He built his empire with the swagger he learned from the streets. And while the hustler turned hip-hop icon has had his professional triumphs (awards, parties, wealth beyond belief), he’s also had his share of personal catastrophe (murders, infidelities, heartbreak) as he’s kept up the near-impossible struggle to stay on top. After two decades in the game, Sean “Diddy” Combs—free of superstar posturing, bad-boy sunglasses and bombshell girlfriends—discusses Last Train to Paris, his most vulnerable and soulful album to date, and the wild ride that got him here alive.
Portraits of Sean “Diddy” Combs and Kate Moss cover the walls on the second floor of the Sean John offices in midtown Manhattan. The images show the 39-year-old hip-hop star wrapped in colonies of dead mink, rockstar sunglasses and the iconic all-white suits in which he trampled red carpets during the early ’90s. Bombast permeates the space, from the photographs to the frenetic assistants—one struggles to hide a torture device presumably meant to tone stomach muscles; another attacks the smell of panic in the room with a spray-can of Lysol—to the smattering of nearby coffee table books: In the Spirit of Cannes, Island Hotel Stories and In the Spirit of the Hamptons. With one minute left before our scheduled meeting on a sweltering afternoon in early August, a young woman walks over. “I’m sorry,” she says nervously, “but he isn’t here.”
After hailing a cab in the direction of the Bad Boy Entertainment recording studios, our new meeting point, I receive an ersatz justification from the mogul’s camp via text message: “Welcome to the world of Sean Combs!” The taxi drives past a Sean John billboard towering over the toothy out-of-towners and sullen bankers who crowd this part of Broadway. With his omnipotent, rap-stoic pout frozen in time, the reigning king of bling surveys his empire.
But Diddy didn’t show up to his studio today—Combs did, stripped of the expected artifice, swagger and hyperbole. Seated in front of the mixing board at “Daddy’s House” in white cargo shorts, blue high-top sneakers and a matching short-sleeve shirt, he yawns deeply and often. His diamond earrings and the “Life after Death” tattoo that peeks through his left shirtsleeve—a tribute to his friend and protégé Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, infamously killed in a drive-by shooting in 1997—are the only traces of the heavily mythologized and often caricatured icon who once shouted across the world’s airwaves that he would forever be a bad boy.
But that was before his split two years ago from Kim Porter, his partner of 10 years and the mother of three of his five biological children. That was before the scrutiny, the drama, the name changes, the signature fragrance and the reality TV empire (at last count, he appears on three shows: VH1’s I Want to Work For Diddy, as well as Making His Band and StarMaker, both on MTV). The evolution of Sean John Combs from Puff Daddy to Puffy to P. Diddy to Diddy—from street-savvy opportunist to industry titan—has opened him up to criticism, specifically from cynics who question his credibility as a musician. “I have people confused,” he says, laughing. “They don’t know what the hell to think. ‘He has 20 different names, a clothing line, a record company and a vodka brand. He’s a rapper who went to the Hamptons and he’s crap.’ But it’s not that easy. You can’t just sum me up like that.”
Sean Combs was introduced to the bleak reality of gang violence at the age of three, when his father, Melvin Combs, a player in the world of organized crime, was shot and killed. His mother and grandmother, who raised the young boy in Harlem and then a few miles north in Mount Vernon, told him Melvin had died in a car accident. It wasn’t until he began studying at Howard University in Washington, D.C., that Combs discovered the truth. “I was kind of confused,” he says of the time. “The only thing I remember about my father was him throwing me up in the air. But it was for the best, because I probably would have followed in his footsteps. I think that would have been the endorsement that would have made it okay.” He lets out a dramatic gasp for effect: “But it wasn’t a total shock. This explained the hustler inside me.”
Along the wayward, topsy-turvy journey that characterizes Combs’ precipitous rise, it’s that unrelenting hustle that has always been constant. He was a student at Howard when he became an intern at Uptown Records. By the time he dropped out of college, he was already a top-level executive at the company. At just 24, he established Bad Boy Records, signing and producing albums for some of his generation’s most influential musicians, from Jodeci and 112 to Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans. But it was his discovery of The Notorious B.I.G., who became his close friend and protégé, which trumped the rest.
