Sean Combs doesn’t need to ask anyone for anything

The music mogul, 53, has a new album, a new psychedelics-fuelled self-image and a fresh sense of purpose

By Jon Caramanica

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Published: Thu 21 Sep 2023, 2:47 PM

Last updated: Thu 21 Sep 2023, 2:50 PM

If you want to get to the studio at Sean Combs’ house, pass the purple Anish Kapoor sculpture, then saunter into the living room, stopping to marvel at Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times, a startling painting reckoning with Blackness, wealth and leisure that Combs bought at auction in 2018 for $21.1 million.

Next, glide through a conspicuously undisturbed dining room, where Jeanneret chairs are lined up like sentries on either side of a long table, step out into the backyard and head left, past the generous pool, into one of the secondary structures on the property. Upstairs there, one Tuesday afternoon last month, Combs was pacing a tasteful, lounge-like room and chatting on speakerphone to FunkFlex, the long-standing master of ceremonies for New York’s Hot 97 radio station, spreading the good word about his return to music.

There was some talk of a possible event they’d do. “You think I’m gonna stay in the VIP?” Combs yelped, mock incensed. “I done created the VIP! [Expletive] the VIP! I wanna touch the people — I wanna feel alive!”

He was dressed casually in all black, down to an Apple Watch, Balenciaga socks and around-the-crib Crocs. At least two attendants were always within shouting distance, taking impromptu food requests and replacing sippy bottles of water before Combs emptied them.

Combs and associates, including Stevie J, part of the original Bad Boy Hitmen production team, were working through the medley Combs performed at the MTV Video Music Awards, a couple of days before he released The Love Album: Off the Grid, his first solo studio album in 17 years.

He got the rapper Caresha, his close friend slash sometime romantic partner, on FaceTime. “I’mma let her feel the feeling,” he said, rapping his verse on Bad Boy for Life to her. His teen twin daughters, Jessie and D’Lila — two of his seven children — came into the studio to say hello. He asked someone on his team to think about ways to generate excitement around the album cover, maybe blowing it up and presenting it like a work of art: “Ideate on that.”

Then he got to talking about P.T. Barnum, the foundational American showman. “My muse,” Combs said. “One of my heroes.” He stopped and smiled, knowing full well someone was filming for posterity, then he dropped the hammer: “But P.T. Barnum ain’t have these [expletive] hits!”

For a solid run dating from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, those hits were relentless. Combs — then Puff Daddy, and later Diddy, and now Love — was the engine behind hip-hop’s merger with R&B, and later the key driver behind its takeover of mainstream pop. He was the public embodiment of hip-hop’s boundless ambition, its entrepreneurial hustle, its unapologetic blitz on American pop culture, business, politics and more. That the genre is the lingua franca of youth culture to this day has everything to do with the fervour with which he pursued that goal three decades ago.

Combs, 53, is now in his accolades era. Last year, he received a lifetime achievement honour at the BET Awards. This month, it was the global icon award at the VMAs. The disrupter has become the establishment.

Combs isn’t comfortable, though. Having access to the 1 per cent, and becoming part of it, has only underscored the avenues that remain walled off to him as a Black entrepreneur.

“When I started seeing how media was using our success, whether it was Kanye’s, Jay-Z’s, mine, Rihanna, LeBron. That’s just a couple of people, but if you market it right, you put the right type of propaganda out, you may have people get comfortable like there is inclusion,” he said. “No, there isn’t.”

He’d left the studio, stripped down to shorts and kinesiology tape on his right shoulder, and made his way to the private sauna in one of the other small buildings near the rear of his property. Inside, it was 149 degrees.

“Every day I wake up in the morning,” he said, “I pray that I ain’t gotta ask a white man for [expletive].”

After 15 minutes of punishing, cleansing heat, he stepped out of the sauna and went out to the back balcony, where a cold plunge tank awaited. He reached for a pair of thermal toe covers, and then eased his way in.

“I hate the cold,” he said. “It makes me deal with reality in a whole different way.” But when he emerged from the frigid water, he proclaimed, “I’m so happy to be alive.” He sat in the icy wet for a few minutes, grinning, still and beatific. What the water was truly good for, he insisted, was for “waking your ass up.”

His radical impulses, he said, dated back to his days at Howard University, when, in 1989, he was part of a group of students that occupied the administration building to protest the appointment of Lee Atwater, then the chair of the Republican National Committee, as a trustee. The first time Combs met Jesse Jackson, he said, was during the standoff.

Combs was part of the Rooftop Posse, a group of students that ensured police didn’t attempt to breach the building from above. He later sold T-shirts and posters commemorating the protest.

Combs already had his eyes on the music industry at this time — he was a party promoter at Howard, and left college after a few semesters for Uptown Records, then the most forward-looking label working at the intersection of hip-hop and R&B. He helped craft a street-wise presentation of soul music via Jodeci and Mary J. Blige, and then, after leaving and forming Bad Boy Records, worked in the opposite direction, bringing the sensuality, pulse and joy of soul music into hip-hop via heavy sampling that emphasised hip-hop’s place in the Black music lineage.

