Maybe five years ago, I was at the FADER Fort at SXSW, waiting for Lil B to play one of his first big solo shows since he’d become a buzzy word-of-mouth internet presence. I’d been waiting in that tent for a long time, and I was chatting with friends when I looked up and, holy shit, Sean Combs was up there onstage. The crowd lost its shit, which makes sense, since the FADER Fort is, among other things, a delivery system designed to give celebrity surprise appearances out to people who want to see them. But this felt like something different: A pillar of the rap establishment there to introduce and to support an insurgent internet-underground force. It was a sort of symbiotic-energy transfer, an icon of hypeness there to warm things up for someone who, at the time, looked like the future. It didn’t really work out that way. When Lil B hit the stage, people were going nuts, totally ready to jump on whatever wave he represented. But then Lil B started talking. And talking. He stopped performing his energetic dancing-on-YouTube tracks, started in with his inspirational stream-of-consciousness mumbling. He told us that he was publishing a historic document, a book of text messages. He lost his train of thought mid-sentence. He practically dissipated on that stage. I’ve never seen anyone lose an excited crowd so quickly and completely. Eventually, Puff had to come back to that stage to say something like, “Y’all need to show love to my man Lil B.” But Lil B’s DJ did something smart: He threw on the instrumental for Waka Flocka Flame’s “O Let’s Do It.” Puff had just appeared on that song’s remix, giving an absolutely furious verse (“I got my millions up, fuckin’ with them white folks / Now I don’t give a fuck because I’m richer than them white folks!”). The DJ goaded him into rapping his verse, and the crowd was immediately just back. Puff made like he was going to give the stage back to Lil B, but then the DJ threw on “All About The Benjamins,” the crowd went nuts again, and Puff reluctantly rapped his verse. And then “Victory.” That DJ, and that crowd, refused to let Puff leave the stage. Lil B never made it back. The mainstream rap establishment won that round, and it won without even trying.
Once upon a time, I really hated Puff Daddy. I had my reasons. This was during the original period when he was first calling himself Puff Daddy, during the summer that he dominated pop music so completely and mercilessly that everyone else existed utterly in his shadow. Summer 1997, I was working at a residential summer camp, and one of the kids who I worked with walked around constantly playing one of two songs on a boom box: “Mo Money Mo Problems” and “I’ll Be Missing You.” That was it. Nothing else. Not even “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” Not even “Benjamins.” I didn’t much like either of those songs to begin with. They both seemed to be everything obnoxious about Puff Daddy distilled and put on a pedestal. They both were built from extremely recognizable songs in big, bold, obvious ways — ways that went way beyond what I thought sampling was. They both had Puffy delivering sleepy, muttery verses. One was him muttering about how cool he was, and the other was him muttering about how sad he was. Neither sounded all that sincere, even though of course he was sad. And both songs followed me around every waking hour. My camp experience was probably only a slightly exaggerated version of what everyone else in America was going through; other than a few weeks when “MMMBop” reigned, Puff had an iron grip over the Billboard top spot that summer. Wu-Tang had come back with a full-group double album, and they couldn’t get any shine. I didn’t like it. So even though Puffy had been instrumental in me knowing who Biggie and Missy Elliott were, even though he’d made the obviously-great “Benjamins,” I decided to hate him. I held to it for a long time, too. I don’t even know when I stopped.
There was the entertainingly grimy take on the Making The Band reality show, the one that seemed to consist entirely of promising young no-name rappers fighting each other when forced to work together. There was the constant goofy dancing in music videos, his own and others’. There was the way-way-way-the-fuck over-the-top performance at the 2002 VMAs. There was the endless procession of songs that, I had to admit, where pretty good: “Pass The Courvoisier,” “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” “D.I.D.D.Y.” There was the strange reality that Puff turned out to be a really, really good actor whenever he showed up in movies — Monsters’ Ball and Made and eventually Get Him To The Greek. All those things added up and started to overwhelm all the love-to-hate-it things like the SNL performance of that Zeppelin-sampling Godzilla song with Jimmy Page — which, at the very least, was shitty in interesting ways. Eventually, I moved to New York and got to experience the weird buzz that would follow Puff whenever he walked into a room. I saw him headline Hot 97’s Summer Jam stadium show in a torrential downpour, bringing out Lil Kim and T.I. and demanding that the crowd “take those fucking ponchos off!” I saw him and Elephant Man enthusiastically dagger two 300-pound women before Elephant Man scooped one of them up in his arms and ran all over the stage with her. Eventually, just last year, I saw him return to the FADER Fort at SXSW, crashing French Montana’s set and then sort-of scolding the crowd for being there, lecturing that SXSW was supposed to be about underground artists immediately before launching into his “Benjamins” verse. He turned out to be a way more complicated and interesting and fun figure than my 17-year-old self would’ve been willing to believe.
