P. DIDDY & THE BAD BOY FAMILY

The Saga Continues . . . (Bad Boy)

Hey, Sean Combs! Less than five months ago you were

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Ruff Daddy

P. DIDDY & THE BAD BOY FAMILY

The Saga Continues . . . (Bad Boy)

Hey, Sean Combs! Less than five months ago you were acquitted of four counts of gun possession and one count of bribery, the first bright point in your career since before Biggie Smalls was killed. What are you gonna do now? Here's the unconventional plan: First, a name change—from the mildly laughable Puff Daddy to the inexplicable P. Diddy. Second, continued demonstration of poor judgment: Puff was cited for driving a motor scooter without a license in Miami in March and is allegedly being sought, again by Miami police, to answer drunk driving allegations in connection with a July road mishap.

But it's his big musical move, as condensed onto The Saga Continues . . . , that puzzles the most. Bad Boy, which for the better part of the late '90s was hip-hop's House of Bling, the founding fathers of fiscal frivolity, has suddenly taken a turn for the gangster. Late last spring the Thug Daddy's unveiling began with "Let's Get It," the debut single of Bad Boy's new Harlem hope G-Dep, a song that featured Puffy getting his rap on for the first time in nearly two years. (Once Combs was acquitted, he quickly recut the end of his verse to boast, "Not guilty and I'm filthy, you feel me?") "Let's Get It" is a hustler's anthem—the sound of hunger and scheming, not the post-arriviste sound of Puffy's own albums or his later work with Biggie Smalls. The spartan aesthetic continues on P. Diddy's mission statement, "Bad Boy for Life." What with Mase following god, Biggie long gone, and Shyne—Bad Boy's most recent hope for credibility—so real that he's ended up in prison, Puff needs to once again reinvent the label, its sound, and its purpose. And this summer, once again, Bad Boy runs the dance hall. "Ask the clubs/Bad Boy, that's what's up," Diddy boasts, not idly. "If you don't feel me, that means you can't touch me/ It's ugly, trust me." Over blunt force bass that pops hard and doesn't shimmy in the slightest (take that, Timbaland and Neptunes!), Puffy does sound truly alive. Of course, it's not as if his pen begot those passionate words, but don't worry if he writes rhymes. He writes checks.

Indeed, the one constant throughout Combs' recent legal travails has been the seeming impregnability of his fortune. While still on trial, he launched a huge runway show for his Sean John clothing line. Featuring hard-rock denims alongside demicouture leathers and suits, the collection garnered wide critical praise. While in the courthouse, Combs made a point of being nattily attired, though he opted to go light on ostentation.

Such demure duds are a far cry from Puff's halcyon days as a human glow stick, an era he self-satirizes on "Shiny Suit Man," a skit in which he brags, "I own this $500 million shiny suit," an oblique reference to the scope of his wealth. These days it's subtle outfits of distinction for the Monaco Grand Prix or standard issue thugwear for his videos. Puff's always found the middle point between the two—hey, he brought hip-hop to the Hamptons—but it seems that he's more eager to separate them these days, perhaps understanding that it was his own particular blend of high and low that left him so prone to slipping up. "I don't floss no more," he claims on "The Last Song," "I drop jewels."

Nevertheless, you can't take the playing out of the player, as Combs' recent Miami antics demonstrate. And no matter how deeply Puff retreats to the hardcore, he'll always end up somewhere in the suburbs, kicking corny rhymes (even if they were written by someone else—after all, they have to be believable) like "It's a Bentley to you, but to me it's a blue car." That pearl of wisdom comes from the Neptunes-produced "Diddy," likely to be the album's next single. Here, Puff outdoes himself, biting Eric B & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, and Nice & Smooth without even sampling them. Old habits die hard, of course, and the Neptunes, who are so postmodernly post-Puffy that they bite their own production ideas, certainly don't push Puff into new ground.

But "Diddy" is anomalous for this album. Everywhere else, the new agglomeration of Bad Boy thugs spits gruff verse while Puff mugs for the camera. With "Let's Get It" and "Bad Boy for Life" as anchors, The Saga Continues . . . has oddly become the official, perhaps inadvertent, hardcore hip-hop album of the summer. It's yet another strategy of reinvention from the true Teflon don—signing more fresh blood, sensing the demise of the style he founded and running from it (someone call Jay-Z . . . ), keeping the dance floors rumbling. "It's official/I survived what I been through," he boasts on "Bad Boy for Life, "Y'all got drama?/The saga continues. . . ." Does it ever.

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