He intended to be a personality, not a performer, but that had to change after the murder of the Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. I’ll Be Missing You, the song that put him in the spotlight, is a permanent entry in the pantheon of American melancholy, right alongside He Stopped Loving Her Today and All Too Well. Combs was the owner who became the star, making inseparable the endeavours of art and capitalism.

Success in the fashion world and the spirits industry followed. He made the cover of Forbes. His halcyon years were halcyon, indeed. “I ain’t gonna lie to you. I had got a taste of wealth and I was going to do anything I could do to protect that,” Combs said. “I just remember those days of roaches crawling on me and it’s just like, I need to focus on this money right now, ’cause nobody else has the opportunity that I have.”

A few years ago, though, his carefully polished life began to unravel. In late 2018, Kim Porter, the mother of three of Combs’ children, died of pneumonia. She and Combs were no longer involved, but they’d remained close friends. In May 2020, Combs’ mentor Andre Harrell — who’d given him his Uptown internship and then cast him out, only to reunite and work for Combs for many years — died of heart failure. In between those losses, Combs turned 50. The series of events left him uncharacteristically wandering in a spiritual desert.

“I had dealt with depression before, you know? Through a lot of different things, trials and tragedies,” he said. “But this one was different. I actually locked myself in my room. For like a year and a half. In my bathroom. I wasn’t talking to my kids, I wasn’t talking to nobody.”

Slowly, Combs embarked on the work of remaking himself. He began referring to himself as Love (and legally changed his middle name to Love). He used therapy: “It probably most likely really saved my brain. Because when you have a genius brain, it’s also a crazy brain.”

And he continued to try to understand life beyond the conventional earthly plane. “I’m a big old hippie,” said Combs, who has attended multiple Burning Man festivals. “I had a little bit of ego left in me. And when I did toad, I officially had a ego death.”

Psychedelic toad venom has been life altering, he said. “It’s a journey you don’t even remember,” he said of the hallucinogenic. “The best way to describe it is it’s just like a opening of a whole different portal, without you seeing it open.” (Combs urged safety and caution for anyone interested in seeking out that same portal. “I’m a top level hippie,” he said. “The testing, the ambulance in front of the house — I don’t play around, baby.”)

Diddy performs onstage at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards
Diddy performs onstage at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards

But perhaps most pointedly, there’s music. The choice to return so prominently, after a long stretch away, indicates a return to the core of what motivated Combs decades ago. “Music had always fuelled all of my dreams. So when I stopped music, I kind of stopped dreaming,” he said.

“I don’t know if this world we living in is real,” he continued, “but I know that feeling that I get when I make music, I know that’s what brings me joy. And the thing I’ve done to bring the most people joy, you know?”

The Love Album feels modern and engaged, a blend of sensuality and slick talk. To make it, Combs collaborated widely — the Weeknd, Summer Walker, Mary J. Blige, Justin Bieber, Burna Boy. “I called everyone and said ‘I need your help telling my love story,’” Combs said. He brought in Babyface, the maestro of delicate R&B, to work on Kim Porter, a tender seven-minute meditation inspired by Combs’ ex.

The choice to make R&B music is also pointed. “You have people in control that really think that R&B and hip-hop are the same thing,” Combs said. “R&B is really, really being erased. But I’m gonna be making R&B records. You’re gonna be seeing unforgivable Blackness. Unapologetic Blackness.”

At the same time, Combs’ musical catalogue is helping form the foundation for a new generation of hip-hop. Much like he sampled ’70s and ’80s classics to make his hits of the ’90s, younger artists are mining the Bad Boy catalogue for inspiration.

And more broadly, the current pop moment — in which established stars and would-bes alike are excavating recent pop history for five-alarm samples that will translate across generations — feels not unlike the peak Bad Boy era, which took the funk, soul and disco of the 1970s and built a whole new world atop it. Combs was often maligned in the ’90s for his literalist sampling, but it has become something of a standard now.

Regardless, those are yesterday’s battles. Lately, Combs has been embracing the concept of “the second mountain,” loosely derived from the book of that title by New York Times Opinion columnist David Brooks, in which the challenges taken on during life’s back nine trade self-involved ambition for goals that are more moral and benevolent.

“As a Black man, I’m not gonna allow myself to be programmed to not love myself, and not go after what I deserve as a human being for me and my people,” he said.

“There’s so much that should have killed me, so many tragedies,” Combs continued. “It would’ve just been all right to be like, yo, that was legendary. Just go live on the yacht, live next door to David Geffen.”

But the second mountain, the scale and uncertainty of it, has him energized. “This mountain is three times bigger,” he said. “It got volcano coming down, rocks, avalanches. And you’re like, yo, do you want to climb this mountain? Or do you want to just go for shelter and ride this thing of life out, and just die?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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