And if you actually sit down and listen to Puffy’s albums — to all of Puffy’s albums — his discography proves to be a whole lot more bulletproof than anyone might expect. The world-conquering No Way Out was deeply divisive at the time, especially among those of us who considered ourselves discerning music fans. But these days, most rap fans seem to regard it as an impressively vast pop-rap classic. It’s like how we all threw our hands up and decided that fuck it, Jurassic Park was an awesome movie and it didn’t matter that it was also pretty stupid sometimes. But even if you look at the recent albums, the ones from way after Puff stopped being a reliable commercial powerhouse, and they’re still sort of awesome. There was, for instance, the fascinating and expensive 2006 mess Press Play, which found Puffy playing around with glossy house-music textures long before the rest of the rap world caught on, and, on one song, trying out Pharoahe Monch’s incredibly distinctive flow. (Puff has never been shy about working with ghostwriters, and one of the fun things about his records has always been figuring out who wrote which verses for him. On that one Pharoahe Monch track, the answer couldn’t have been any more obvious.) And then there was 2010’s Last Train To Paris, from his one-and-done future-soul Diddy-Dirty Money, which turned sleek luxurious synth-rap into sad-rich-people blues and sort of invented the sound that Drake would use on Take Care a year later.
And this leads us to MMM, the mixtape that Puffy, going back to his Puff Daddy & The Family name, released last week. The title stands for Money Making Mitch, Mekhi Phifer’s character from the movie Paid In Full, and it apparently has some loose concept about what would’ve happened to that character if Cam’ron hadn’t murdered him and if he went onto take over Wall Street or whatever. Really, though, it’s about Puff Daddy sounding enormous, which is what every one of the man’s albums is about. This is a free album that sounds more expensive than virtually everything out there. The beats are cold and mean and built to be played extremely loud. They gleam, whether they’re going the old New York soul-sampling route or whether they’re built from the textures of Chromatics and Les Sins tracks. As always, he mostly plays foil to his guests, who take over the songs completely. “You Could Be My Lover” belongs to Ty Dolla $ign, “MMM” belongs to Future, and Pusha T delivers his strongest verse in recent memory on “Everyday (Amor)”: “I’m tryna find peace for the love of my brother / Who dodged the white powder I couldn’t uncover / The price of blood diamonds is killing our cousins / While high blood pressure just killing my mother.” Weirdly, one of Puffy’s greatest skills is getting great rap verses out of his collaborators; even reliable B-listers like Wiz Khalifa and French Montana sound like world-beaters here.
Compared to those guys, Puff mostly fills space and sounds pretty cool doing it. He’s improved as a rapper in recent years, and he’s in imperious-swagger mode throughout the tape. But as my friend Al Shipley recently pointed out on Twitter, Puff has a particular set of skills, and it doesn’t even matter that they don’t necessarily include writing rap verses. He has money, he has clout, and he has an ear. He can make an album as shockingly strong as MMM anytime he feels like it, and he doesn’t even have to worry about making money on it. He’s always going to have more money than your favorite rapper. At this point, he’s doing this for fun first, and maybe for branding second. And if he’s still making records this good in 10 or 20 years, don’t be shocked. The man knows what he’s doing.
1. Future – “Last Breath”
The idea of a new Rocky movie in 2015 seems like a fucking horrible idea, and the idea of getting Future to turn Bill Conti’s classic Rocky theme into gurgling codeine soup seems like the sort of thing some clueless movie exec would green-light to make it seem contemporary. But Creed looks fucking great, and at this point, nobody should doubt Future’s ability to wring hedonistic pathos from any and every sound, iconic triumphant trumpet bursts very much included.
2. Lil Durk – “My Beyoncé” (Feat. Dej Loaf)
Like anyone else with a warm beating heart, I’ve got a deep soft spot for any song in which real-life rap couples pledge fealty to one another. But this one works especially well, since these two would sound great together even if they weren’t doubting. Durk, from Chicago, and Dej, from Detroit, both make hard-as-fuck Midwestern mutters sound beautiful when they coo them through piled-up Auto-Tune filters. And on this track, they sound like they’re melting into each other.
3. Lil Uzi Vert – “Safe House”
Vert, from Philadelphia, is basically two parts circa-’15 Future and one part circa-’11 Meek Mill, and you will probably not be surprised to learn that I really like him. “Safe House” is oblique, meditative drug-rap, and as the Atlanta codeine sound continues to drip northward, we’re going to hear more and more young East Coast rappers blurring their native sounds into that purple tide.
4. DP – “For The Love Of” (Feat. D.R.A.M.)
It’s too short, but this is a very nice sound that D.R.A.M. has a real future as a street-rap hook-howler once all the “Cha Cha”-vs.-“Hotline Bling” furor dies down. And this DP guy, newly signed to mixtape-rap colossus 300 Entertainment, shows real promise with that icy, matter-of-fact delivery we don’t hear too often anymore.
5. Boosie Badazz – “Bring It Like I Talk It”
I wish I connected with Boosie’s new Thrilla Vol. 1 mixtape the way I have with his last few full-lengths. It falls a little flat for me, but as with any Boosie tape, there are moments of absolute fire. Like this: Boosie says that his realness is what sets his music apart while demonstrating that what really does it is the musicality in his voice and the passion that we hear when he’s angrily insisting how real he is.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— Ian Cohen (@en_cohen) November 5, 2015