Previously a man with more aliases than credibility, Sean "Diddy" Combs has emerged as hip-hop's most unlikely visionary.
Diddy-Dirty Money and the tunnel of love
The end of 2010 saw music journalists go into hyperbolic overdrive at Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - a self-proclaimed work of genius made by a safely established, critically approved auteur figure. Such was the narrative of nebulous "importance" that what it sounded like seemed a secondary concern, and the album's plentiful flaws were overlooked. It is instructive to compare this to the relatively muted reception that greeted the most recent album from another hip-hop producer-turned-lead artist - one without a cast-iron credible reputation to match Kanye's.
Sean Combs, Puff Daddy, P Diddy, Diddy: he's had more aliases in his career than good reviews. There's a new moniker attached to his latest, too, the unwieldy Diddy-Dirty Money, and some new faces.
Diddy-Dirty Money is a trio, with the singers and songwriters Dawn Richard (formerly of the girl group Danity Kane) and Kalenna Harper joining the man himself. Together they have embarked on - and pulled off - a deeply ambitious concept album that is also a joy to listen to. Six-minute epics, a plethora of superstar guests, expensive-sounding beats from name producers: as with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the structural signifiers of grand artistic statement are all present. The similarities run to the album's content, from the hallmarks of opulent, high-class lifestyles to Diddy's fixation with loving someone through the prism (and prison) of a supernova celebrity ego.
Last Train to Paris is nominally built around the narrative of Diddy racing against time to pursue and win back a former flame - via, apparently, the last Eurostar out of London. It adheres to this narrative frame only loosely. Though the album progresses from seduction to redemption, its 18 songs (on the deluxe edition) provide snapshots of moments rather than a linear plot - scenes from a film that's half action, frenetically paced and full of relentless energy, and half meditative romantic drama. The activity moves between beach, club, cathedral, bedroom and stage, each backdrop picked out in bespoke beats of astounding inventiveness.
For anyone who enjoys sonic thrills, Last Train to Paris is a treat. Despite the array of producers - including Danja, Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, Polow da Don and Swizz Beatz - Diddy has channelled their work into a tight, coherent whole packed with ideas and creativity (the contrast with the empty bloat found on West's mostly self-produced album is striking). If anything defines Last Train's overall aesthetic it is its omnivorous approach to extraordinarily strange electronic sounds, reflective of Diddy's well-documented penchant for European club music.
Courtesy of Danja, industrial screeches punctuate a twisted reworking of Dead Prez's It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop on Hate You Now, with poisonous recriminations buried in the sludge. Darkchild contributes a glorious blend of rippling house piano and swinging syncopations on I Hate That You Love Me; 7 Aurelius provides stereo-panning squeaks and clicks to nip at Lil Wayne's spaced-out spoken-word verses on Strobe Lights. Almost every song contains a sudden switch-up that sends the track veering in an unexpected direction - often in its closing bars. Ass On The Floor repurposes the martial tattoo from Major Lazer's dance-floor anthem Pon De Floor, adds an abstract hum - and in its final 40 seconds, slams back into reality with zigzagging synths. Your Love is built around a lasciviously grinding rhythm that blossoms into beauty: male, female and digital voices entwining in harmony.
It is not just the detail and originality of the arrangements that keep you on your toes, though. Unlike Kanye, whose drone dominates his album, Diddy doesn't let his own voice interfere with the seamless transmission of his ego. The album's central love story may involve just two characters, but they are performed by a host of voices: Diddy, the Dirty Money girls, guests including Lil Wayne, Justin Timberlake and Grace Jones. The narrative is passed between them - sometimes like a baton, one voice picking up from its precursor (reference Looking For Love, on which Usher and Diddy prowl and flex against a monolithic, muscular beat). Sometimes, however, it is more like a tug of war (for instance, Yeah Yeah You Would, on which accusations fly between Diddy and Dirty Money). At other times still, two vocal lines mirror but don't seem to hear each other - see the aural split-screen of Angels, wherein the ghost of Notorious BIG appears to Diddy.
This sense of theatre makes Last Train to Paris an emotional as well as a sonic ride. Each performer's time in the spotlight is restricted so there's a sense of urgency as each says his or her piece. The principals plead, curse, boast, flirt, contemplate and open their hearts as though everything in their lives is at stake - high drama which is entirely appropriate to the plot. The centre of the maelstrom, though, is Diddy himself. Though he is the album's architect, he casts himself less as a deus ex machina than as a man at the mercy of the music's sound and fury, an excellent metaphor for his own existential battles. Last Train is fundamentally Diddy's story. It reveals him as a magnificent weirdo. Barely a track has passed before he raps about "fuchsia gaiters and cummerbunds" - an image of luxury far more entertaining than Kanye West's country club aspirationalism. The confessional Someone To Love Me is the closest thing to a soliloquy here: Diddy turns to face the audience, declares himself "insomnia-driven, my eyes crusted" and compares himself to Rembrandt.
Diddy as auteur? In his two-decade career he hasn't often been placed in this category. If he is given respect, it is more often as a businessman, one who knows how to exploit the talents of others. In fact, though, Diddy's ambition and vision have been hiding in plain sight over the years, not least on Last Train's predecessor, 2005's superb Press Play.
Here, though, his self-portrait as a man trapped in the gilded cage of celebrity reaches new levels. On Shades, he makes increasingly ludicrous promises over dragging beats: "I'll pour a gallon of gasoline on my heart just to light your cigarette… I'll even take off my shades, and stare right at the sun from the stage… I'll make love to you on marmalade." His words are beautiful, surrealist, romantic, hilarious - and useless. Shades is a strange, sad song. Yet it's never self-pitying. Rather, it's a compelling portrayal of the celebrity as a man so warped that he is no longer able to relate on a human scale - the central worry of Last Train to Paris.
Tellingly, it is left ambiguous whether Diddy gets the girl. The final twist of Last Train is that its love story was a disguise for one about redemption and atonement.
The closing Coming Home brings the album back down to earth, a consciously mature song to soundtrack Diddy growing up. "What if my son stares at me with a face like my own, and says he wants to be like me when he's grown?" he asks, over a beatific, forgiving chorus from Skylar Grey. It's a pat but effective storybook ending; perhaps the best one this album could have (though the standard edition finishes with the downbeat Loving You No More instead). As stirring and vulnerable as Coming Home is, however, it - like the rest of Diddy's extravagant, obsessive life - is still pure performance.
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian and New Statesman.