I gotta be honest with you, Puffy: The hiphop guys around these parts don’t want anything to do with you. Sure, they marvel at your high-sheen business acumen and your egocentric manhandling of the media—and who wouldn’t?—but when it comes to music and music only, they’d sooner hand over Forever, your follow-up to the six-times-platinum No Way Out, to me. They know who your prime audience is: I may be a chunky-but-funky white dude with too much Dylan in his collection, but with the blinds drawn and the apartment empty, I dig nothing more than working up an awkward sweat to the spun-sugar hip-pop of “It’s All About the Benjamins” and “Been Around the World.” Kind of makes a guy feel as if he belongs—and that was your point all along, right?

With help from all-star Family members Mase, Lil’ Kim, and Faith Evans—and by borrowing from mainstream hits such as Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” and the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”—you meshed tasty rock grooves, head-bobbin’ beats, and quick-witted rhymes about the good gangsta life and made a sinful pop stew. “Mo Money Mo Problems,” on which you guided the Notorious B.I.G. through the borrowed terrain of Diana Ross’ “I’m Comin’ Out,” is one of the most irresistible singles of the decade. You targeted the ‘tweeners with listenable, unthreatening rap and hiphop, and we in turn paid tribute to your record label, your magazine, your restaurant, your clothing line, and the myriad all-night pretty-people parties splashed on the pages of People. We also approved highly of your relationship with Jennifer Lopez—”we” meaning me; meaning I couldn’t stop drooling; meaning “Does she have a sister?” Life was good.

Well, life was good. Then your big best friend was shot dead. Then too much catering to the Top 40 masses brought on the slams from hardcore rappers and their hardcore fans. Then you faced charges of braining an Interscope Records exec with a champagne bottle. And then that small gremlin of paranoia riding your back since Biggie’s death grew into a full-fledged monster. They’re after you; you’re sure of it. So you decided to cross back to tougher musical terrain, but what you found is not a safe haven but an in-limbo barricade complete with guns, ammo, and a clean shot at all those murderous “playa haters.” You lost your sense of humor; you lost your sense of showmanship. And there you stand, firing at anything that moves and recording Forever, a 19-track, 70-plus-minute diatribe against all of your enemies, real and imagined.

So I ask you, Puffy: Just who is your audience now?

“Fuck you, Puffy,” hollers a random female on the title-track intro, as the hero in peril, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, kneels before God and pulls a heavy cape of thunder, gunshots, helicopters, choirs, and—let’s see, what else is in here? Oh yeah—bagpipes over his troubled shoulders. That ominous storm cloud briefly gives way to Forever’s entertaining (and relatively light, considering the ugly mayhem to come) first few songs. R&B songstress Kelly Price coos a sweet, sexy chorus on the funky, infectious “I’ll Do This for You,” and “Do You Like It….Do You Want It…” showcases dueling studs Jay-Z and Puffy slinging out shouts of rap supremacy to a crowd of wanton ladies. With an eye on the pop charts, Combs even signs on oh-so-sensitive guy R. Kelly and samples Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad” for “Satisfy You,” wherein Puff woos the ladies (not the bitches and hos, mind you; they show up later) with crap such as “When you spend time with your woman and listen/It shines more than any baguette diamond can glisten.” Jesus, that line’s so bad, I might actually try it.

“Is This the End (Part Two)” is Forever’s guiltiest pleasure, not for an obvious sample but for the pass-the-popcorn Jerry Bruckheimer-like production values. (Puffy even compares the cut’s high drama to the Hollywood honcho’s Enemy of the State.) Chicago rapper Twista, the fastest rhymer in the Midwest and possibly anywhere else, spills out the action as he and Puffy blast a path out of an inner-city ambush Butch-and-Sundance style. The synth-warped chorus is lush and inexplicably catchy, the cartoon violence is fun and thrilling, and, all too soon, East Coaster Puff—an average rapper at best, a comatose MC at worst—is trying to keep up with his faster friend’s flow. Glass shatters, tires squeal, and the denouement is pure silver screen.

But then our man Puff Daddy arrives at his personal gates of hell, and Forever nose-dives into the rap crapper. Despite Carl Thomas’ gospelfied chorus, the super-paranoid and ultra-violent “I Hear Voices” signals the end of the good times. (You want creepy? Take a look at the publicity notes for the song: “Puff turns off the lights and visits some of his deepest thoughts. He feels hunted. Sometimes haunted. Success can be lonely. Money is an all-consuming passion. His temper is a volatile thing. What’s his is his.” Uh-oh.) “I Hear Voices” commences Forever’s anger-management therapy without the candy center, but Puff’s fabricated thug life never fails to ring false.

“Angels With Dirty Faces” betrays the beautiful groundwork of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Fantasy” with guttural slaps of “Fuck you, motherfucker” and ridiculous declarations of warfare against everyone. “Gangsta Shit” opens with a snippet of braggadocio from Scarface then segues into empty, clumsy threats from Puff, Lil’ Kim, and Mark Curry. Later, with little style or intelligence, Puff sparks a blunt, screws his “shorty,” and—drugs and booty failing to mellow him out—spends the remainder of “Pain” riddling the neighborhood with bullets. When he invites credible rappers G-Dep, Redman, (a posthumous) Biggie, Biggie clone Shyne, and Busta Rhymes to swim in his pool of paranoia, Puff is a tentative host at best, urging his newfound pals to pull the trigger for him.

With no one left to kill, Puffy makes a 180-degree retreat to the curious tandem of God and Christopher Cross on “Best Friend,” droning on about his desire to pal around with the Man Upstairs (and reciting part of the Lord’s Prayer) over a loop of “Sailing,” the second most annoying soft hit of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. (The most annoying? Spandau Ballet’s “True”—hands down.) Although the notion of Christopher Cross in a hoodie is a smile, Puff, bloodied from earlier pronouncements, comes off like a hypocrite and a fool, monotoning religious allegiance over his most ridiculous sample to date. Forever’s closing track, “P.E. 2000,” a sort-of remake of Chuck D and Flav’s “Public Enemy No. 1,” while certainly sacrilegious to some, is a smooth, booming dance track with a tight, intricate loop. By that time, however, I didn’t know whether to shake my ass, scratch my head, or rinse with Scope. Maybe Puffy should holster the Glock, take a time-out from church, and head for a shrink. Or maybe, if Puffy really wants to save himself, he should just pick a side and stay there. CP