Diddy: more a brand than a musician

But, on his new album, the hip-hop mogul does want to show he's grown

Critical Eye

October 15, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,[sun pop Music Critic]

As he slouched in his chair -- yawning, eyes bloodshot, looking as if he could fall asleep at any moment -- Sean "Diddy" Combs didn't appear to be the super-polished international man of taste, the persona he has cultivated for nearly a decade. Swimming in an oversized black jacket and baggy jeans, the hip-hop impresario looked like a tired workaholic. He had skipped precious hours of sleep to build buzz around his return to pop music.

It was midafternoon barely a month ago, and the entertainment mogul, who looks much slighter in person than he appears in promo shots, sat at a gleaming table inside a dimly lit conference room at downtown Baltimore's Hyatt Regency hotel. He had spoken to pupils at Winston Middle School a few hours earlier. Now he was answering questions about Press Play, his first album in five years, which hits stores Tuesday.

Advance copies of the album were unavailable. But, as with anything Diddy does, it isn't necessarily about the product. It's all about selling. Selling a slice of his high-living image, the packaging for a personality that's an attractive combination of street-corner arrogance and boyish vulnerability. Now, Combs wants to rap about "grown things."

"I don't have anything to prove," said the artist, 36, sliding his shades on. "If people aren't impressed by now musically, I don't know if they're ever gonna get impressed."

More than a decade has passed since the former Puff Daddy rocked pop music, so to speak. The era when he epitomized New York ghetto-fabulousness -- with flashy videos and sample-heavy music that fused pop sensibilities with hip-hop swagger -- has long given way to the rise of rowdy Southern crunk and kinetic reggaeton. Musically speaking, is there still room for Diddy? Is there an audience for this new grown-up approach?

"I've heard the new album," says Danyel Smith, editor of Vibe magazine, whose November cover features Diddy. "It's partially a hip-hop album, partially an R&B album, partially a pop album. You can really hear him saying on this record, 'I'm grown.' Everyone knows he's still here as a mogul and a celebrity. But he's still here in music."

A new sound

Combs hasn't been absent from the spotlight in the past five years -- there was his hit MTV reality show Making the Band, a starring role on Broadway's A Raisin in the Sun, his uber-successful Sean John clothing line and a splashy launch for his hit popular men's fragrance Unforgivable. But he hasn't made much of an impression as a pop performer.

"Look, he's much more than an artist," says Ronn Torossian, founder of 5W Public Relations, a New York firm that represented Combs' Bad Boy Entertainment as his non-music business ventures were blossoming. "Puff is an entertainment icon. He's almost a Madonna of his generation. People are going to involve themselves with his music because he's the man."

He used to be -- and he's clearly hoping that the image has stuck.

In the early '90s, as a producer at Uptown Records, he helped usher in a new sound for hip-hop and R&B. With such raw talents as Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, he concocted "hip-hop soul," a style that married traditional soul vocalizing with hard-edged beats and melody lines lifted from familiar old-school tracks. It was a pop-friendlier extension of New Jack Swing, which Teddy Riley established in the late '80s.

"Sampling was accepted in hip-hop but not necessarily in the R&B context at the time," says Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University and author of Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation. "His greatest achievement in music was setting the template for the R&B we hear today. But we never really had a sense of how much Puffy brought to the table as a producer and an artist. He was always surrounded by other artists and producers on his albums -- like his production team The Hitmen, Biggie Smalls, Faith Evans and 112."

During his pop heyday when he oversaw smashes for Evans, the Notorious B.I.G, Lil' Kim, Ma$e and others, Diddy was often criticized for his overuse of familiar samples -- but listeners ate it up. And the trend continued when he launched his solo career with 1997's No Way Out, which sold more than 7 million copies.

'Not afraid to dance'

In the videos for such hit singles as "Been Around the World," "I'll Be Missing You" and "It's All About the Benjamins," the pop star eschewed hardcore gangsta posturing for flash and high fashion. His music was the perfect soundtrack to the economic boom of the '90s. Puffy, as he was known then, was the life of the party.

"Diddy is one of the few rap artists who's not afraid to dance," says Rashaun Hall, a former editor at Billboard magazine and director of content for SOHH.com, an urban music Web site. "So that party element has always been the key to his success."

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