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'Artist mode' doesn't play to Diddy's strengths

Dan DeLuca
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Singer and music mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs talks to students at Philadelphia's Ben Frankly High School on September 18, 2006. (Sarah J. Glover/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

PHILADELPHIA--He'd like you to call him Diddy because, as the self-described "friendly neighborhood rap mogul superstar" would explain on "Diddy Day," to students at Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia, "the P. was getting between me and my fans."

But if the entrepreneur formerly known as Sean "Puffy" Combs were totally into truth-in-titling, he'd have a different middle name: "Self-Promotion."

That, after all, is where genius lies in this Sean-John-clothing-empire-founding, Bad-Boy-Entertainment-leading, Notorious B.I.G.-discovering, New York-marathon-running, and formerly J.-Lo-dating hip-hop businessman, whose album "Press Play" came out Tuesday.

And that was why, despite suffering from a cold that would require a doctor in lab coat to high-tail it over to the Four Seasons with antibiotics, Diddy would rise early on a bright September morning for the first stop in a 30-date promotional tour.

First there was an appearance at radio station Power 99, where Diddy, a onetime Uptown Records intern, told would-be music bizzers to never be shy because "a closed mouth don't get fed." Then the producer-rapper sat still long enough for an interview as a small army of minions looked on, and two police officers guarded the hotel suite door.

After he was done answering questions - or those that pertained to "Press Play," which were the only ones allowed - he would scoot up a short stretch of Broad Street, lined with "Press Play" placards, to Franklin High. Among his themes: How to "Press Play on Your Life."

"When I'm just doing music, I love doing whatever it takes to make it successful," said Diddy, taking off his shades and relaxing briefly in a beige Sean John jacket with epaulettes, and an oversized gold medallion. "When you're doing some reinventing and connecting with your fan base, it's the work you have to do."

"Press Play" is his first album since 2001's "Forever," when the P. was still part of the package. And he knows that when it comes to connecting with fans, he has his work cut out for him.

That's partly because the album, with contributions from Christina Aguilera, Nas, Big Boi of OutKast, and Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls, among others, arrives so long since Diddy was a dominant force in the music industry.

After he got his start producing hits for Jodeci and Mary J. Blige in the early `90s, he founded Bad Boy and rode high, first with Biggie and then, after the gangsta rapper's `97 murder (still unsolved), as a solo artist.

His 1997 debut "No Way Out" - credited to Puff Daddy & the Family - sold 7 million copies and made the Harlem-born rapper - whose street-hustler father died when he was 3 - a "ghetto fabulous" household name who was fond of calling himself "the black Sinatra."

Since then, Diddy has gone on to expand and diversify. Sean John is a $400-million-a-year business, marked by Combs' trademark attention to detail. Unsurprisingly, he's a successful perfume salesman, too, with the men's cologne Unforgivable.

But musically, he hasn't been so foolproof. In 1999, while dating Jennifer Lopez - and while on hiatus from his longtime girlfriend, Kim Porter, who's now pregnant with their twin daughters - he was charged with gun possession and bribing a witness.

He was acquitted in 2001 and has remained famous for being famous - and being followed around St. Tropez by an umbrella-toting valet, Farnsworth Bentley, among other things. But he's been eclipsed by other more credible hip-hop acts, from 50 Cent (who mockingly rapped "I don't dance around like Diddy") to Kanye West.

Diddy admits he hasn't been as focused on music in recent years. "It took me a while to figure out how to balance music and business," he says.

The evidence that he's now got it right, he says, can be found in the triumphs of Bad Boy up-and-comers such as Yung Joc, Cassie, and Danity Kane, the product of Diddy's VH1 reality show "Making the Band."

Further proof, he insists, is to be found on "Press Play" (Bad Boy ), an overstuffed, autobiographical album that finds Diddy fully back in "artist mode."

Being an artist, for Diddy, means pairing himself with others. "My lane has always been doing duets with people. That's always been the thing I specialize in." The album has its entertaining stretches. Timbaland pairs him up with enticing, off-kilter electronic beats on "Diddy Rock." Will.I.Am hooks him up with a Prince-ly groove on "Special Feeling," and Kanye West produced the classic R&B treatment on "Everything I Love."

But there always comes a time when Diddy needs to rap. Expectations are low when that happens - fans know he's an entertainer, not a skilled MC. But no amount of Lou Rawls samples can cover his awkward flow on "I Am" or make up for such lame rhymes as, "Let me take you to Indonesia/Where nobody can reach us." He's amusing, though, rhyming, "America you can't stop me" with "gotta thing for pigeon-toed chicks who are knock-kneed."

Diddy still comes across, though, as an essentially likable multitasker, albeit one better suited to selling music than making it.

On "Last Night," a duet with Keisha Cole, he even attempts to sing. His effort is adequate at best, but he earns points for trying (and risking embarrassment). As he does when he compares his album to Ronald Reagan's favorite candy:

"I always love records that have different colors," he said, at the Four Seasons. "One song might have me and Jamie Foxx, or me and Christina Aguilera. To me that makes it like a big bowl of jelly beans. And the jelly beans have all different colors."

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