Diddy, P. Diddy, Puff Daddy, Puffy, Sean Combs, or whatever he decides to call himself by the time this review goes live, attempts to strike a cool, suited pose a la Justin Timberlake throughout the booklet of his new album, Press Play, but only succeeds in looking like a stuffed shirt. And what’s worse, by the last page he takes off the tailored executive producer garb, kneeling with hands clasped in ostensible atonement for the bare-buttocked girl standing by the window—or, perhaps, for making another album. Like his vanity perfume, it’s all pretty unforgivable, and I haven’t even gotten to his music yet—apt for an artist whose last two albums matter so little to the flashy, pompous, greedy, and ego-driven empire that is Bad Boy.
Press Play is the, ahem, artist‘s best album since 1997’s No Way Out, and it’s an easier listen that one might expect. Diddy still doesn’t have an original bone in his body or a fresh idea in his head, and he relies on his previously successful formulas (which consist mainly of sampling others people’s music so he doesn’t actually have to write any, and cramming as many artists into his songs as humanly possible so he doesn’t have to be one), but damn if it doesn’t actually work. The album’s first third is all hubris (on “The Future” he boasts of his “potential to be the first black president”—of what, he doesn’t say), but Press Play gets better and better as it moves along, high-profile producers and guest artists snagging the spotlight and salvaging what could have otherwise been a hot mess.
In fact, Press Play might be the best-produced album of the year, FutureSex/LoveSounds notwithstanding. “Wanna Move,” produced by Danja and Big Boi, is an enterprising effort, though Ciara’s vocal part makes performances by the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger and an uncharacteristically restrained Christina Aguilera on the album’s first and second singles, respectively, sound downright overwrought. Unfortunately, Diddy is such a piss-poor MC that he becomes his own album’s liability; his lyrics sound like they could have been written by Alyson Hannigan’s character from American Pie (“It’s Bad Boy, bitch!” is a recurring mantra) and his metaphors consist of gems like “I’m seeing visions like I did a bag of angel dust.”
But even Diddy isn’t capable of spoiling the album’s best moments, which come during the seamlessly segued final stretch: “Last Night,” featuring Keyshia Cole, is a hit lying in wait, and, for anyone unfamiliar with Afrodisiac, Brandy will be a revelation on “Thought You Said”; even I wasn’t prepared for such a daring drum n’ bass-influenced tour-de-force, which, it bears mentioning, was co-produced by the man himself. Will.I.Am and Mario Winans turn in a formidable Prince homage with “Special Feeling,” while, despite Diddy’s presence (which is mercifully negligible—at certain points, you might even forget it’s a Diddy album), Rich Harrison, Kanye West, and Timbaland are allowed free rein to do what they do best. Executive producer is one title Sean Combs can wear proudly.