A nervous Diddy has a new album

By SIA MICHEL

When Sean Combs, a k a Diddy, realized he was direly late for the Kingdome Basketball Tournament in Harlem, where his Bad Boy Records team was playing, he went into multitasking mode. The plan was to listen to tracks from his first album in five years, “Press Play,” on a ride to his Midtown Manhattan apartment. There he would join his kids, his beefy entourage and a chicer pair of sunglasses, then a luxury car convoy would roll to the projects uptown. After the game, he would pay his street-marketing respects to a Harlem neighborhood where he once lived. He would finish an interview as he drove his Ferrari convertible home, then he and his family would hop on a jet to St.-Tropez, where he was giving one of his celebrity-studded “white parties.”

Perhaps this is an average day for the man formerly known as Puff Daddy. He never seemed stressed by the complex agenda. What did seem to make him nervous was the potential reaction to his new music. His driver cued up “Diddy Rock,” an inventive fusion of hardcore hip-hop and Ibiza-style dance music, which sounded great. (Then again, can a song sound bad when it is blasted in a Rolls-Royce Phantom speeding through Times Square?)

“Now don't feel like you have to say anything — just form your own opinion, and I'll leave you alone,” Mr. Combs said. Pause. He glanced sideways as if searching for signs of head nodding. “It's pretty different though, right?” Pause. “You can imagine people dancing to it at some after-hours spot in Miami, right?” Long pause. “That's Timbaland on there.”

Like a fur-clad Phoenix, Mr. Combs has reinvented himself many times through a long, tumultuous career: as a painfully young executive at Uptown Records, as a hit-making producer, as the head of Bad Boy Records, as a rapper (“No Way Out,” his 1997 debut album, sold seven million copies) and as a diamond-flaunting, Jennifer Lopez-dating symbol of 90's so-called ghetto fabulous culture. After a 1999 nightclub shooting involving a Bad Boy rapper, Shyne, Mr. Combs was charged with and acquitted of gun possession and attempted bribery, but he quickly rose again, as an award-winning fashion designer and friend of Anna Wintour. His clothing line, Sean John, generates about $400 million a year in retail sales, and he recently released a hit men's fragrance, Unforgivable. He is a quintessential modern American celebrity: an audaciously ambitious marketing whiz with an insatiable need for attention: not an artiste but a collaborator, a tapper of trends and other people's talents. His current persona — international man of action and taste — is tailor-made for paparazzi cameras, whether he is strolling about the Riviera with an umbrella-holding manservant, jumping on a trampoline in crisp summer whites or riding a Jet Ski in a fluffy bathrobe.

But unlike many tabloid regulars, he seeks credibility in addition to fame. In 2003 he ran in the New York City Marathon, raising $2 million for charity. In 2004 he made his Broadway debut in “A Raisin in the Sun.” His performance drew mixed reviews but the show did well at the box office. “I know I've been through some bad times and my share of tragedies,” said Mr. Combs, whose father was killed, as was his best friend, the Notorious B.I.G. “But it just made me feel like I got to be a better person to deserve this blessing.”

During the interview, he had the air of a workaholic overachiever who struggles with emptiness after major accomplishments. He referred repeatedly to the thrill of doing something for the first time and the yearning to recapture that feeling forever after.

“Making music was like being in a relationship with someone — after a while it ain't like the first day you saw them,” he said. “But if you step away from somebody, you can feel it again.”

Trying a comeback at 36 might be his riskiest undertaking yet. The album, which is due Oct. 17, represents a desire for even more limelight and yet another self-imposed challenge to assert his worth. “Diddy has a very large demographic — age 15 to 45,” said Ebro, a programming executive at Hot 97, the influential New York urban radio station. “The upper end knows him as an artist, and the younger end knows him from ‘Making the Band' on MTV. The question will be whether the kids respond to his musical offering.” (Mr. Combs has been concentrating on them with wacky videos on his MySpace page.)

Perhaps his demo is even broader than that. After the basketball game, Mr. Combs and company drove to the corner of 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. As several double-parked cars blasted Diddy songs, dozens of young men milled about. Two elderly women, dressed in African prints, approached the party. “What's going on here?” one demanded sternly.

“Puffy's got a new album,” someone said.

“Puff Daddy? Where is he?”

“Right here, ma'am,” Mr. Combs said, offering her a mini bottle of Moët. She stood near him for a bit, sipping Champagne through a plastic straw and swaying to the music. Then she quietly shuffled away.

“ ‘Press Play' was a real love project,” said Julie Greenwald, the president of Atlantic Records, which distributes Bad Boy. “Diddy spent a year and a half working on it. I've never worked with someone with such a meticulous attention to detail.”

Consider the celebrity-savant way he recruited Nicole Scherzinger, the lead singer of the lingerie-clad Pussycat Dolls, to sing on the club-oriented first single, “Come to Me.” As she was about to take a stage in France, her manager ran up to her with a cellphone, telling her that Diddy needed to speak with her, right away. “We had never met, but he told me that he'd been following my career,” Ms. Scherzinger said. “He said that I had the ‘eye of the tiger,' that I had a swagger. He said he needed me to be the one to make his album event explode. I was tripping.”

