The man they call Puff, Puffy, Puff Daddy and now P. Diddy is behind the wheel of a speeding golf cart and shouting out fair warning to the startled crew members in his path.
The deep laughter of Sean Combs echoes on the dark, narrow streets of the Universal Studios back lot, where his extravagant new video, "Bad Boys 4 Life," is being filmed. His cell phone is ringing, but he's not answering. He's having too much fun.
After months of very public trials (both literally and figuratively), it's easy to imagine the breezy moment as a metaphor -- a man outdistancing his troubles, racing to get back to his music. But this famous rapper and music mogul is not done proving himself.
Everyone knows the 31-year-old can make headlines, but can he still make a hit?
Combs delivers his third album to stores today. The Saga Continues ... is a raucous, funk-laced collection with a rawness that separates it from his last album, Forever. That 1999 effort sold 1.4 million copies, a sizable number to be sure, but also a sharp decline from his defining 1997 debut, No Way Out, which surpassed 5.1 million.
"When you do your second album and you have a lot of pressure, you're trying to create something new, you're trying to create something good," he says. "It's just like if somebody's trying to act and you see them on the screen. They're not just living it."
Combs says the new album was "never planned; it just happened" during a six-week span in Miami, where Combs had fled "to take a breath." He had just been acquitted in a high-profile New York criminal case and was still reeling from his famous breakup with girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, the ubiquitous actress-singer. Combs is reticent about the latter topic, but it is a clear theme in the new song "I Want a Girl."
The lyrics describe Lopez's loyalty to Combs during his trial on weapon and bribery charges stemming from a Manhattan nightclub shooting in December 1999. "It's saying she stood by my side the whole time," Combs says.
Then there was the courthouse trial, which followed a shooting at Club New York that left three people injured and Combs arrested after a police chase through Manhattan.
Combs was found not guilty in March of all charges, but one of his proteges, rapper Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, was sentenced to 10 years in prison as the triggerman.
Earlier in 1999, Combs also publicly apologized for his role in the beating of a record industry rival. The assault in the offices of Interscope Records was jolting for observers who had not lumped the seemingly refined Combs in with the rap world stars who openly embrace the "thug life" mentality.
"I don't think people like to see me get in trouble," Combs says. "I disappointed myself, and I disappointed them. I was the good-time guy, the guy you want to come over and play with your kids. I can't play with your kids if you think I'm going to have a flip-out."
The perception of Puffy is an intriguing puzzle in the rap world. He's respected for the wildly successful business achievements of his New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment, achievements that have landed him on the cover of Forbes magazine and at glittery parties rubbing elbows with the likes of Donald Trump.
But some fellow hip-hop stars also privately disparage his skills as a rapper and say he's far more relevant in the boardroom than in the studio. It's the large delegation of guest rappers that handle the hard work on Combs' albums, the critics say.
On the new album, Combs responds to those who criticize his act as more flash than substance. On the track "Shiny Suit Man," Combs takes one of the nicknames aimed at him and uses it as the title of a playful monologue.
"I can't say I'm the most talented MC on the face of the Earth," he says, sitting in a Hollywood recording studio. "But I think sometimes drive and determination play a bigger part and may outweigh somebody that may have a certain talent but may not work on it."
And what is P. Diddy's greatest talent? "Entertaining people. Being the coach, the leader, being a ringmaster. I think that's my strongest talent. The P.T. Barnum of it all."
The group effort was produced by Combs, and the music veers across the hip-hop landscape. There's the languid, cruising anthem "Roll Wit Me" and "Lonely," a layered, trippy track with West Coast rap's bounce and shimmy.
There are also no samples on the new album, a marked departure for an artist who has made a name by using signature snippets from the Police, Led Zeppelin and others to fashion new hits. The absence of samples will spare Combs some heat from some past critics, but he insists that wasn't the point.
"Nobody samples better than me, so I wouldn't run from that," he says. "I'm just trying to please the people, not the critics."
The fans did not respond as passionately to his last album, Forever, as Combs had hoped, but retailers and radio programmers say that a sizzling single or video will re-establish Combs quickly.
Like his famous ex-girlfriend, Combs is hoping to add a Hollywood section to his resume. The rapper makes his silver screen debut Friday in Made, a comedy directed and written by Jon Favreau. Combs portrays a slick organized-crime captain. It's not a role that will change the minds of those who view him as a bad guy.
Combs chuckles and says people can say what they want. But he wants it noted right now that he will win an Academy Award someday because he plans to focus his famous resolve on just that task. He also wants it on the record that he's doing fine. His clothing company is lighting it up, his new album is done, and new acts Dream and 112 are scoring hits for the Bad Boy label.
"And I can be right here smelling fresh air," he says, looking around the studio. "This year right here is on a definite positive upswing."