Late Tuesday, just a few hours before he turned 46 years old, you could find Sean Combs, or Puff Daddy if you will, entering a packed screening room at New York City's Soho House, dancing more or less by himself to music he produced nearly 20 years ago. He did this while downing a golden bottle of what looked to be champagne. Gold was, for this man estimated to be worth 735 million dollars, a motif of sorts: His untied, white leather sneakers had gold zippers on each side, and he wore two large gold chains above his white shirt, medallions attached to each. "I represent that black American dream, and that shit is ten times harder than any other dream," Combs remarked late in the evening, with full sincerity.
The ever-youthful rapper, record producer, actor, clothing designer, and reality TV star, who was last in the news for allegedly assaulting a UCLA football coach, wasn't just here to celebrate further encroachment into middle-age, however. Puff's publicists had invited the oddball assortment of hack journos and rap industry folk to imbibe, consume high-end snack foods, and get the first listen of Puffy's newest album, MMM, which was released the following morning.
"I was at home with my girl and wanted to watch some gangster shit. So I got on the Netflix, and we watched Paid in Full," Combs explained during the introduction to the evening, going on to say that Charles Stone III's cult-classic 2002 film provided the inspiration for his new album Money Makin' Mitch. Claiming that the album was, like the film, "a Shakespearean tale that needs to be told because the black man is God, and we comin'." Puffy suggested Money Makin' Mitch was also a prequel to his previous album, Last Train to Paris. The city is pictured on MMM's cover, an Annie Leibovitz photo of a fur coat-clad, sunglasses-wearing Puffy with a pensive Kate Moss as they exit a motor vehicle, surrounded by paparazzi, taken in 1999.
A screening of sorts then commenced, although the images—a black-and-white assemblage of NYC street scenes cut to the beat of the album and chock-full of experimental film clichés—were clearly secondary to the music. Featuring appearances from Future, Lil Kim, and Pusha T, the album itself isn't bad, though it doesn't retain the urgency and unshakable hooks that made his work such a staple of MTV and rap radio in the late 90s and early aughts. Of course, to expect such a thing would be ludicrous: Even in his heyday, Combs was seen as more of a showman with an eye for talent in collaborators than a genuinely great MC. Still "Auction" and "You Can Be My Lover" evocatively simulate the flashy production and elegant sampling that powered his debut album No Way Out. Combs has announced that his next and ostensibly last album will be a sequel to his chart-topping debut.
As the films and album played simultaneously in the packed room, Puffy stood along the carpeted stairwell about halfway up, bobbing his head, his eyes intensely radiating whatever satisfaction he still gets from being the center of attention. Eventually he took a seat in the middle of the space, as occasional cheers of "Baaaad Boooooy" would erupt from the hangers-on, ones that he would gleefully join in with. During interludes between films, Puffy or one of his minions would retake the microphone as the houselights went up to continue talking about how great he was.
The whole evening had the vibe of a congratulatory lap around the motorway, with various executives from Epic Records, which is releasing the album for free, offering their praise for Diddy. "He's the man who gave us Biggie," one said flatly, to immense applause, as though Sean Combs had birthed Christopher Wallace himself.
"I had to be honest with myself, I had to get back in the game," Puff said toward the end of the evening, growing more reflective. "I don't want nobody to buy it. I don't want there to be no stress."
Given that the version of the record industry which allowed Combs, a child of Harlem and Mount Vernon, to send his kids to Horace Mann and down a gold bottle of champagne after making a star out of Wallace and later himself is long gone, it's probably wise to give his music away. His wealth and fame allows him to truly be the type of "artist" he frequently claimed he started out as—someone who wasn't in it "just for money," he pointed out during an interlude between films.
"All I'm doing right now is just speaking the truth, I don't know why, it just feels better that way," Combs said at the end of the night. "That's what money buys you, you get to speak the truth," he added, before telling people how unusual the opulence all around them was. "I'm not going to let you sit in these silky seats and think that that's regular. It's not regular."
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