slick samples and slicker rhymes, shepherding us into the embrace of the Barclays Center, tonight a safe haven to celebrate a time long passed.
The thing about nostalgia is that, for many of us, it acts as a mostly finished puzzle. All of the remaining pieces needed can be selected from the best parts of our memory, and they always fit right where we think they should. I can think of the spring of 1997 and not first remember the Saturday morning in March where I woke before everyone in my house and watched the breaking news flash across the television: another dead rapper, another car with a pattern of bullets dressing its side. I can think of the summer of that same year and not think of how I first learned to understand death as something beyond the news, something that moves out of the television and hovers above a home, or a whole neighborhood of slowly emptying rooms. Instead, I can think first of Bad Boy’s impossible run of sample-drenched radio rap, with Puff Daddy himself leading the charge — how it pushed its back against the levees and did not let the sadness through for a few months when so many of us needed it at a block party, or a cookout, or in the club, or in the otherwise silence of a hot room where no one else could see you dancing to 112 or Total or Ma$e or the voice of Biggie Smalls, carried down from the clouds. This is what I imagine carried so many of us to Barclays to watch older, changed versions of artists we once loved, bouncing around a stage nearly 20 years after we were once so drawn to them. The sound of the music itself gave us small pieces of a puzzle to throw where we please. It let us remember a time when we were sad and needed something and found the Bad Boy sound.
This is perhaps a generous reading of someone who is as rich and powerful as Puff Daddy is, but I have always appreciated what appears to be his ability to sacrifice himself for the sake of the music. No Way Out, released in July of 1997, was a massive undertaking of an album for someone who, by almost every critical evaluation, cannot rap. No Way Out didn’t try to fill the space left by the Notorious B.I.G., and, despite its melancholy tone, it didn’t sit in the explicit sadness of an endless funeral. It celebrated in the best way possible: with hits. Puff danced and rapped his way through 17 tracks, some of them feeling like an endless party. Rap music in the summer will always mean something to many of us. The summer is for rolled-down windows, pushed-back sunroofs, cars pulled onto basketball courts with open doors, trunks with massive speakers weighing down a car’s rear end and rattling a whole block’s windows. Even the most street of street dudes in my neighborhood reveled in Puff Daddy; even the ones who gritted their teeth at “shiny suit rap” tapped their feet when “Mo Money Mo Problems” spilled from a passing car. We all knew what Puff Daddy has always known. It's the same thing that is known when black people dance on caskets in New Orleans, or when dance parties sprout up in the streets hours after a funeral: There is so little black pain without black celebration to push back against — to hold us up, or to help us stand tall in the face of a world that thinks we will shrink at whatever it has chosen to throw at us. Puff Daddy, more than music, was a producer of moments, ones that we could enter and reenter, even today.
There are plenty of moments during Bad Boy’s family reunion at Barclays. There is Faith Evans, singing as perfect as always while Puff Daddy collapses at her feet, feigning shock. There is Usher, flying up from under the stage and standing perfectly still with a hat over his eyes inside a cloud of smoke for several seconds while the audience tries to piece together who he might be, before extending his right arm and letting his signature “U” chain hang from his hand while the audience explodes in rapturous applause. There is Jay Z, doing “Public Service Announcement” in the house he helped build. There is Nas, rapping his verse in “Hate Me Now” wearing a mink coat a half-mile long, being trailed by two people holding it up. There is Mary J. Blige, dancing like your beloved auntie at a cookout, dancing like can’t nobody tell her nothing because nobody can, dancing like I did back in 1997 in one of those rooms where no one could see me. There is Ma$e rapping through “Been Around the World” with Puff, the once unstoppable duo back on stage again. There are Lil' Kim and Puff, awkwardly but endearingly getting through 1996’s “No Time.” There are Busta Rhymes and Spliff Star. There is Rick Ross with an arm around French Montana. There are the LOX, Total, 112, Carl Thomas, Mario Winans, everyone just as perfect as we left them in our fondest memories.
As the clock speeds past midnight and we sit, or stand, firmly in Saturday’s infant hours, the first hours of what would have been the Notorious B.I.G.’s 44th birthday, Puff Daddy begins pacing the stage like a preacher. He talks about his brief time as an employee at Uptown Records in the early 1990s: “I had no idea what I was doing. I was walking around the offices with my shirt off, cussing out white people.” He talks about the people who arrived to believe in him, time and time again. And just as he gets as worked up as one can get at 12:30 a.m. after performing for nearly three hours, the music begins again. The iconic Diana Ross sample kicks up followed by the voice of B.I.G. delivering his “Mo Money Mo Problems” verse, the second time we’ve heard it tonight. It is one of many B.I.G. verses that tons of people know all of the words to, but no others are as exciting, as gleefully interactive as this one. I have rapped this verse in its entirety for years in the backseats of cars, in diners, in schools, and on sidewalks. It is the kind of verse that exits the body as it is rapped, then crawls its way back in upon the finish, waiting until the next needed moment. It is the B.I.G. verse that will never die, even after the generation that loved it most is cast away. No one around me appeared to have on a Rolex watch and yet, as always, when we hear B.I.G. say the iconic line, “Where the true players at? / Throw your Rollies in the sky / Wave ’em side to side and keep your hands high,” there we were. All of us, throwing our wrists from one side to another, even if they were dressed in nothing but our naked skin. Nothing speaks to the night more than this: a touchable entry point for all of us, as simple as hands raised in unison, waving to some words that we’ll never forget.
Grief is a country that we are all eager for a map out of. It gnaws at you with various levels of ferocity, yet it gnaws nonetheless. Once you have placed your fingers around the casket of someone you loved and carried it, once you have looked plainly into the depths of loss, it does not undo itself from your body, regardless of how hard you may try to dance it away. Like Puff Daddy’s gold, grief clings to its owner. But with enough people tethered to each other, dancing at once, the swelling of happiness can overwhelm all else. And so at the end, when it was all over, Bad Boy’s entire roster of performers stood on the stage, hugging each other while Puff danced softly and a gospel choir sang “I’ll Be Missing You.” As the final chorus rose, balloons and confetti rained down from the sky, and we playfully batted them at strangers and laughed with each other. This was the good kind of laughter, the type that comes when you are young enough to know so little of pain that everything feels like a type of magic. I escaped during a standing ovation to beat the crowd, walked out into the Brooklyn air, and felt lighter. I felt as if I had torn an impossible weight from my neck and cast it into a crowd of eager ghosts.