Being hip-hop’s most bling-tastic mogul used to be easier. In the late ’90s, it was all about Sean ”Puffy” Combs. Now upstarts like Vitamin Water magnate 50 Cent dis the renamed Diddy’s celebrity parties on mixtapes. And of course there’s Jay-Z, who now runs a bigger label than Combs’ Bad Boy, and whose own comeback disc will square off with his over the holiday season. In New York’s Times Square, Diddy’s Sean John billboard stands 18 stories tall. Jigga’s Rocawear sign there measures about half that — but it hangs directly over the entrance to the Viacom/MTV building. As Realtors say: Location, location, location.
Making epochal hip-hop albums has gotten harder too. Kanye West set the artistic bar sky-high with his two LPs, and it’s into his world that Sean Combs walks with his first album since 2001’s un-monumental The Saga Continues… Combs knows it, and Press Play is the sound of a man sweating not just for sales, but to be respected as an artist.
Actually, Diddy and West have much in common, as producers-cum-rappers, and one hears Kanye’s influence here — in the race-conscious asides, the black-power soul samples, and occasional lyrical echo. Kanye even contributes a track, ”Everything I Love,” a horn-and-church-organ rave-up with a ferocious kit-drum groove and hot appearances by Nas and the ubiquitous Cee-Lo.
Press Play is mainly about its guest list, which reads like an awards-show roster. Almost no one phones it in: Christina Aguilera and Mary J. Blige are on fire, name producers like Just Blaze and Timbaland deliver great beats, and lesser-knowns make their mark. In fact, Timbaland’s 25-year-old production partner, Nate ”Danja” Hills, delivers the freshest tracks, club techno fusions that nail the record’s futuristic, global disco-hopping ambition.
The weak link is Diddy, which is partly by design. The man who helped shape rap giant the Notorious B.I.G. knows how to make his stars shine. While Combs isn’t a great rapper, he’s more nimble and lyrically substantive than usual. Behind the mic, though, he’s no Kanye, and the cussing and weed-smoking allusions that sound mellifluous from the mouths of other MCs are awkward here; they just don’t square with Diddy’s current CEO persona. Where Jay-Z still looks gangsta seated next to Kofi Annan, Combs comes across as a FORTUNE magazine poster boy.
Still, the man can orchestrate a mass-market pop phenomenon. Press Play has something for most everyone: street raps, club jams, glossy R&B. If it’s an ungainly whole, that shouldn’t sully its MySpace- and YouTube-marketed profile. Modern listeners can download the tracks they’re feeling and skip the rest. In 2006, that’s how we do it.