Sean Combs is giving up the gangsta rap route. He’s getting romantic. And, though I’m not sure he even knows it himself, he’s going R&B.
Well, “hip hop R&B,” as he put it yesterday, when he played me six tracks — still unmixed and unfinished — from his forthcoming album. I can tell you the title is “Press Play,” and it will be released on Oct. 3 by his Bad Boy label through the ailing Warner Music Group. And here’s my prediction: Headlines are going to read "Diddy Saves Edgar Bronfman’s Rear End."
"Press Play” is an album of firsts. For one thing, Combs — who will be known as Diddy on this venture, not Puff or Puff Daddy or P. Diddy or Do Wah Diddy — actually sings on a record for the first time. When he told me this before he played me the songs, I have to tell you, dear readers, I felt like the guy who wants to hide the bad hors d’oeuvres in a potted plant.
But the good news is that Combs’ voice is not half bad. This is where he's a most remarkable fellow. He will run the New York Marathon or make a dramatic debut on Broadway. He seems fearless, and loves a challenge.
“It’s not like, singing. It’s fun singing,” he said.
“Not like Frank Sinatra,” I interposed.
“Right. No,” he laughed.
Before he played the tracks, he told me: “You can’t believe how nervous I was about some of these. It was like jumping off a cliff into the ocean. But you know what? I found the water invigorating.”
He chuckled when he said it, because it sounded so good. But it’s true. Combs has decided to reinvent himself, and from what I heard, it’s going to work very well.
"Press Play," like Combs’ other albums, is a collaborative work. He brought in producer/writers like Kanye West, Will.i.am, Timbaland, Pharrell, Combs’ pal Mario Winans, Rich Harrison, and others to create a sequence of melody-based songs about the pain and fun of being in love.
More importantly, the creative team did something considered new in hip hop: They didn’t sample old recordings. Combs is most famous for turning Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” into “I’ll Be Missing You” with Faith Evans. But that was an expensive proposition since Sting got all the money from that.
On “Press Play,” the songs are all new. Many of them have terrific melodies and hooks. There’s an unexpected freshness to the whole thing, especially in the abandoning of the gangsta bling-bling stance. Maybe seeing the success of John Legend, Alicia Keys, Kanye West, etc. has inspired Combs to go and make an R&B album.
Of course, there are guest-star vocalists. Tracks I heard featured Brandy, Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige, Big Boi from Outkast, Ciara, Nas, Keyshia Cole, and Nicole Scherzinger from The Pussycat Dolls. Fergie from The Black Eyed Peas is on another track, I was told. Mario Winans is heard throughout, supplying instrumental riffs.
The idea of the album, Combs told me at his Daddy’s House Studios, evolved from what happens when you’re alone with the music, and you press play — on your iPod, CD player, whatever. The album, which Combs has not officially sequenced yet, will begin with a spoken-word number called “The Future.”
“It’s my character statement,” he told me. “I learned that in acting class.”
You could call it a “soft rap,” but it also has political overtones. In it, he proclaims: “This is the man who’s provided more jobs than the Armed Services.” He has visions of becoming the first black president.
The first two songs I heard were conventional Diddy.
“You don’t want to take everyone on a left turn right away,” he said. The first single, “Come to Me,” features The Pussycat Dolls' Nicole. “Tell Me” puts Aguilera front and center, and Diddy raps, “I don’t want to control you, I want to console you.”
But that’s it for the Diddy of old. The next four numbers, one after another, are a sharp change from his previous outings. He sings — I mean, sings — two numbers: the very pop, very cool “Special Feelings,” which features Winans on keyboards and could easily be a Stevie Wonder number; and “Last Night,” a prospective single that showcases Keyshia Cole with a rich production and memorable melody. Of the latter song, he says, “This is where the pain starts.”
There are still three more songs he wants me to hear. “Thought You Said,” which follows "Last Night" as a number about recriminations between lovers, sounds as if it may be the album’s centerpiece. Brandy has the lead vocal, and she is so good you wonder what happened to her solo career. She seems to just be a guest star on other people’s albums now. A good pop number with Big Boi and Ciara follows. And then Diddy gives me a smattering of Mary J. Blige railing against a dissonant jazz horn and rhythm section. The song isn’t finished yet, but if it keeps going this way, no one’s going to believe what’s happened here.
Next week, Combs hits The Roxy in Los Angeles, where he’ll film a complicated video with director Chris Robinson. “It’s four little stories, with actors,” he said. Next February, he’ll head out on his first major tour in five years, with his ensemble — dubbed by him The Greatest Band in the Land — and his singers, whom he calls "The Voices."
So brace yourselves for October 3rd, friends, and get ready to "Press Play." After this last week — when the top 10 albums sold a total of 600,000 copies — we’ve got to hope that Diddy will be the cure for an ailing business. It sure seems like he’ll pull it off.
A new CD I had the pleasure of helping to organize gets a listening session next Tuesday, July 18th in New York. Randy Jackson of "American Idol" fame has produced what I would call — subjectively — a mini masterwork with the legendary Sam “Soul Man” Moore. Titled “Overnight Sensational,” and scheduled for release on Aug. 29 from Rhino Records, the CD features this most remarkable vocalist combining his talents with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Sting, Wynonna, and 20 other guest artists. There's a boffo version of Diane Warren’s “Blame it on the Rain” with Fantasia. The party is set for a hot new club called Pre:Post on West 27th St. Watch for a blitz of Sam in the media beginning Labor Day weekend. No one deserves the attention or praise more. Plus, the record is hot!
I’m always amazed that Hollywood stars come with their own security details. For example, Kate Hudson arrived the other night with her own bodyguard, who resembled Frau Farbissina from “Austin Powers.” Of course, plenty of rappers have their own personal battalions, but one record exec I visited recently had an office within an office within an office, and a permanent watchdog stationed outside just in case.
And finally: I cannot take listening to Gene Hackman do those Lowe’s Hardware commercials anymore. Gene, you are an Oscar-winning actor, one of the biggest movie stars in the world. For heaven’s sake, it’s time to go back to work. You’re too good for this!