Biggie was murdered in a drive-by shooting outside of the Peterson Automotive Museum after a party in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997. For years, it looked like the rap world would never fully recover. In fact, it was only with the release of last year’s Notorious, in which Combs was portrayed by actor Derek Luke and served as executive producer, that the man closest to Wallace was able to do so himself. “It’s something that I just hadn’t been able to get over,” he says. “It was such a shock to me—it turned my life upside down. But a strange thing happened when the movie came out. I finally said to myself, It’s time to let this go.”
Out of this newfound sense of calm comes Last Train to Paris, Combs’ first studio album in over three years, and a sincere attempt to re-establish himself as a serious artist. His video for the song “Angels,” directed by Hype Williams, is a surprisingly pensive black-and-white affair that muses on fatality and features the musician on his knees, in church, praying. But before the video is over the Diddy flavor we’ve come to expect returns in the form of several gyrating women. Likewise, “Someone to Love You,” a deeply earnest song about love and desire, is peppered with a line about “skeet” and bedsheets.
Despite intimations of bitches past, the new album exposes the music mogul’s fragile side—if only because he’s really singing. “I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best singer in the world,” says Combs. “But singing lends itself to being as vulnerable as possible. It’s more about expressing the way my soul sounds.” On this new collection of songs, Combs’ soul sounds introspective and conflicted, if at times playful. A bulletin board in the studio features words and phrases that further characterize his aural agenda: “Goosebumps,” “High fashion,” “Euphonic,” “No words needed.” Another sheet of paper reads, “The definition of Last Train to Paris: Energetic, emotional, limitless, important, heartfelt, flamboyant soul!”
If it all seems unexpectedly earnest, that’s because Combs is speaking from the heart. “Imagine if the person that you love, the person that you lost, was in Paris and there was one last train to catch her,” he says. “You don’t know if she’s still going to be there. You don’t know if she’s going to feel the same way about you, or if you’re going to feel the same way about her.” He remembers a girl from his youth, a student at Howard. “She never told me that she went back to D.C. because her parents said that if she saw me again they would pull her out of school. As soon as I heard she was there, I left my job, ran to the train station and took a four-hour ride from New York to find her. I can’t even describe the energy.”
Although he never says as much, the theme of retrieving lost love seems to have been inspired by his split from Porter. Theirs was a rocky relationship made turbulent by celebrity, infidelity and a two-year break during which Combs dated a tube top- and headband-wearing Jennifer Lopez at the height of her hula-hoop-earring phase. (Two years after Wallace’s death, Combs and Lopez became entangled in a highly publicized court battle after a shooting outside of Manhattan’s Club New York. Although Combs’ protégé Shyne was sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempted murder, assault and reckless endangerment, Combs was acquitted on all charges. Combs and Lopez ended their relationship shortly after.) Porter left for the last time when, pregnant with Combs’ twin daughters, she discovered he had fathered a child with Sarah Chapman, a photographer from Atlanta. “Love is something I strongly connect with,” Combs says, “but it’s not something I’ve conquered. I really can’t sit here pretending to be the premier expert on love. I’m still searching for the type of love that will give me peace and take care of me.”
Since returning to the single life, Combs has been linked to actress Sienna Miller and, more recently, pop star Cassie, with whom he arrived at BlackBook’s photo shoot. Are those rumors true? “Am I dating? Let’s see… Am I going out on dates?” says Combs, who turns 40 next month. “Right now, to be honest, I’m just chilling.” A playful grin builds across his face. Discretion from the man who once promised that he could “make love all night, bending bed coils”? It’s a far cry from his unapologtic playboy past, of which he’s regaled journalists with pull quotes about threesomes and more-somes. “I guess the things that used to thrill me don’t thrill me so much anymore. Intimacy,” he adds, “is more important to me than sleeping with hot chicks. I don’t even know if I really savored every ménage a trois I had. I don’t want to do it all over again, but if I have any more, I’ll take extra time.”
Time is a luxury, perhaps the only one, Combs doesn’t have—his inner hustler just won’t relent. Later this year, Combs will star in Get Him to the Greek, Nicholas Stoller’s Judd Apatow-produced follow-up to last year’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, alongside comedians Jonah Hill and Russell Brand. “I was starting from scratch, really having to prove myself,” says Combs, who began acting in 2001 with supporting roles in Made and Monster’s Ball. In Get Him to the Greek he plays Sergio, a studio executive dealing with Brand’s unpredictable rock star. “You know the term ‘to steal a scene’? I heard through the grapevine that there is one scene that I stole, but what people don’t know is that Jonah was behind the camera telling me what to say. That’s how nice he is, and that right there is really rare.”
