Sean Combs is bouncing around in his underwear. It’s a sweltering August afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, and Combs is in his trailer on the set of the video shoot for “Come to Me,” the debut single from “Press Play,” his first artist album in five years. He’s trying to cool off before he heads outside again.
Combs-aka Puff Daddy, P. Diddy and now just plain Diddy-has been described as arrogant, ruthless, crazy, talented, overhyped, phony and a genius. At this moment, standing in his drawers, fussing nervously with the stereo system, he just seems humble.
“I’m so excited about this record,” Combs gushes. He pops an unmarked CD of rough mixes into the stereo system but still can’t get it to work. Julie Greenwald, president of Atlantic Records Group, who has been one of Combs’ biggest champions since he brought himself and his Bad Boy label into the Warner Music Group (WMG) fold last year, jumps up and pokes him in the ribs. “Give me that,” she says with a laugh. “What, first time with a stereo?”
Finally the music starts. Combs dances around the trailer, rapping over the tracks. He picks up Greenwald and swirls her around the trailer. “We did it, girl!” Then he pauses. Greenwald sits back down on the couch. “I hope people like it,” he says sheepishly. “Do you think they will?”
People may love or hate Combs, but all probably agree on one thing-don’t bet against him. “I’m like Las Vegas,” he says. “People take their bets, but thankfully, most of the time, the odds are in my favor.”
Indeed, when “Press Play” hits stores Oct. 17 it will herald not one comeback for Combs, but two-the return of Diddy as a recording artist as well as a renaissance for Combs’ legacy brand, his label Bad Boy Records. Diddy the artist spent the past year and a half laboring over “Press Play.”
“I’ve become known as an entertainer,” Combs says. “That’s a good thing and a bad thing. But I’m also an artist. This is my artistic side.”
“Press Play” is reflective of where Combs is in his life. He and his longtime girlfriend, Kim Porter, are expecting twins. He dotes on her and drops everything when she calls. “I can’t do a crunk record, and I’m not shooting anybody so I can’t do that kind of music,” he says. “This is a vulnerable album meant to make you feel good.”
“Press Play” is a fusion of R&B, soul, hip-hop and live instrumentation. Combs calls it “hip-hop soul. That’s where music is going,” Combs says. “It’s hop-hop soul. It’s musical and has melody. It’s a mix of gutter and sophistication. Like me, I guess.”
The album features guest producers and artists including Kanye West, Pharrell, Will.i.am, Mario Winans, Just Blaze, Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls (on first single “Come to Me”), Jack Knight, Christina Aguilera, Big Boi, Ciara, Scar, Timbaland, Twista, Shawnna, Nas, Cee-Lo, Mika Lett, Keri, Brandy, Keyshia Cole, Jamie Foxx and Combs’ protégé and longtime collaborator Mary J. Blige. “Press Play” actually marks Combs’ singing debut, including a duet with Cole, “Last Night.”
The album is steeped in dance beats. During the period that Combs worked on it, he traveled the globe, frequenting many dance and techno clubs, often standing next to the likes of such hot shots as Ferry Corsten, who is one of the top 10 DJs in the world, according to fan site thedjlist.com. Tracks such as “Get Off” indulge in deep funk-soul grooves that sound like space-age jazz meeting James Brown on the dancefloor.
“I want people to put this album in, ‘press play’ and listen to the whole thing in one sitting,” Combs says.
Hip-hop’s greatest entrepreneur will utilize the power of his various brands to get the word out. His Sean John Fragrances — a division of Estee Lauder launched in February — cologne, Unforgiveable, is the top-selling men’s fragrance in department stores across the United States. His Sean John clothing lines, launched in ’98, totals about $400 million a year in retail sales, according to a recent New York Times report.
“The people from Estee Lauder have been so wonderful to sit down with us,” Greenwald says. “‘We know this Christmas, we’ll sell a billion bottles of cologne, so let’s join forces.'” Greenwald says plans are in place for a gift-with-purchase campaign over the holiday season and to buy radio to push the cologne as well as his album. Atlantic and Bad Boy are also in talks with Sean John regarding in-store record promotion and product placement.
