Diddy doesn’t need to make an album like Last Train to Paris. OK: Diddy doesn’t need to do anything, but in particular, no one was looking to the guy for an electro-influenced, house-tinged, avant-r&b concept album about heartbreak. “I wasn’t trying to be vulnerable for the sake of shock, or for the sake of people admiring my vulnerability,” he notes over the phone, one week before the album’s release. Instead, his goal was “to just tell the truth.” On the intro track, backed by progressive house bleeps and bloops, Diddy introduces the record’s harsh conceit: “Love is a motherfucker.”
Grief and sorrow, of course, aren’t new territory for the maudlin, forever ballin’ producer/rapper/mogul. The Notorious B.I.G.’s tragic death hangs over his every musical move, and he’s fine with that. He gave his 1997 solo debut the rather existential title No Way Out, while “Last Night,” the biggest hit from 2006’s Press Play, finds him exclaiming, “The way I feel, I wanna curl up like a child.” Nonetheless, Diddy’s all-the-world-is-a-stage approach to music- and myth-making reaches a fascinating breaking point here: Something like three years in the making, delayed numerous times, soaked in heart-on-sleeve lyrics, and assembled from 60 or so songs, the genesis of Last Train to Paris is full of odd stories involving our hero, ensconced in a darkened studio, barking batty ideas to his production team.
Consider a rap-up.com interview with producer Alex Da Kid, who contributed “Coming Home,” which had the producer of mega-hits like B.o.B.’s “Airplanes” and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” chuckling as he recounted Diddy’s oddball sonic demands. The best one: “I want a beat that makes me feel like a white man in a basement in Atlanta.” Which, goofy as it sounds, is simply Diddy’s patented way of providing inspiration. “Most of the producers I worked with, I’ve been friends with,” he explains; the album came together by “hanging out with them, taking them to parties, and showing them movies.”
The influences are broad and unexpected: clubs in Ibiza, ’80s hip-hoppers Schoolly D and T La Rock, dance music coming out of Rome, U.K. r&b trio Loose Ends, and the iconic Abel Ferrara film King of New York. “I would show the scene where they’re having the party in the basement, and tell them, ‘Put me in the basement . . . sonically,’ ” Diddy remembers, his voice slowing down to trigger hypnosis. “ ‘The hollow-ness of the basement. How would that sound coming from upstairs? We’re in Paris, but we’re from New York. What would be the soundtrack to that?’ ”
Once you hear Paris’s mish-mash (Diddy’s word) of sounds, all that producer-genius experimentalism makes some sense. “Yeah Yeah” sends psychedelic guitars through house-music filters. Croaking electronics shoot in all directions on “Strobe Lights.” “Hello (Good Morning)” has an absolutely epic acid-squelch breakdown. “Hate Me Now” and “Angels” are detours into thumping minimalism. Every song is full of swift change-ups and jarring musical detours; Vogue’s André Leon Talley compared the production to “the broken cadences of avant-garde jazz,” and he’s only half-wrong.
Diddy often interrupts these jagged dance tracks to emote. “What am I supposed to do when the club lights come on?” he asks on “Coming Home,” confessing, “It’s easy to be Puff/It’s harder to be Sean.” Even party-rap lines like “Smoke my reefer, gettin’ high” are followed up with “You know, without you I will die.” Elsewhere, he declares his desire to “Smoke weed listenin’ to Sade,” which is both awesomely relatable and a bit sad.
To keep all this reflective playa-emoting in check, Paris is co-headlined by Diddy’s r&b duo, Dirty Money. Ex–Danity Kane member Dawn Richard and songwriter Kalenna Harper play hype-women to the ultimate hype-man, but they also provide a confident female voice, calling out Diddy as “so damned selfish” on “Yeah Yeah” and playing the sexual aggressor on “Your Love.” Moreover, this isn’t exactly the guy’s “mature” record. One of the best songs is called “Ass on the Floor” (featuring swooping Moroder synths and a Major Lazer sample), while on “Shades,” Diddy declares his intention to “make love to you on marmalade.” It’s lots of fun, and though confessional in parts, it’s overall far from the self-serious, petulant complaint-raps of say, Drake or Kanye. Paris looks back to dance music as soulful catharsis and emotionalism, not the cold thump that’s taken over as of late.
“Everybody has their time of having that hot hand and hot sound,” Diddy concludes. “And when radio’s programmed the way it is, it’s kinda hard to go against that. But that was one of the things I wanted to do.” He sounds like a wizened veteran. “Everything on the radio is so catered to the A.D.D. mentality of the ear as well as the heart, you know what I’m saying?”