`Forever' shows listeners Puff Daddy's many faces

Review: The rapper's newest release delves into a multitude of emotions. But are we seeing Puffy or just a character he plays?

August 24, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Any time a pop star decides to sing a song of himself -- to lay bare his soul and unmask his private demons -- reviewers often find themselves paying less attention to the music than to whatever neuroses manifest themselves in the songs.

But as inviting as it may be to play armchair shrink, it's ultimately a mug's game. Music reviewers not only lack the psychiatric training, but they also lack access to the subject himself. The best they can offer are educated guesses based on what is found in the grooves and on the lyric sheet -- not the stuff of Freudian analysis.

Even so, after listening to Puff Daddy's "Forever" (Bad Boy 73033, arriving in stores today), it's a fair bet that many reviewers -- and even a few fans -- will feel as though they've spent an hour on the couch with the rapper.

An arresting combination of faith and rage, transcendence and belligerence, this follow-up to his 1997 multi-platinum debut, "No Way Out," finds Puff Daddy practically at war with himself. At times, it seems as if the self-styled "bad boy" chief of Bad Boy Entertainment has turned over a new leaf and found salvation, announcing in the title track that "the Lord is my strength and my song," and boasting in "Best Friend" that his No. 1 homie is none other than Jesus Christ.

Then there are tracks that seem to glory in the blood-splattered excess of the gangsta life.

From the slow-thumping menace of "Pain" to the adrenalized twitch of "Is This The End (Part Two)," the album overflows with tales of greed and gunplay, violence and vengeance. Even when no blood is being spilled, the aura of gangsta style is unmistakable as Puff Daddy boasts about his Bentley and platinum Rolex -- and taunts those who are jealous of his wealth and power.

Which is the real Puff Daddy?

Neither, of course. Because for all its stirring psychodrama, "Forever" is no more an act of autobiography than the average Woody Allen movie.

Instead, what we get is well-crafted entertainment, a sonic spectacle that draws from the specifics of Sean "Puffy" Combs' life, but which stars rapper Puff Daddy -- a character merely played by Combs. Nor should we complain that he's not "keepin' it real," because in a sense, his fiction is truer to hip-hop mythology than the daily affairs of a millionaire music mogul (which Puffy is in real life) could ever be.

Case in point: "Real Niggas," a track built around an old rap by the late Notorious B.I.G.

Biggie's verse is drawn from real life, evoking the frustration he felt as a small-time hustler on the streets of Brooklyn, but when Puff Daddy takes over, the track turns into a hyped-up gangsta caper. It's nowhere near as "real" as Biggie's rhymes, but Puff Daddy's fiction pumps the action quotient up, allowing the rap to build to a more satisfying conclusion.

Even the cycle of sin and salvation is played for dramatic effect. The album's most seemingly soul-baring song, the my-life-is-empty opus "Journey Through Life," is sequenced directly before his big thank-you-Jesus! number, "Best Friend." To hear Puff Daddy go from the depths of despair to heights of heavenly confidence ought to impress even the non-believers in his audience.

Were this a Hollywood feature, the album probably would have ended there, with the inveterate bad boy saved by the blessed grave of his best friend, Jesus. Hip-hop, however, plays by different rules, and so the album opts to conclude with "P.E. 2000," a low-watt rewrite of Public Enemy's 1987 MC-slaying classic, "Public Enemy No. 1."

A shame, really, because apart from "P.E. 2000," Puff Daddy raps better on this album than at any time in his career. Not only does he easily keep pace with the breakneck flow of "Is This The End (Part Two)" and manage to hold his own in "Reverse," a round-robin in which he goes up against the likes of Busta Rhymes and Cee-Lo, but "Forever" also finds him fully using his musical imagination.

Forget the fondness for prefab hooks that made his previous hits seem as if they were cut with a Xerox machine. Most of the tracks here are wholly original, and even those that do rely on samples from other singles manage to make the riffs seem less-than-familiar (like the way "Journey Through Life" borrows only a vamp from Christopher Cross' "Sailing").

Best of all, Puffy gets deep into the groove here, investing funky work-outs like "I'll Do This for You" and "Do You Like It.... Do You Want It...." with unexpected rhythmic confidence. Even if he no longer rules the charts the way he once did, "Forever" stands as proof that Puff Daddy is far from played out.

Puff Daddy

"Forever" (Bad Boy 73033)

Sun score: ***

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