If it’s Friday, there must be a new Sean Combs. Not just a new name—”Puff Daddy,” “P. Diddy,” Sean John, etc.—but probably a new career, too. “Movie actor” Sean Combs is appearing as a death-row inmate in Monster’s Ball. Two weeks ago, “fashion designer” Sean John presented his menswear line with a flashy Manhattan runway show. Combs is also now styling himself a gospel singer, advertising executive, and Internet impresario.
Combs is a Renaissance man, but only by the standards of a P.T. Barnum world. Rarely has someone become so famous by being so mediocre at so many things—a boy wonder without any wonder. Puffy is a famous rapper who can’t rap, and he’s becoming a movie actor who can’t act. He’s a restaurateur who serves ho-hum food; a magazine publisher whose magazine was immediately forgettable (Notorious—see, you’ve forgotten it already); a music producer whose only talents are stealing old songs and recycling the work of his dead friend the Notorious B.I.G.
Combs can be seen as the inverse of the past century’s great Renaissance man, Paul Robeson, a truly wonderful singer, actor, athlete, and political activist. Puffy has none of that talent, but unlike the Communist Robeson, he has a profound understanding of capitalism. Puffy has thrived because he achieved his mediocrity with immense panache, with bling-bling hoopla and PR genius. Puffy is the Sammy Glick of hip-hop—a man without wit, talent, charm, or convictions, but so full of drive that he made $230 million anyway.
Puffy has argued for his greatness by assertion. He subscribes to the great American self-help principle: If you say it enough, it will come true. He calls himself “one of the greatest entrepreneurs and entertainers the world has ever encountered.” He says that, “I think of everything I do as history in the making.” Anyone who criticizes him is a “playa hater” jealous of his magnificence. He likens himself to Jay Gatsby, Frank Sinatra, and, most often, Jesus Christ. He appeared in a video nailed on the cross, has “God’s Child” tattooed on his neck, and speaks constantly about returning from the dead (most recently after his weapons-and-bribery acquittal last March). He opens his 1997 album No Way Out with the modest invocation—borrowed from Christ—”Forgive our enemies, they know not what they do, dear Lord.”
If Combs is a Christ-figure, he represents a very muscular Christianity. Not long before his weapons-and-bribery acquittal, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after beating the daylights out of a record executive who had crossed him. He has been accused of pointing a gun at a New York Post photographer and pummeling a man outside a club.
Puffy built his career on great populist instincts. He was a cool hunter before cool hunters were cool. Combs grew up in the middle-class suburbs of New York City. After a couple of years at Howard University, where he mostly promoted parties, he clawed his way to an internship with the R&B/rap record company Uptown. In the early ‘90s, Puffy constantly worked the street. He went to every club, saw every act, constantly took mental notes about what kids were wearing. He spotted Christopher “Biggie” Wallace, popularized Mary J. Blige and Jodeci.
Puffy had no particular creativity, but he understood what kids wanted. He hit it big as a producer and rapper in the late ‘90s by grafting ‘80s hits to gangsta-rap lyrics. He heisted the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” for his own smash “I’ll Be Missing You.” He took riffs from Christopher Cross’ “Sailing,” Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” among many others. Those samples, some perfunctory gun-and-ho lyrics, and videos featuring shiny suits, Cristal champagne, and a lot of booty—pretty soon Puffy and his crew were multiplatinum. He is taking repackaging to an extreme with his dead friend Biggie. Since Biggie was murdered in 1997—Puffy was with him when he was shot—Combs has managed to produce two post-mortem Biggie albums by mining castoff tracks and studio junk.
Combs has brought the cut-and-paste style to fashion, too. His successful Sean John line looks just like all the other urban hip-hop wear—Fubu, but with Puffy’s signature on the sweatshirts instead. His high-fashion menswear—weirdly excessive, foppish suits—is Armani on steroids.
Much to almost everyone’s satisfaction, Puffy’s “ghetto fabulous” style is beginning to wear. His constant reinventions no longer smack of restlessness but of desperation, the flailing measures of a celebrity plummeting toward Hollywood Squares. The Sean John clothing is selling well, but his magazine folded, his celebrity girlfriend Jennifer Lopez outfamed and then dumped him, and his core career, music, is collapsing. His last two albums have flopped by Puffy standards, perhaps because they merely cribbed the same formula—pop samples and guest rappers—he perfected five years ago. (The Saga Continues …., his ridiculously grandiose self-valentine of last summer, barely cracked the Top 10.) He is faring no better as a producer. His record label Bad Boy Entertainment is nearly hit-free. Its top star, Notorious B.I.G., is dead. Its next-biggest, Mase, quit to be a preacher. The Lox fled the label because they wanted to escape Puffy. Shyne was convicted in the weapons-and-bribery trial that Combs survived. Biggie’s widow Faith Evans is trying to leave Bad Boy.
At its root, Puffy’s decline can be blamed on too much fame. Puffy doesn’t know his fans anymore. He too much enjoys being rich, powerful, and insulated. He doesn’t cool hunt because he assumes that wherever he goes and whatever he does is what’s cool. (He said when he bought a house in the Hamptons: “I’m here now, so it’s the sexy place to be.”) He goes nowhere without chauffeur and security guard and mostly hangs out with his celebrity pals. If he’s in a club, he’s probably in the VIP room. Puffy’s delusion is to believe that he is a genius, when in fact he is a popularizer. A genius can ignore the fans, because his brilliance will draw them anyway. But a popularizer must follow. Puffy isn’t talented enough to lead and has become too proud to follow.