Victory (Nine Inch Nails Remix) (Featuring The Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes)
by Puff Daddy
album Victory (Remixes)
150 Favorite Songs: #73, “Victory,” Puff Daddy (feat. Notorious BIG and Busta Rhymes) (1998)
Man, do I love this song. Pretty much from the beginning of his career until this very moment, Sean Combs-or-whatever-alias-he-was-using-at-the-time has been a joke of a rapper. And, I mean, I get why: He did have a tendency to lazily jack whatever pop song had a good hook and/or riff and drop unconvincing raps over it. (See: “I’ll Be Missing You,” “Come With Me,” etc.) But he also knew how to surround himself with immensely talented collaborators, and he had an unparalleled ambition for exactly how grandiose hip hop could be; a song like “Victory” is as responsible for the career of Kanye West as whatever well-respected shit you can point to.
I mean, he spent $3 million dollars on the music video for this song alone. It was set in the year 3000! It co-starred Dennis Hopper and Danny Devito! Car chases! Explosions! Rain machines! Helicopters! Busta Rhymes perched atop a gargoyle like Batman! (Go watch it, seriously.)
That grandiosity is part of what made Puff Daddy a joke, but as someone who’s always been attracted to the epic, I love it. The original beat for the song is based on a Bill Conti sample (from Rocky, naturally), for a sweeping, epic, pseudo-classical atmosphere, but the remix linked here is where it gets really interesting, for me. Not only did Puffy bring in Biggie and Busta for guest verses, but he also commissioned Trent Reznor for a remix. This was 1998, mind you, and hip hop and alt-rock did not have the sort of mutual-appreciation-society that they do now. This was before rap-metal became a fad, even, and when everything besides rap and country was something teenagers might say to describe what they considered omnivorous musical tastes. Reznor chops the fuck out of “Victory.” He changes the order of verses, moves lines from the end of the song to the beginning, takes subliminal background vocals and drops them right into the forefront, and transforms it into something else.
The result is a weird, super-aggressive (naturally), and incredibly dynamic song that doesn’t really sound like Nine Inch Nails or a hip hop song; you don’t really nod your head to the Reznor remix of “Victory,” even when Biggie is dropping lines like, “Real sick, raw nights / I perform like Mike / anyone — Tyson, Jordan, Jackson, action / pack guns, ridiculous / and I’m quick to bust / if my ends you touch” (which would be continually referenced by other rappers for over a decade, even as recently as on Watch The Throne and Cruel Summer).
But it’s not all about head-nodding; at least not if you were a white kid from Indiana trying to learn how to relate to hip hop when this song came out, which I’m pretty sure is a big part of who Puffy was trying to reach when he commissioned the remix. It’s also about that 12-second break after the first verse where the beat drops out completely, and Puffy and Busta’s voices are intercut into a weird conversation (“Can y’all hear me out there?” “What? What?” “What’m I gonna do now?” “Where you at?” “It’s all fucked up now!” “Where you at?”) before an extended and unlikely pause, and then Busta’s voice drops the hook over an extremely Reznor-ian wall of guitars. That shit is mind-blowing. It’s what I imagine teenagers today feel like when Skrillex drops the bass or something — tension, build-up, release.
That tension/build-up/release is present in the original version of the track, too. It just works in different ways — the strings that steadily rise over the first verse until they’re as loud as Puffy’s voice, the drums that come in to get your head nodding when it’s Biggie’s turn, the way that the verses flow easily between Puffy and Biggie (at least partly because it’s obvious that Biggie wrote both parts) and then Busta’s hook breaks it up sharply just by being in such a distinctly different meter.
There aren’t a lot of songs like “Victory,” in either its original or its remixed form. It sounds dated in some ways, not least because Biggie’s voice will always sound like the 90’s, and (in the remix) Trent Reznor’s guitar sound is very much the mid-period Nine Inch Nails effect, but there’s a lot about it that’s ahead of its time. There are plenty of reasons to criticize Sean Combs’ music, but “Victory” went places that it took other rappers a long time to go.