I am definitely the fault of my own image.
—Sean “Puffy” Combs, to Katherine E. Finkelstein, The New York Times (17 March 2001)
P-Diddy and the Fam.
Who you know do it better?
Yeah right, no matter what, we air-tight.
—Puff Daddy, “Victory”
As most everyone who might care already knows, that notorious character whom the news media have been calling Sean “Puffy” Combs is changing his name. Or rather, he’s suggesting an alternative, so that he can, as he told Sway Barrow, MTV’s Man on the Puffy Beat, move on. “No more Puff Daddy,” Combs announced. “I am not doing it as serious as Prince I’m not gonna be just crazy with it… It is going to be changed to straight P. Diddy. You could call me P., or Diddy, or P. Diddy.” Apparently, he’ll answer to most any permutation. What an amiable guy he’s become.
Some of us are less surprised than others at the name change. And some of us know a little too much about Mr. Diddy’s ongoing saga including the restaurant, house in the Hamptons, clothing line, Jesus-complex, and magazine editor beat-downs than we might want to admit. That is to say, Puffy has been P. and Diddy to many of us for a long time. In fact, he says Biggie gave him the name back on the day, you know, when Puffy and Big were rolling, when the sky looked like the limit. He’s used the name in producing credits in the past, as well as using it in lyrics. On this point, the man’s not lying: the name change is no radical, get-me-out-the-contract Prince-to-Squiggle-like transformation. I suppose you can read the change jokingly as a get-me-out-the-pending-civil-lawsuits maneuver, but really, that would be pushing it.
Instead, the name change looks to be a self-image thing. Troubled and strange, to be sure, but a self-image thing nonetheless. And really, it hardly matters what the rest of us think of it as Puffy describes it, it’s a return to a man he may once have been, a less outrageous, slightly less affluent, more visibly sincere fellow, someone maybe a little closer to his so-called roots and most certainly farther from the string of tragedies that have befallen him since (a string of so many tragedies, in fact, that the Village Voice‘s Peter Noel has made a list he calls “the Bad Boy Curse” and dubbed Puffy “Vampire Player” [Village Voice 3 April 2001]) . And so, he foresees a smooth transition, wherein Daddy becomes Diddy, and Mr. “Can’t nobody hold me down” becomes Mr. “My number one priority is God.”
It might happen. The name has been circulating for some time, after all. Even aside from the various allusions Puff Daddy’s made to it in songs over the years, it also cropped up recently, in public, during what MTV has called his “fourteen month ordeal.” Consider, for example, the message that Combs left on his driver Wardel Fenderson’s answering machine, just three days after the shooting at Times Square’s Club New York on 27 December 1999, the very shooting that would lead to the Trial of the Century (and yes, we know that the century’s only three months old). The message was so important, so image-making, that it was transcribed in newspapers around the nation. In it, Puffy expressed concern over what is hard to say. Worried, perhaps, that Fenderson was upset about the shooting Puffy called to reassure him: “Hey, yo, it’s P. I was just thinking about you, dog… I just want to make you feel, like, comfortable, you know what I’m saying, make your family feel comfortable.”
Now, you might read this as prosecutors did as evidence that Combs was trying to bribe his driver regarding what happened that evening at Club New York. But you might also read it as did defense attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Benjamin Brafman as an indication of Puffy’s genuine concern for Fenderson’s family, no doubt mightily uncomfortable at the time, given all the media and judicial hubbub surrounding the crime: three people shot, cops looking for a perpetrator, camera crews hounding everyone even remotely involved. But what strikes me about the message, in hindsight of course, is that it’s an early unveiling of the new moniker, at the time still private, used between friends P.
Or, here’s another example of the intimate connotations of the name. A few weeks ago, Puffy’s erstwhile girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez (whom you could call J. Lo), appeared on Letterman to promote the near-simultaneous releases of her movie (The Wedding Planner) and album (also called J. Lo in marketing, repetition is a good thing). Dave was probing Jennifer on the burning question of the day, that is, were she and Puffy breaking up or what? She insisted that they were together and still going strong, and as if to prove the point, she let slip a pet name for him P. Diddy. Dave looked briefly surprised at that little bit of too-much-information, then recovered as he usually does, by making wisecracks, first about Diddy, then about Jennifer’s beautiful body. And that was the end of that.
