Puffy's Angels

Pity the P. Diddy. For the past two weeks, Sean Combs has been trapped in court all day, listening to testimony about how he did or didn't have a gun, did or didn't shoot it, and did or didn't try to bribe his driver to claim ownership of it. Clearly Puff's shook: He's hired O.J. liberator Johnnie Cochran and celeb problem-solver Benjamin Brafman to defend him, and considering the tenacity with which the Manhattan prosecutor is pursuing a conviction—refusing a plea bargain, though Puff's people claim they never offered one—it was wise for Puff to devote all his energies, and finances, to ensuring his freedom.

Dream

It Was All a Dream (Bad Boy)

Jennifer Lopez

j.lo (Epic)

Meanwhile, the ladies in his life are living it up. His girlfriend, the ever-saucy Jennifer Lopez, debuted at number one on the Billboard album charts with her second album, j.lo. At the same time, her latest film, the insufferably trite The Wedding Planner, beat all comers at the box office. Simultaneously, Dream, the white girl group that by some machination of cred-sniffing marketing is signed to Puff's Bad Boy Records, debuted at No. 6 on the album charts, largely on the strength of their debut single, "He Loves U Not," which just three weeks earlier had topped off the singles charts. Puff threw a swank album-release party for the girls in New York but, amidst the media swirl that is his trial, stayed away from it himself.

Not that there's really anything to celebrate. Dream certainly have achieved an outstanding measure of popular success in a short period of time, considering their general lack of talent (not that that stops any other groups) and their average but gussied-up looks. Don't get me wrong—it's very refreshing to see girls who don't fit the stereotypical model of teen waif divas becoming successful. But that sort of aesthetic affirmative action doesn't change the fact that every track on their debut album, It Was All a Dream, sounds like it came from the "prepubescent female whinny" preset button on those old Casio keyboards.

The girls are given an arsenal of support. Their songs, while saccharine, are fairly delicately penned. "This Is Me" contains this minor insight: "She stole your heart/only did it because she could/chew you up and spat you out/that girl never was no good/baby I would never do that/I'll love you faithfully/but your suspicious mind thinks /I'm gonna repeat her story." (It'd be great if they were actually feminists on the sly and were singing "herstory" instead of "her story," but methinks I expect too much.) The gems are few and far between, but Dream still muster mini-nuggets of girl spice, particularly Ashley, positioned as the group's badass in spite of her corporate-style power haircut. On "Pain," coproduced by Puffy, Ashley invokes her de facto Ebonics privilege, rapping "Sup witchu? . . . You're gonna regret this for the rest of your life/cuz I'm going on tour/I'm bout to blow up/you'll see me on TV/and know you messed up." Word up, ma.

You've got to wonder if Puffy isn't taking those words seriously right about now. Though he's got cred from the hood to the Hamptons, you can't help but feel that his strategic alliance with Jennifer Lopez was designed to bolster his standing in both worlds. After all, her curve was rising just as his was leveling, and an aspirational Latina actress/singer can get in plenty of rooms that an aspirational black male rapper/producer can't.

In many ways, j.lo seems to be Lopez's strike-back record. Rumors have been flying of late that Lopez has ended her relationship with Puffy (she's barely been seen in court, probably due to her promotional schedule, but it's said she's taken up with one of her dancers), and clouds of aspersion linger all over j.lo (though she's vigorously denied that any of the songs have to do with Puff). As my girlfriend pointed out to me, nearly all the songs cowritten by Lopez herself make reference to destructive relationships—"Ain't It Funny," "We Gotta Talk," and "I'm Gonna Be Alright." Weed out the boy-I-love-the-clubs cuts and the Spanish ballads, and you've almost got a script for a romance disaster. "Love Don't Cost a Thing" inverts the bling-bling trend: "What I need from you is not available in stores," she complains, and in the video she symbolically shucks luxury item after luxury item before running into the ocean to cleanse herself. "I'm breaking free/I'm going to find me," she sings on "That's Not Me," inadvertently echoing Dream later in the song when she sings, "How could you go dis me/when you know one day you'll miss me." Here's hoping Puff settles his accounts—financial and emotional—before he faces a long trip far from home.

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