New York

Diddy Buys Himself a Good Album

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diddy.jpg
In command with his cash, he drops the whole stash

Earlier this week, LCD Soundsystem released “45:33,” a single continuous track whose title is also its running time; you can buy it on iTunes for $9.99 even though it’s technically just one track. It’s really good, a disco odyssey thing with all these movements and tangents and epiphanic horn-burst moments that still works as a single piece of music because of the unified pulse underlying the whole thing; the way it uses repetition borders on psychedelic. But the story behind the song may be more interesting than the song itself. James Murphy put the track together after Nike hired him to soundtrack an exercise routine. So it’s a piece of art that exists because of its corporate sponsors, made to the specifications of those sponsors. You could, of course, say the same thing about any album that comes out on a major label; since the bullshit work-made-for-hire law went into effect, that’s certainly how the courts treat music. But even with the most nakedly commercial mainstream-pop album, we’re supposed to believe that it’s the work of a person or a group of people who are so bursting with drive and talent that they need to get out into the world, that someone, on some level, has an artistic mission. But “45:33” doesn’t attempt any such pretense. It’s utilitarian art that exists for completely commercial purposes, a work made for hire in the purest sense, and as far as I know it has no precedent in modern pop music other than, like, commercial jingles. Nick Sylvester is, of course, extremely amped about all this: “Shit like this, these weird goofy product tie-ins, ARE the NEW ALBUM.” I can’t say I have any idea which way the music industry is going, since it’s pretty much the most chaotic corner of the pop-culture world, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that record labels have no idea how they’re going to keep making money in the years to come, and this seems to be as sensible an approach as any.

Case in point: When the Billboard charts come out next week, the number-one album in the country is going to come from a guy who isn’t so much an artist as a sponsor. I absolutely hated Diddy for years and years, and that’s mostly because I worked at a summer camp in 1997 and thus had to hear “I’ll Be Missing You” and “Mo Money Mo Problems” on repeat-loop for three months straight. I spent years laboring under the unfortunate idea that someone who couldn’t really rap and who admitted to paying other people for his lyrics couldn’t possibly make any music that meant anything at all. Ghostwriting has always been around in rap, but it’s been more a dirty secret of the industry; people would brag about writing other people’s lyrics, but no one would ever admit to buying someone else’s words. But Diddy actually sort of bragged about it, and other rappers’ fingerprints are all over Press Play. The biggest and weirdest example is “The Future,” which Pharoahe Monch wrote. There’s not a single person in rap history who sounds remotely like that guy, and so “The Future” basically works as a pretty good Monch impersonation, Diddy doing Monch’s scattered clumps of syllables and nasal preacher cadence almost exactly like Monch does them. It’s hard to say why Diddy hired Monch; the song is way too weird and off-beat to ever be a hit, and it’s not like it’ll get Diddy the critical love or the street credibility that he has never had and never will have. So we have to we have to assume that Diddy hired Monch to write the song just because he likes Monch and wants to rap like him. And in the end, it doesn’t even matter why Diddy hired Monch. Pharoahe Monch hasn’t released an album in something like seven years, and “The Future” is one of the only Monch songs that’s been released this year. And so next week, the number-one album in the country is going to have a Pharoahe Monch song on it, something that would’ve been virtually unthinkable a few years ago. “The Future” might be rapped by Diddy, but it’s not Diddy’s song. Diddy’s just the guy whose ideas and financial backing gave the song life. I don’t have a list of producer credits in front of me, but I’m pretty sure Diddy outsourced all the beats as well. And that makes Press Play basically a commissioned work from start to finish. Diddy admits as much on the album: “We interrupt this hot motherfucking album that y’all are presently listening to to hear a few words from our generous sponsor.”

Diddy’s sponsorship has made for a pretty good album. Press Play is probably the best New York rap album since, um, Fishscale, which isn’t saying much but is at least saying something. The entire album only features four guest rappers; that’s the same number as appeared on just “All About the Benjamins” in 1997. Those four rappers (Big Boi, Twista, Shawnna, Nas) shit all over him, of course. But Diddy’s voice only occasionally grates over the course of the album. His writers come up with a few great lines for him: “The day I die, let a G4 fly and dump my ashes over NY.” When he doesn’t have a good writer working for him, it shows, like on “Special Feeling,” when he’s talking about “girl, let’s have a sexy escapade” and pronouncing passionate like pash-o-net so he can rhyme it with won’t forget. But he has good writers most of the time, and he’s got a certain rich-guy exuberance in his lispy monotone. And he stays on beat, which is more than I can say of most of the rappers in New York.

But Press Play works better as a dance album than as a rap album. A few years ago, Diddy was making a big fuss in the press about how he was working on an electronic dance album. He supposedly did work with guys like Felix da Housecat and DJ Hell, guys whose names actually ring bells in the dance-music world, and he told Mixmag or one of those dance-music magazines that he used to go dancing at the Paradise Garage, a dubious claim considering he was maybe 12 when that club closed. The only thing that actually came out of that project was a twelve-inch single called “Let’s Get Ill,” an absolutely god-awful collaboration with Deep Dish and Kelis. But Diddy didn’t really abandon the project; he just folded it into Press Play. “Come to Me,” the single, is more disco than rap: itchy synth-bleeps, silky histrionics from the one Pussycat Doll who can actually sing, soft clouds of strings, only a couple of quick verses from Diddy. “Wanna Move” is basically a Ciara song with guest appearances from Diddy and Big Boi, and it’s got the gleaming electro glide of her singles. “Diddy Rock” is one of those blindingly futuristic Timbaland tracks that might as well be house. “Thought You Said” is totally circa-97 boutique drum-and-bass with gorgeous little string-figures. There are a few straight-up rap tracks, but they all have rushing drums or synth squiggles somewhere in the mix. And even the cover looks like it should be belong to mid-90s Astralwerks compilation. With all those dance signifiers, Diddy turns his total lack of street cred into something resembling an asset. Too much New York rap is more concerned with hardness and formalism than little things like melody and rhythm and pleasure. But Diddy doesn’t have to prove how hard he is because everyone knows he isn’t hard at all. Part of the reason why Southern rap has been so ascendant over the last couple of years is its openness to dance-music influence. Southern rap producers don’t seem to care whether anyone thinks their music isn’t hip-hop enough, and that lack of purism can lead to some truly interesting and alive music. New York rap used to be the same way, back in the late 80s, when virtually every credible rapper had a hip-house record and when clubs would spin rap alongside new jack swing and synthpop and dancehall and house and Latin freestyle and Madonna. Diddy comes from that era, and he’s got the money to pay the right people to bring it back.

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