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Take a whiff of Unforgivable, Diddy’s dubiously named designer fragrance. Run your fingers along the hem of a Sean John sweater (real cashmere!). Watch the man play music-biz drill-sergeant on Making the Band. And if you don’t have the Benjamins to dine at Justin’s—Diddy’s upscale Manhattan restaurant—just sink your teeth into a Triple Whopper with cheese: He recently inked an endorsement deal with Burger King.
But Combs has always wanted the world to have it his way. Flanked by his genius acolyte Notorious B.I.G. a decade ago, he gave the sound, and look, of hip-hop a complete, ghetto-fabulous overhaul. (Smells, textures, and flavors would come later.) Combs hopes to build on that legacy with Press Play, his first album after a five-year hiatus he spent running marathons and floundering on Broadway. Desperate to appeal to as many musical appetites as possible, the disc is a 19-track bacchanal with a guest list so star-studded the host often sounds like a mere social barnacle trying to elbow his way into the VIP lounge.
There are bangers aplenty, but they’re a far cry from the up-tempo party jams that made Puff Daddy, Combs’ erstwhile moniker, a household name in the mid-’90s. These days, Diddy is shaking his tailfeather to grimmer and grimier tones. The first single, “Come to Me,” offers a minimal, minor-key backing track on which the rapper dusts off his trademark anesthetized flow while the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger delivers the multitracked chorus. Despite Diddy’s clumsy rhymes—“She diggin’ my style, my swag, my sway, my swerve/My way with words, the boy is absurd, for sure”—the song is tolerable in that it never tries too hard.
But the harder Press Play’s beats come, the harder Diddy falls. Just Blaze serves up a monster with “Tell Me,” a menacing death march adorned with sweeping strings and a potent hook from Christina Aguilera. Diddy’s contribution? “Get high with me/Come touch the sky with me,” he entreats. “Fly with me/See life in new eyes with me.”
He takes a more spry approach on “Diddy Rock,” but Chicago rappers Shawnna and Twista still manage to run circles around him. “I’m way too fresh, so complex/Niggas try to predict what I’m gon’ do next,” he spits in a decidedly uncomplex and predictable manner. The lyrical mediocrity rubs off on Timbaland, who serves up this stinker: “Baby let me be your tour guide/I’m your burger, you my fries.” How Diddy misses this golden opportunity to tout the mouthwatering new BK Value Menu is anyone’s guess.
Thankfully, he doesn’t blow it on “Wanna Move,” the album’s most thrilling track. (We don’t need Diddy to be masterful, just palatable). “Let me get shit in order/I got something for ya/You ever seen a black man walk on water?” he asks, bouncing along in his best T.I. impression. Keyboards slice a path through kicks and snares into an electro-tinged chorus that bubbles like a freshly poured glass of Moët. “Let us get you high on music,” Ciara coos, delivering one of the dreamiest hooks of her career, “Come enjoy the ride.” Big Boi heeds her call and pounces on the second verse, sounding hungrier than he did anywhere on Idlewild. This is Diddy at his best, playing the foil while coaxing some astounding performances out of the talent around him.
So if he’s such a great catalyst, why bother stepping up to the microphone? Because he wasn’t always this lame. Sure, Combs is still ridiculed for the sample-happy production style that turned his Bad Boy label into a goldmine a decade ago, but somehow, his comatose, stuffy-nosed vocal delivery has aged with grace. Nowadays,his verses on “Mo Money Mo Problems” and “It’s All About the Benjamins” sound both nonchalant and from the heart. It’s just the heart of a playboy millionaire who couldn’t be bothered with breaking a sweat.
Diddy concurs on “We Gon’ Make It,” boasting of his past, “I done been there and did it/Ten years without getting sweat in my Yankee fitted.” But it sounds like he’s sweating here. The harder Diddy tries to remind listeners of his once-dominance, the further he distances himself from the cool Southern drawls and trap narratives that rule hip-hop in 2006. By the end of “We Gon’ Make It,” Diddy’s practically pleading for relevance: “You created this monster! It’s so inspirational! It’s so real!” His voice cracks with the kicker: “It’s Bad Boy, bitch!”
Don’t wince too hard or you’ll miss the album’s more blatant (hence more entertaining) misfires. For instance, “The Future,” a track produced by Havoc of Mobb Deep, where Diddy conjures images of a bleak dystopia. In it, Combs is the first black president ruling over a nation forced to download his music and “mainline this new Diddy heroin.” Somehow unaware of the irony in it all, his prophecies sound like the mad ramblings of a loner-billionaire slowly going cuckoo in his skyline penthouse. (Come to think of it, gimme an entire album of that!)
“Thought You Said” is another odd one, a tune where Brandy manages to keep her cool over a breakneck drum-n-bass workout. Of course, Diddy’s lovelorn rhymes can’t keep up, so he eases into a half-time cadence: “The heartache and pain/Sometimes it goes to your brain/Sometimes it makes you insane/Sometimes our joy is our pain.” Well, painful, anyway.
But Diddy doesn’t really jump the shark until he tries aping early-career Prince. If it worked for OutKast, Justin Timberlake, and, uh, late-career Prince, why not the Bad Boy for Life? “Special Feeling” borrows liberally from Dirty Mind–era Prince, with its quivering organ line and snappy drum beat, but purple just isn’t Diddy’s color. “If I take you out on a date/You’ll feel real special and great,” he suggests. That couplet isn’t even worthy of The Rainbow Children.
Love has never been Diddy’s strong suit, as those who remember his insufferable J.Lo rebound ballad “I Need a Girl” will attest. Still, he spends the last third of the album trudging through some heavy-handed tunes based on his stormy 12-year romance with model Kim Porter. The vulnerability-act quickly wears thin on “After Love”—his rhymes are just too stupid to exude any real pathos. “You was like air to me/You know I wouldn’t leave/I needed you to breathe/See, life is but a dream,” he bumbles. For a man who specializes in indulging our senses, Combs consistently fails to make us feel his pain.
Maybe he knows it. “Making It Hard,” the disc’s penultimate track, however, is its fieriest, and it comes courtesy of D.C.-raised producer Rich Harrison. Mary J. Blige has a rapturous lung-spasm over Harrison’s dynamic stop-and-go congas, but you know what happens next. “Put that on everything/Girl you my everything/I don’t know where I be/’Cause you the air I breathe,” Diddy prattles on. As if she can’t take it anymore, Mary J. snaps back, “You making it so damn hard for me to love you!” It’s hard not to sing along.CP