Puff Daddy took my hip-hop virginity. In 1997, the producer-turned-rapper’s debut album, No Way Out, was my very first hip-hop purchase. Until then, my parents had relegated my prepubescent life soundtrack to safe, saccharine pop like Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. I had circled release dates weeks in advance on my calendar (which either had cuddly kittens or puppies as the theme, I don’t remember). On July 1, I made my dad drive me to Record Town — a defunct store at a more-defunct mall — in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and put down a crisp twenty of allowance money. At home, I fiddled endlessly with the frustratingly sealed outer wrapping and popped the CD into my off-brand Walkman. I poured over the seventeen tracks from start to finish. It was like my frequency for sound shifted. The album had everything, from the Harlem bravado and swagger of “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” to “I’ll Be Missing You,” an aching tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G. Party anthems, classic soul samples, incredible features — all presented in a shiny, melodic package primed for a teenage girl in the suburbs.
Nearly two decades later, Sean Combs (née P. Diddy) reverts to his original stage moniker and releases MMM. I tried to get an interview with the media-loving mogul for this piece but his rep promptly informed me, “Sean isnt available for interviews — for this project the music speaks for itself.” In that case, what does MMM say?
MMM is being billed as a mixtape album. His seventh solo release and lead-in to the forthcoming No Way Out 2 proves that Puff Daddy is still ever the showman. The tape takes its title from the acronym “Money Making Mitch,” a nod to Mekhi Phifer’s character in 2002’s cult classic film Paid in Full, and the artwork features the mogul in a luxurious, white fur with supermodel Kate Moss from a 1999 Vogue feature. Remember kids, Puff was in Paris way before Jay Z and Kanye West. MMM coincides with the rapper’s 46th birthday and in many ways, this is a present to himself.
The tape opens up with “Facts,” a resplendent intro that finds Puff talking us his usual shit. “Money Makin Mitch is this fairy tale, you know/about this fly nigga from Harlem that came up, and he did his thing man/He was shinin’ on em, stylin’ on em, showin’ em how to do it, showin’ em how to get it.” It ends with an in-flight announcement, reminiscent of many hip-hop interludes of the past: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are preparing to make our final descent into New York Motherfucking City…On your right is the world-famous Harlem World, home of the legendary Puff Daddy himself. I’d like to thank you for flying Combs Air, where all dreams do come true.”
This transitions into “Harlem” (featuring Gizzle). With a delicious sample from Chromatics’ “Tick Of The Clock,” this one of the strongest tracks. The ode to Puff’s hometown is menacing and dystopian, more so than post-gentrification would have you believe. It’s cinematic and fun. The first half of the tape finds Puff very much in his comfort zone. Tracks like “Everyday” (Amor) featuring Jadakiss, Styles P and Pusha T and “Auction” featuring Lil Kim, King Los and Styles P sound right at home in the rapper’s discography. Puff and longtime production cadre The Hitmen take on the bulk of creating the lush, BIG sounds that built Bad Boy Records. In the latter part of MMM, where Puff delves into rap’s current zeitgeist, he smartly enlists outside producers to guide him, including Hit-Boy, TM88 and Brooklyn’s Harry Fraud.
Puff Daddy has always held a unique place in hip-hop. He’s never purported to be the greatest rapper in the world (He memorably boasted, “Don’t worry — if I write rhymes, I write checks!”), but what he does best is getting everyone else to have a great time. He’s never had a problem sharing the mic. As the master of ceremonies, he’s guy that gets other artists hyped up, and MMM shines in its features. Pusha T absolutely blacks out on “Everyday” while Future is kind of perfect for the title track “MMM” (this coming from someone who does not like Future). But Puff doesn’t rely solely on who’s hot now. He taps into our unending craving for New York City nostalgia. The fact that Lil Kim, two-thirds of The Lox and DJ Brucie B are on an album in 2015 is pretty incredible. The only thing missing really, is Ma$e.
At 46-years-old with his Forbes net worth nearing a billion, Puff Daddy doesn’t need to rap. In the fickle, youth-obsessed world of hip-hop, few artists not named Jay Z have been able to pull off rapping after 40 without looking geriatric. Maybe it’s his marketing prowess, maybe he’s invigorated from surrounding himself with new talent or maybe he’s low-key sipping from the Fountain of Youth. Somehow, Puff Daddy has been able to sidestep the creepy, Old-Dad-at-the-Club vibe and stay relevant. What could have easily turned into a midlife crisis is actually a solid mixtape.