When we last heard from Sean ''Puffy'' Combs, on 1999's ''Forever,'' he was a hip-hop mogul under siege, bemoaning the playa haters in his midst and attempting to retain his street cred while wearing Gatsby white linens. Too bad the strategy didn't work artistically, commercially, or emotionally: Combs' claims to martyrdom mostly felt like whining.
In that regard, Combs' recent skirmish with gun possession and bribery charges could be his best unintentional career move yet. The trial, in which he was found not guilty -- while gun wielding protégé and tragic pop figure Shyne went directly to jail -- transformed Combs into precisely what he wanted to be on ''Forever'': the rap magnate victimized by the system. Suddenly he seemed hardcore, and on The Saga Continues..., credited to his infantile new moniker P. Diddy, he, not surprisingly, works it hard. In the inside photos, he's wearing baggy black pants and baseball caps askew, and on the disc itself, he plays the pain card nonstop, never letting us forget about that ''situation'' (his word) and his triumph over it.
Although ''Saga'' isn't strictly a Combs album, since it features acts from his label both performing with him and on their own, its recurring focal point is Combs' trial. On ''Let's Get It,'' he pronounces himself ''not guilty''; on ''The Last Song,'' he gloats, ''No evidence, no possession.'' The spoken word ''Nothing's Gonna Stop Me Now'' features him intoning, in his mumbled manner, about ''so many obstacles, so many hopeless days'' and ''so many people working against you.'' ''That's Crazy,'' which catches a buoyant Caribbean groove and rides it, finds him alternately defensive (''They had the nerve to say I had a gun/ Man, for 12 years I had to run''), cocky (''I killed 'em with the charm/ Yeah, it looked like there weren't nothin' wrong''), and feeling self satisfied about his victory (''Man, New York never looked so pretty'').
Elsewhere, he proclaims that his company is on the rebound (''Back for Good Now''), while in ''On Top,'' he makes the dubious boast that he's ''still platinum back in London and Sweden.'' The Muzaky R&B of ''I Need a Girl (To Bella)'' both eulogizes his affair with Jennifer Lopez (''How we used to drive the whole city wild/ Damn, I wish you woulda had my child'') and subtly hints at why it ended (he needs a girl who'll ''go to court for me''). On the single ''Bad Boy for Life,'' he announces, ''It's official/ I survived what I been through.''
Combs has the right to bitch all he wants, especially since the accusations against him always felt a tad overinflated. But on ''The Saga Continues…,'' Combs faces three new charges: ignoring his pop smarts, sending contradictory messages (the bling blinging playboy indulging in thug life poses), and not taking responsibility for glorifying a lifestyle that would compel anyone to carry a gun into a crowded club. And he's guilty on all counts.