Or so it seemed. Only a few days later, Valentines’ Day to be exact, lo! it was revealed that Lopez and Combs were indeed broken up, had been broken up earlier, and that she already had another beau, a pretty back-up dancer. Poor Diddy. Not only had he been dumped by his girl and traumatized by the trial, but at that precise moment, on V. Day no less, he was also awaiting the result of that ordeal, the verdict from a New York City jury that might have sent him to prison for 15 years (on weapons possession and bribery charges), in connection with the shooting.
As it turned out, the verdict was cool, for Combs anyway: he and his bodyguard Anthony “Wolf” Jones were acquitted on 16 March, of weapons possession and bribery charges. The trial turned out less well for Puffy’s boy Jamal Barrow (who, so far as we know, still goes by Shyne), who was convicted of assault, reckless endangerment, and gun possession. According to the Village Voice, the Bad Boy rapper was “heartbroken” by Puffy’s betrayal: on the stand, testifying in his own defense while he was still called Puffy, Combs did not clear Shyne, but left it hanging in the courtroom whether his one-time protege was carrying a 9mm Ruger and fired it, into the air or at Natania Reuben, Julius Jones, and Robert Thompson. Shyne’s sentence won’t be decided until 16 April, but he’s going to do time up to 25 years an outcome that has some folks thinking he’s been turned into a scapegoat.
Meanwhile, Mr. Diddy is on the loose, and putting his good fortune immediately to good use. That is, he’s recuperating his image, making the rounds to show off his new, thinner-because-beleaguered look, playing himself as a triumphant believer in the System and the Lord, above all, who gave him the strength to persevere. Suddenly, he’s not a “fake thug” anymore. Suddenly, he’s exonerated, a victim of circumstances, or maybe a victim of those members of the NYPD who are looking to bust famous black men. And in that context, P. says he’s looking to get some distance on the whole experience. He told Sway that he’s going to take a couple of months off, “a leave of absence, just to be Sean,” to recover from all the trauma and tribulation, “the trial and the case and the Jennifer stuff and the stuff with my kids and the business stuff and then the scrutiny of the media.” Time to kick it with his kids, lay off the “I’m the macaroni with the cheese” lifestyle.
All that sounds reasonable. And truth be told, we can all use a break from the Puffy chronicles. But so far, he doesn’t appear to be taking much of a break. Rather, he’s all over tv, soliciting and securing the love of his fans and supporters, doing damage control. He even has a new video rotating, “Let’s Get It,” ostensibly the first single for Bad Boy artist G-Dep and featuring Black Rob (you may remember him as Puffy’s post-Mase, shiny-suitless rap-star wannabe), but prominently featuring P. Diddy, who adds his own freestyle non-rhyme: “Not guilty.”
On 29 March, Combs started hitting the tele-waves with a canniness that’s striking even for him. He did MTV’s TRL and BET’s 106th & Park, Viacom’s sister call-in shows where fans are encouraged to think they have say over what videos get on the air and what topics are broached. On TRL, no surprise, Carson Daly admired P. Diddy’s big fat fur coat, congratulated him on his acquittal, then put him on the phone with one of the members of dream, Combs’ adorable white-girl group: she genuflected and congratulated her boss. P. said he was proud of their success, namely, their own heavily rotating video for their first single, “He Loves U Not.” Girls in the studio audience squealed, Britney and BSB videos were counted down: in other words, on TRL, life most definitely goes on.
