Sour Puff

Combs in repose: Once the ebullient face of hip-hop,Puffy shows his sullen side on Forever.

Back in 1997, when Sean “Puffy” Combs was a pop-cultural presence of Zelig-like ubiquity, an enterprising graffiti artist tagged billboards for Hot 97 featuring Puffy with this memorable phrase: I KILLED HIP-HOP.

Of course, Puffy didn’t kill hip-hop, but his sins – merging hip-hop and R&B; recycling, in Puffy’s own words, “hits from the eighties” – were enough to convict him in the eyes of hip-hop purists. But violence is precisely what Puffy brings to mind in 1999. The details should be familiar by now: Late this spring, Puffy allegedly administered a severe beating to Nas’s manager, Steve Stoute, at Interscope’s offices in New York. Few have talked about the repercussions of Puffy’s behavior. The beatdown confirmed for some the worst stereotypes of African-American men and threatened the very real progress urban executives had been making in the music industry during hip-hop’s ascension. It also provided a harrowing reminder of a violence-plagued Puffy-promoted concert in 1991 at City College where 9 people died and 29 were injured.

Not unusual in this tabloid age, the Stoute incident has created anticipation for Puffy’s new album, Forever. This time out, Puffy needs the controversy to sell records because hip-hop has undergone massive change since his debut, No Way Out, was released in 1997: The music’s most creative producers no longer come from New York but from New Orleans and Atlanta; a barrage of creative newcomers like Eminem and Mos Def have raised the bar of lyrical prowess for rappers; and, most damaging to the Puffy legacy, decidedly un-jiggy superstars like DMX have assumed his multi-platinum crown. The hip-hop audience is looking to Forever for answers, not music, especially considering the blandly contrite tone of the interviews Puffy has recently given.

Puffy has too good a barometer for public opinion not be aware of this, so he addresses the Stoute issue straight away on the album’s “Forever (Intro).” “Though hostile nations surrounded me,” Puffy says after a news report of his arrest plays in the background, “I destroyed them all in the name of the Lord.” It’s an odd and nonsensical bit of messianic posturing, much like the crucifixion-inspired video for Nas’s “Hate Me Now,” which sparked the Stoute incident. And Puffy has very shrewdly made Forever’s first single “PE 2000,” a reworking of Public Enemy’s 1987 classic “Public Enemy No. 1.” This time around, of course, it’s Puffy, not Chuck D, who’s hip-hop’s most wanted man. But like “Hate Me Now,” “PE 2000” is all defensive cockiness and no substance. Instead of offering insight into his unique position as a music-industry goliath, Puffy complains about the “haters” jealous of his fame and vows he won’t be taken down easily.

Not surprisingly, the samples on “PE 2000” lift the buzzing synths of the J.B.s’ seventies funk staple “Blow Your Head,” which fueled Public Enemy’s original version. Things don’t get much better elsewhere: “Satisfy You” snags the bubbling funk of Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad,” a sample already used successfully on the Luniz’s 1995 stoned-to-the-bone hit “I Got 5 On It”; “Best Friend” melds the hoary gospel singing of Mario Winans with the eighties soft rock of Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” (!); “Angels With Dirty Faces” lifts the entire groove of Earth Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy” (as well as the title of trip-hopper Tricky’s fourth album). None of the sampling is imaginative or even catchy in the superficial sort of way that made the exuberant Kool & the Gang horn sample that fueled Mase’s “Feel So Good” feel so good. Even the album’s title is a sample – of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever.

Puffy is a street-posing sourpuss on Forever, dissing his critics and bragging about laughing all the way to the bank. This persona is miles away from the best of what Puffy brought to hip-hop. Critics and hip-hop purists howled when Puffy just rapped about the good times – it wasn’t real enough, they complained. But few understood that Puffy’s dance-floor-oriented rap tapped into hip-hop’s good-vibes era. In the nineteen-seventies, the music animated roller rinks, house parties, and block parties. “Ain’t nothin’ but a party, y’all!” George Clinton famously exclaimed onstage with Parliament/ Funkadelic during the group’s legendary “Mothership Connection” tour. This is the exuberant legacy Puffy inherited.

Far from killing hip-hop, Puffy gave the music an indomitable presence on mainstream radio and MTV, inspired hip-hop entrepreneurs like No Limit boss Master P, and helped pave the way for hip-hop’s transition from black culture to American culture. Perhaps most important, as the hip-hop nation reeled from the murders of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, Puffy forged ahead with the successful “No Way Out” tour, proving that hip-hop and violence did not go hand-in-hand.

Puffy was never an artistic innovator: After all, Teddy Riley had brought hip-hop and R&B together nearly a decade before Puffy did. And while Puffy proved to be little more than a lazy sampler with No Way Out, his career has been marked by stellar production moments, most notably the profound, Roy Ayers-inspired urban blues of Mary J. Blige’s 1994 album My Life and his New Jack swing-influenced work with Father MC.

Puffy probably knew his fun-over-realness ethos would be out of place in hip-hop’s brand-new world of humorless, bandanna-sporting thugs like Noreaga and Jay-Z protégé Ja Rule, who looks like he came straight outta Central Casting. Instead of taking the role of a vengeful street rapper, Puffy should have celebrated his difference with a fun, funky record that could have stood out among hip-hop’s legions of unsmiling faces.

Puffy’s detractors have always fretted that a horde of merry samplers would arrive in his wake. Looking back, we would have found that preferable to the legacy hip-hop has inherited from him: a crude, almost religious worship of capitalism that champions “realness” while ignoring the very real conditions that create the ghettos glorified by rappers.

What makes Forever so distinctly unpalatable is how unhappy it all is; it’s as if, now that Puffy has achieved all of the material gains he wished for, he can’t even enjoy them.

The most telling sample on Forever is not of an R&B song we’ve all heard a million times before but of a bit of dialogue taken from the movie Scarface on a song called “Gangsta Shit”: “You need people like me,” Al Pacino mutters in his crappy faux-Cuban accent, “so you can point your fucking fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ ” This millionaire crybaby’s lament perfectly sums up the distinctly bad vibes of this unconscionably bad record.

Sour Puff