Puffed Out

In terms of success, fame, power, and all-around mad skills, Sean “Puffy” Combs has seemed to have nine lives. Most recently, he was acquitted of charges stemming from that bad night at Club New York, and his fashion line – in a down economy – is proving popular with both fashion editors and white kids in the suburbs.

But now, as Combs’s Bad Boy Entertainment contract with Arista Records nears its final hours – and as he seeks other suitors – he may be feeling a bit of J.Lo déjà vu: “No one’s biting right now,” says one prominent music-business lawyer. “It’s absolutely amazing; I doubt that anyone could have predicted this, even during his run-ins with the law.”

The trouble with Diddy? Not a dearth of hit-makers (Bad Boy is home to teen-pop act Dream, R&B star Carl Thomas, and rapper Black Rob, whose “Whoa” became a street anthem), but sky-high production costs. “With Puffy, a record that should cost $500,000 ends up costing $2 million to $3 million,” the lawyer says. “That’s very difficult to recoup, even if you put hits on the board.” In response to these charges, a Combs spokesperson says, “When you want the best, you’ve got to pay for the best.”

It’s a little hard, Combs may be finding, to be a rap macher in an age when excess is over. His high-flying ways were acceptable, even encouraged, in the days before CD burning and a deep, industrywide recession (which some are terming an apocalypse), but they’re increasingly out of place in the newly cost-conscious music business. “He’s got really bad timing,” says a high-level A&R executive. “I think we’d all like to do a deal with Puffy, but at one fifth of the cost. And I don’t think he’s gonna go for that.”

And there’s widespread speculation that Combs – frustrated with Bad Boy’s lack of prospects – has been wooing Wall Street in an effort to fund a stand-alone record label, à la Clive Davis’s successful start-up, J Records. “Puffy’s attitude is, ‘If Clive can raise $170 million, why can’t I raise $100 million?’ ” says the exec. “But that $100 million could be gone in two years if he’s not subjected to cost controls.”

Making matters worse, the hip-hop impresario who famously boasted that “we ain’t never gonna stop” has been hit with a string of high-profile departures from the Bad Boy camp, including Mase (who left the life to become a preacher in Georgia), the L.O.X. (now signed to Interscope), and, most recently, 112 (who’ve attempted to decamp to Island – Def Jam). The split with 112 has been both highly public and highly acrimonious, even by music-industry standards, with Combs taking shots at Island – Def Jam president Lyor Cohen (“I’m going to bang on him for a long time,” Combs told the Daily News).

In fact, Bad Boy won’t let the band leave; Combs’s spokesperson says that 112 is still signed to Bad Boy and that an injunction has been filed in Atlanta and New York preventing them from going to Island – Def Jam.

Like Bill Clinton in his prime, Combs has a long history of upsetting his naysayers by staging one improbable comeback after another, but music-business execs caution it may not happen this time. “Once he sees that there aren’t suitors out there at his level,” says the A&R exec, “then he’ll have to come down to earth a bit.” The 112 source, naturally, takes a darker view of Combs’s future: “I have a hard time believing anyone will be doing a multi-million-dollar deal with Puffy,” he says. “Puffy’s got egg on his face.”

Still, Puffy (he of the spotless white suits) has his ways of getting clean.

Puffed Out