Whether you love him or hate him, you’ve gotta respect Diddy—or whatever the hell he calls himself these days. Whether you call him Sean Combs, Puffy, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy or just Diddy, the fact is that very few people have made as much of an impression on the American conscious over the past 15 years. Whether as a rapper, a label president, an actor, a restauranteur or a clothing designer, Diddy has been, above all, a marketing and promotions genius. This has led him to a recording career as a performer that is close to approaching a decade in length! Despite an admitted lack of rapping skill (well, he doesn’t write his own rhymes, so you can’t even really blame him for that), Puff’s albums always have their share of ear candy, and his fifth (and if you believe him, his last) album, Press Play continues in that vein. It’s definitely an enjoyable listen, although that’s due to hot beats and great collaborators as much (or even more) as it’s due to Diddy himself.
Press Play is sort of divided into two parts: the first half of the album is nothing but ego-driven club bangers, designed to shake dance floors worldwide. As the album progresses, it takes a more experimental tack. The beats get stranger, the songs are a step slower, and the predominant topic shifts from Diddy and his monumental ego (no one has made more out of their longevity, other than LL Cool J .. and real hip-hop fans know how badly his last 3-4 albums have sucked) to his long-time relationship with girlfriend Kim Porter (who deserves credit for sticking to Puff for over a decade, with the “J. Lo thing”—as Puff calls it during one song—in between).
The first question when listening to this album is: have Diddy’s emcee skills taken a leap forward? This might be equal parts improved ghostwriting and the fact that the overall quality of popular MC’s has dropped sharply over the years. The thumping “We Gon’ Make It” finds Diddy rocking a swagger-filled, tight, Jigga-esque flow. The flow isn’t the only thing this song has in common with Jay-Z—the song’s backing track is almost identical to Jay’s current hit single “Show Me What You Got”.
One interesting thing here is that Diddy’s many collaborators don’t outshine him, at least not too much. Pop princesses Nicole Shrezinger (of The Pussycat Dolls) and Christina Aguilera serve as little more than hook girls on their guest spots (on “Come To Me” and “Tell Me”, the album’s first two singles). Even noted scene stealers Cee-Lo and Nas play the back on their collabo, the Kanye West-helmed banger “Everything I Love”. This could be because the normally loud-as-hell Cee-Lo’s voice is buried way into the mix. The album’s one exception to this rule is “Wanna Move”, where OutKast’s Big Boi rips the track with a rhyme harder than any he’s spit since Aquemini.
It’s also interesting to note that Diddy passes the baton to producers outside of his Bad Boy camp several times over the course of this album. Aside from Kanye, Timbaland makes an appearance here, as does “Crazy in Love” producer Rich Harrison, who brings a similar drums-and-horns sound to “Making it Hard”, a collaboration with original Puff protégé Mary J. Blige. The album’s most interesting production shot comes from will.I.am, who ventures deep into left field on “Special Feeling”, a song that sounds like it was ripped off a Prince studio console circa 1982.
As the album progresses, it becomes clear that Diddy is trying to create something resembling a concept album about love and relationships. This is not entirely successful, although there are a couple of notable tracks in this vein—including the melancholy “Through The Pain” (which will still rock dance floors, despite Puff’s mumbled delivery) and “Last Night”, which features a testifyin’ Keyshia Cole as well as the first instance of Diddy actually singing on a track (and he’s serious about it, too!). One will never mistake Diddy for Luther Vandross, but he’s definitely got chemistry with Cole, as they trade verses back and forth.
Real heads may never forgive Diddy for being one of the people who led hip-hop down the path of bling and irresponsibility—and I’m probably one of those people. Every move Puff makes has been met with a snarl from me, only because I think he’s occasionally pandered to the lowest common denominator, and also because he’s obviously way too fond of himself. Nevertheless, I have to commend the man not only for longevity but also for crafting an album that’s quite easy to listen to. Although several songs on this album are forgettable, none (except for the watery Neptunes-produced closer “Partners For Life”) are awful. With this album’s recent #1 debut, as well as Bad Boy having had a solid 2006 that places them firmly on the comeback trail, it’s time for even the haters to take their caps off and acknowledge Diddy—or whatever the hell you call him—as an unstoppable force of nature who even manages to make a halfway decent record in between all his other ventures.