At press time the track listing and song titles were still being completed, but Mr. Combs seemed to be repositioning himself yet again: as a more mature, deeper family man. In emotional duets with pop and R&B queens like Mary J. Blige, Brandy and Christina Aguilera, he unveils his sensitive entertainment mogul side.

“Press Play,” which Mr. Combs described as a “movie on wax,” is loosely based on his romantic history, including his on-again, off-again relationship with Kim Porter, 35, a model and the mother of his 9-year-old son, Christian. (His firstborn, Justin, is 12.) It is the story of a brash young man who meets a woman on the dance floor. They embark on a passionate but turbulent affair, and “then comes the pain,” Mr. Combs said, explaining that the protagonist eventually realizes he is “not as strong as he thought.”

“Kim has been the main muse for the whole thing, but she ain't really caught up on the record,” he said. “She has the type of personality where she don't really care about the fame and the fortune. I could make 5 or 10 records to her, but she just wants me to be a good boy all the time to her. I'm trying my best. I love her.”

In his 30's, he learned what a good relationship really means. “If you love somebody you don't force it,” he said. “You don't love them because of what you can get out of them. You don't love them because they look good or because they make you look good. She can be the hottest chick in the world, but if she can't brighten up your day and your darkest hour, it don't even matter. Now I really want to try to get it right.” (Ms. Porter is expecting a child this winter.)

On some songs Mr. Combs gets romantic in a low, conversational voice: “Let me give you some passionate loving that you won't forget.” “A man has his feelings too.” “You stood by me through all that J. Lo stuff.” “I know I make it hard to love me.” Blatant vulnerability is rare in rap, and given that Mr. Combs once declared himself a “Bad Boy for Life,” this display of lover-man sincerity could lead to some ribbing. When asked how he thinks the street will react, Mr. Combs was silent for a while. “To be honest, I don't know how it will be received,” he said. “I wasn't afraid to be sensual and romantic. But I wanted to still hit you hard and make your body move. I just think that being honest is the most gangsta thing you could ever do.”

Both fans and the industry have set the expectations bar at Diddy's producing a crossover comeback smash. As insurance, he has recorded with an array of heavyweight friends, including Kanye West, T. I., Pharrell, Jamie Foxx and Big Boi of OutKast, who appears on “Wanna Move,” a stunning Southern-bounce-meets-Kraftwerk track.

A hit could potentially drive sales for Sean John, which has recently expanded; conversely, a flop from the company's namesake and advertising face could tarnish the brand. In 2005 Mr. Combs sold a minority interest in Bad Boy to Warner Music Group for an estimated $33 million. (The label was previously affiliated with Arista and, briefly, Universal.) He has focused on revitalizing the once floundering imprint, which has since produced hits by Cassie and Yung Joc. But Bad Boy lacks a rapper who represents the label's original essence: mainstream-ready New York fabulousness. Until he finds the right young gun, Mr. Combs has a job to do.

“He's got his hands full,” said Elliott Wilson, the editor in chief of the rap magazine XXL. “He's coming into a landscape where it's hard for rap to even sell platinum. He might not be able to impact the culture the way he wants to — the way he did in the late 90's.”

Back then, Mr. Combs was often maligned as a sample-abusing producer and a mediocre rapper, inevitably compared with his genius protégé, the Notorious B.I.G. The times might be kinder to him now: there are plenty of MC's appreciated for their colorful personae and forgiven for their subpar skills (see Rick Ross, Lil Jon). In an era short on bankable, magazine-selling rap superstars, Mr. Combs is always happy to stage-manage a party-rocking spectacle.

After a long day, he stopped at his apartment to play some “home-movie type stuff” for a reporter. It seemed reasonable to expect a décor like Versailles, but fancier. Instead, the immaculately dressed Mr. Combs (shorts, sneakers, diamonds) seemed mildly embarrassed about the state of his pad. “There's not much furniture going on yet,” he warned. “We're still unpacking because we just moved in.” When? “Eight or nine months ago.”

There were boxes on the floor of the gigantic, glass-walled television room, and clothes were stacked on a cream sectional couch. “I'm a workaholic so it's been hard to focus,” he said as he cleaned up a bit. “But it's really close to my office and that's good.”

When he is not in Diddy mode, Mr. Combs is disarmingly friendly and low-key, even shy and self-deprecating. Before he popped in a DVD, he issued another warning: in the clip, he looked a little fat, and his hair needed work.

In the video, he dances in a recording studio — like a sweaty, ecstatic teenager. As the raw, funky “Get Off” blasts in the background, he spins, struts and grunts with a heartfelt enthusiasm missing from his slickly choreographed music videos. “I can't even tell you the last time I danced like that,” he said with an air of wonder. “I can't believe I got to feel that way again.”

There was something strangely poignant about watching him watch himself let go. It felt like a moment.

A few weeks later, the clip was posted on his MySpace page.

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