hile many admire his hustle and resilience, most negative opinions of Diddy are derived directly from his musical output: the shameless and artless sampling, the Making the Band frame of mind that treats the creative process like dentistry, the fact that he needed Sauce Money and Sting to pen a heartfelt tribute to his best friend.
Diddy's infamous line "don't worry if I write rhymes, I write checks" is his most frequently cited, but would-be detractors are missing the point. There's more ghostwriting at the highest levels of hip-hop than you'll ever know. Diddy's biggest problem was that he considered himself the consummate showman, but could never perform the music that other people took the trouble to write for him well enough to live up to the name. Even amongst Bad Boy afterthoughts like G. Dep and Loon, Diddy's amateur flow was reedy and distracting, a problem that required a vocal coach more than another ghostwriter.
Maybe he got the message: at least for the first half, Press Play is listen without prejudice. As you may have heard by now, the production on the album should have Jay-Z emptying out a couple Swiss accounts in order to keep up. An army of upper-echelon beatmakers led by Just Blaze and Havoc give Diddy some ridiculously tony real estate to preside over. Tracks like "Hold Up" and "The Future" play like The Blueprint in HDTV.
And Diddy actually does them justice. If you can't get past the idea that he might not have authored one word of Press Play, you won't stand a chance. And it's a little strange getting involved in a hall of mirrors where Diddy is reciting lyrics written by other people pretending to be Diddy. But on the harder tracks of Press Play, Diddy sounds more comfortable than he's ever been. Even his attempt at a Pharoahe Monche flow on "The Future" is pretty endearing, considering he could've taken the easy way out and gone with, ahem, Rick Ross.
But the nostalgia—for a time when Diddy ran the city—starts to crumble quickly. "Wanna Move" tries to drive you down I-85 with yet another music-makes-me-lose-control Ciara cameo, but it's overactive drum track reeks of product-shizzle. "Tell Me" features Just Blaze at his brassiest, Christina Aguilera, and the least sexual chemistry we've heard since "Tush." Diddy and Christina boast about how they can get their fuck on 'til the break of dawn, but as to be expected from people who probably recorded their parts on different continents, it plays out more like a raunchy IM exchange.
An unsteady balance of kingpin shit talk and radio hedge-betting was to be expected, but Diddy second-guesses his instincts midway through Press Play and it's a huge mistake: the latter half turns out like Bad Boy Presents…The Love Below II. After the boasting ends, Diddy takes on a less appealing brand of egocentrism: spending the night popping bottles and tossing hundreds, but having the nerve to tell you ad nauseum during breakfast that he'd give it all up for that special girl.
Side B of Press Play takes a cyclopean look at "urban relationship music," honoring Biggie's "Dreams" by pumping out track after track with a different R&B chick. From Keri to Keyshia Cole to Mary J. Blige, the gang's all here, leaving you to wonder where Deborah Cox was in all of this.
Any of these would have served as, at the very least, interesting left-field detours. There's the Bar Mitzvah & B track from 1985, the one where Diddy sings, a spoken word soliloquy, and something with Brandy that nearly qualifies as two-step. But placed back-to-back-to-back-to-back, they become a hookless, charmless comedown that anchors what was supposed to be a party album and renders Press Play nearly devoid of replay value past the twenty-minute mark.
That Press Play turns out to be no worse or better than we should've expected is incredibly disappointing in light of the timing. Diddy's been having his best run in years: Cassie blew up, Yung Joc was the answer in Bad Boy's search for the elusive two-hit wonder, and Danity Kane even topped OutKast for Billboard's top spot recently. Plus, I'm willing to wager that the people who are reviewing Press Play liked No Way Out far more than they were told they were supposed to and were ready to give some retroactive love.
But despite what Diddy says, this is not No Way Out II. Even if most of his performance on that album was glorified rapping into his hairbrush, he knew how to surround himself with cats as hungry for superstardom as he used to be. Biggie's verses may have literally and figuratively dropped from the heavens, but in 1997, rappers like Jay-Z, The LOX, Lil' Kim, Ma$e, and Twista were still (to varying degrees) unheralded by the mainstream. No one phoned it in. Compare it to Press Play, where Diddy surrounds himself with divas and servants. The degree of bloat and contentment is the exact reason why even the better portions of the album won’t yield something as vital as "Victory," "It's All About the Benjamins" or even "Young G's." Instead, Press Play is like an episode of My Super Sweet 16: though lavishly decorated and probably an honor to be invited to, there's a megalomaniacal presence that ensures the whole party is about glorification of ego rather than actual fun.