Two days later, P. Diddy appeared on 106th & Park, the “urban” incarnation of TRL, where the audience members are slightly older and quite a bit blacker. Terminally cheerful hosts AJ and Free opened the day’s Puffy segment with what they called “The Puffy Package,” a two-or-so-minute set of video clips showing the mogul at his moguliest, in Biggie videos, in Tupac videos, in Lil Kim videos, counting the benjamins. AJ and Free gushed at his Diddiness when he made his way to the couch, where he extolled again his faith in God, his love for his fans (eliciting applause from the studio audience), and his new sobriety, to be marked by the name change, which, he’s said more than once, will come about during a ceremony of some kind, once all the excitement dies down, and he’s had sufficient time to recuperate, you know, spend time with his two kids or maybe even his several exes, one of whom is currently suing for child support.
Of course, the change is all about performing sincerity whether or not the change is actually sincere, or what that might even mean. So domesticated, so gentle, so Diddy is he, that now, he’s proffering wisdom and complexity. P. told Sway, “No matter what in life, there has to be balance. So I got to be responsible for my own image and making sure that it has balance and that you see the many sides of P. Diddy.” Not that he hasn’t been responsible for his own image in the past, mind you. It’s just that now, he acknowledges that he’s being held responsible for it, not only by consumers but also by more serious folks, like District Attorneys. Responsibility entails owning past errors. It’s time to fess up znd be accountable: P. told Sway he’s turning away from the “bling bling” effect in hiphop imagery that he’s sometimes credited with starting, or at least helping along with enthusiasm (“Mo Money, Mo Problems,” “It’s All About the Benjamins,” etc.). In P.D.‘s words, “We used to talk about wanting to get some money, but that’s when hiphop was based on your dreams and your fantasy. The whole thing now is the dreams and fantasies were achieved, and you don’t want to make it the focal point. You can’t keep beating that dead horse.” Better to find another horse.
And, I suppose, better late than never. For some, the hypester-hustler-supreme version of Combs long ago overstayed his welcome. Months before his arrest and trial, he was deep in the throes of what Vibe magazine called “the Puffy backlash” his 1999 album Forever barely moved a million units, quite the downturn from No Way Out, released just after Biggie’s still-unsolved murder, which sold over 7 million copies. Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks may be the best current gauge of where the “blacklash” stands poor Huey Freeman locked himself in his room for days following the “crushing news of Puffy’s acquittal,” so mad was he at the man for “ruin[ing] hiphop with his shiny suits.” Only days ago, little Huey pulled himself together and went back to work on the “Free Huey World report,” writing up “news"stories on the collabo between Diddy and his new partner in survival against all odds, Bill “Uptown Clint” Clinton (also known as Chubby C).
But even if we can see that hiphop has survived even Puff Daddy, an obvious, if not exactly pressing, question remains: how did he ever sell so many records? His mic skills are limited at best, his production skills are a function of his ear for ‘80s rock samples, and his dancing, well… suffice to recall the 1997 MTV Music Video Awards performance of “Missing You” Puffy stepping all over that stage, his white suit almost glowing while Faith, Sting, and a choir did their best to hold down the vocals against such bizarre, self-inflating spectacle.
Indeed, at this point it’s difficult to explain (or remember) Puffy’s appeal, now that he’s fallen into such disregard as an artist and showman. It’s like trying to explain how Hammer had a big-pantsed heyday. We might attribute it to Puffy and company’s smart marketing: there’s not a trick they haven’t used at some time, including masterful overkill. But taking a less cynical (or is it more cynical?) view, we might attribute the appeal to P.‘s incredible affiliation with Christopher Wallace, and their shared desire to take hiphop to the mainstream with a vengeance, to popularize Biggie’s sad, insightful, educational street stories. Before the shiny suits, P. and B. acted on what might be termed a hopeful purpose, to “humanize” so-called gangstas, dealers, hustlers, and players, to break down their reality so others looking for a thrill might slow down and appreciate the hardships. That Puffy lost sight of that goal is hardly news. Maybe he knows it too. Maybe the name change is an effort to return to a pre-lapserian moment, to reinvent himself as a non-punk, non-gangsta, non-overreaching producer boy. His current contrition suggests as much. But the very public and carefully staged declarations of it simultaneously suggest otherwise, that he’s still deep into the game, whether fame or name.