Meanwhile, Combs has embraced MySpace as perhaps no other A-list act has. His 380,000-plus friends are an impressive total. But what’s more impressive is the length Combs goes to connect with them. He’s taken to updating his surprisingly candid and funny video journal frequently. One day a few weeks ago, he asked MySpace friends to send him their telephone numbers. “People didn’t believe it was him when he started calling them,” Greenwald says with a laugh.
“I’ve worked with the biggest of the big, but I’ve never worked with anyone like this before,” she continues. “He starts at 7 doing two radio shows. Then it’s a press junket. Then he goes to a high school to talk to kids. Two more radio stations, then that night he does a release party, gets on his tour bus, goes to the next market and starts again. No lunch break, no nothing. In London, we had two days in August. The guy worked for 48 hours straight. He’s a beast. He’s part machine.”
BAD BOY FOR LIFE
Combs’ determination is perhaps best exemplified by Bad Boy’s comeback. It was important to Combs that he re-establish his label before he rebooted his artist career. In 2005, WMG bought Bad Boy out of a 2-year-old distribution pact with Universal Records, which was scheduled to run through 2006. The Bad Boy/Universal deal yielded only one notable hit, the “Bad Boys II” soundtrack. As part of the deal, WMG took 50% ownership of Bad Boy, which at the time was worth $30 million, according to sources.
“Bad Boy went through a two-year slump,” Combs says. “But things are starting to turn around now. You have to keep focus and appreciate good days. Even when we were down, I always made money for people. That’s what I’m good at. But yes, the label wasn’t performing. I can admit that.”
Bad Boy hasn’t yet returned to its full glory days — the label’s last platinum act was 112 in 2001-but behind newly developed stars such as Yung Joc (“Goin’ Down,” which topped Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for eight weeks this summer) and R&B newcomer Cassie (“Me & You,” No. 1 on the chart in August), it is very much on the rise. Yung Joc has been certified gold by the RIAA and Cassie is closing in and just starting to work her second single even while “Me & You” is still a top 25 hit.
Cassie and Yung Joc are signed to subsidiaries of Bad Boy– NextSelection and Block Entertainment, respectively. “Puff helps groom some of the music and the sound,” Bad Boy head of marketing Jason Wiley says. “He still has that vision and that eye to bring the right talent to Bad Boy.” And, of course, the drive to make it succeed. “I have the perfect story for you,” Greenwald says when asked about Combs’ focus on Bad Boy. “Danity Kane.”
“The album went to stores on a Tuesday,” Greenwald says. “Wednesday, he calls and he’s yelling at me, ‘We don’t have enough product out there! Oh, my God!’ And I’m telling him, ‘It’s OK, everything is shipping. We’ll be at 450,000 units by Friday.'”
Greenwald says Combs proceeded to call every half hour to report that “another person on MySpace” was reporting missing product. Then the calls shifted to Combs wanting to know if the album would debut at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
“I was like, ‘Why are you even asking?’ We were up against OutKast that week. [We were going to sell] 175,000-190,000 — that’s already the win. Well, he just let me have it. He was like, ‘What are you doing? You’re not hungry!’ He hung up on me and then called me back to yell at me some more.”
Greenwald says she called an emergency meeting at Atlantic, got Danity Kane back on “TRL” and back on BET. “We got on MySpace, got on YouTube and said, ‘Help us get to No. 1.’ And it’s all because he lit such a fire under my ass.” Danity Kane wound up, of course, debuting at No. 1. The first-week tally? 234,000.
Could the same fate lay in store for “Press Play”? Combs himself downplays the importance of such an accomplishment, at least publicly. He says he expects to work the album like a rock record. This means two years and numerous singles, allowing for a slow build, instead of your average hip-hop album, which usually goes for strong first-week sales and then drops off the radar.
So far, first single “Come to Me” has hit but not set the world on fire. This issue it’s No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100. “This is a long-term project,” he says. “I don’t want to get caught up in SoundScan. I’ve been there. To sell a new vision takes time.”
“We’re doing this obviously to come in at the top,” Greenwald says. “You’ll call me next year at this time, and you’ll see where we’ll be.” And if it isn’t on top, it probably won’t be us calling. It’ll be Combs.