Few people know that Combs turned down the part of the fashion designer played by Daniel Sunjata in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, the semi-fictional story about one woman’s experience as an assistant to Vogue editor Anna Wintour. The owner of fashion label Sean John, Combs won the coveted CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year award in 2004, beating out the likes of Ralph Lauren. Even though Wintour found the film “very funny,” according to the New York Post, Combs knew it would be foolish to piss off the queen of the contemporary fashion world. Besides, he says, “She hasn’t been the person to kill dreams. She’s been the person to make them happen. It wasn’t like they were portraying her in a bad way. It was just that I knew what was in the script and what she’s like in real life were different. She’s bricked one or two of my collections, but she’s also called 15 minutes later with some helpful advice about who I should get to fix it.”
No matter Wintour’s capacity for instruction and support, a maternal presence she is not. But Combs insists, “I don’t get intimidated. I was excited when I met Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. I don’t think there’s a reason to be intimidated by anybody—they’re not going to hurt you. I’m more like the fan who wants to hug everyone.” He adds, laughing, “Security’s like, ‘Calm down, man!’”
The one exception to the no-intimidation policy came almost five years ago after Diddy rallied his celebrity friends—everyone from Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent to Yoko Ono—to model his “Vote or Die” T-shirts in an effort to encourage the youth vote. Because of his work, Combs, along with Oprah, discussed “mobilization” with Barack Obama. “He wasn’t the president yet,” says Combs, “But yeah, I’d say I was a little intimidated by that.”
How does he feel about Obama’s performance, nine months into his tenure as president? “Honestly,” he says, “I’ve seen him at least try to do more things in the first few months than I’ve seen Bush do with his entire eight years in office. The attack that’s going to come on him in the near future is so predictable. People are trying to set him up for failure. I’m going to give him the leeway to fix some of these problems that, even for me, feel damn-near insurmountable. I just think it’s going to take time.”
Aware that conspicuous consumption doesn’t have quite the shine it did in the charge-card ’90s and ’00s, Combs insists he’s moved beyond bling—“even though people still try to make me the guy with the white fur coat on, with champagne in my hand and a bunch of jewelry around my neck.” Looking back on late 2003 and early 2004, Diddy says, “I ran the New York City Marathon, starred on Broadway [in A Raisin in the Sun] and carried the Olympic torch. But I was moving so fast that I forgot to tell anybody. I remember handing off the torch and seeing everyone’s families out there and how proud they were. I had so much going on, and I was probably taking so much for granted, that I don’t think I even got a picture to remember the moment. That was some young, dumb shit.”
But economic prudence and appreciating life’s little victories mean something unique to a man who, in 2006, was reportedly worth an estimated $346 million. Does the recently subdued icon, say, wash his own laundry?
Cook his own meals?
Drive his own car?
“No. Well, I drive some of my faster cars, like the Lamborghini and the Ferrari. But it’s better for me to have a driver, especially when I’m going out at night. I don’t want to drink and drive.” You can take the man out of the nightclub, but you can’t take the nightclub out of the man. “You’ll more likely find me drinking a nice vintage bottle of wine. And there probably aren’t as many people around—I sort of became bored with a lot of them,” he says of the padded entourage of fans and followers eager to participate in his breakneck social life. “It’s just different. But I still got the same spirit and the same swagger. I can turn that on.”
And he does. Standing close to one another, we half-dance while Combs plays tracks from his new album. The ceiling of his studio lights up in a flurry of neon flashes as if Steve Rubell were manipulating van Gogh’s Starry Night. It’s fun material, but then the third track opens up with Biggie rhyming in the background alongside the haunting lyrics, “Come from heaven down to sing a song for you.” We stop moving, until a few songs later, Diddy shouts: “It’s that Dirty Money, motherfuckers!” He looks over and smiles, and even though Sean Combs came to the studio today, there’s a faint glimmer of Diddy in his dark brown eyes.
See full photo gallery from our shoot with Sean “Diddy” Combs.
SEAN’S FAVORITE CLUB: 1OAK, NEW YORK CITY.