Jay-Z and Diddy's careers cross paths again

Kelefa Sanneh wrote in New York Times about Diddy and Jay-Z. Here’s the full article:

In the late 1990s Jay-Z and Puff Daddy (as he was then known) were two of the biggest names in hip-hop. And to nonfans who only glimpsed them on magazine covers or when flipping past MTV, they probably seemed pretty interchangeable: a couple of flashy New York stars whose ubiquity was proof of hip-hop’s continuing rise.

But even then, no casual listener — let alone an uncasual one — would ever have confused the two. And since then, they have come to occupy nearly opposite positions in the hip-hop universe. Jay-Z long ago proved himself to be one of the greatest rappers of all time; fans pore over his meticulous rhymes. Diddy (as Sean Combs is now known) doesn’t get the same sort of respect: he’s an nth-rate rapper but a first-rate hustler; he helped turn the Notorious B.I.G. and Mary J. Blige into stars, and more recently he has expanded his definition of hip-hop mogulhood to include running the New York marathon, appearing on Broadway, overseeing MTV reality shows and advertising fast food on YouTube. (From a recent video: “It’s your boy Diddy, I’m here at my local Burger King, about to order me a Whopper.”)

Still, their careers have often intersected, and now they’re intersecting again. After a few years off, both Jay-Z and Diddy are releasing new music, both hoping to engineer triumphant comebacks. Clearly they’re not in the same league. But it’s no coincidence that nearly a decade after both of them became stars, they’re still in the same game.

Jay-Z’s retirement began in 2003, after the release of The Black Album. Though it didn’t, really: The collaborations kept coming, and his new position as president of Def Jam Records helped keep him visible. More remarkable is the way other rappers keep talking about him.

The Atlanta rapper T.I. paid tribute by sampling Jay-Z’s voice for one of his breakthrough hits, Bring ‘Em Out. (Vibe magazine reaffirmed Jay-Z’s role as a hip-hop yardstick by putting T.I. on the cover, accompanied by the question, “Is he the Jay-Z of the South?”) Lil Wayne, the surging New Orleans rapper, sprinkles his rhymes with Jay-Z quotations, hoping some of Jay-Z’s reputation will rub off on him. (A bit of it has, and deservedly so.) The Compton rapper the Game has followed a greasier strategy: He says things that could be construed as disrespectful, then quickly backtracks. On his new single, It’s Okay (One Blood), he announces yet again — and out of nowhere — that he has “no beef with Jay.”

So when Jay-Z finally returned, a few days earlier than his record company expected, it was like hearing a hip-hop stock character coming back to life. His new album, Kingdom Come, isn’t due in stores until Nov. 21, and he is on a world tour. (He is in South Africa this week, though a scheduled gig in Shanghai was recently canceled; the promoter said Chinese officials cited Jay-Z’s vulgar language.) But his new single, Show Me What You Got, leaked to Web sites and radio stations last Friday. This week the album’s title track started circulating. And judging from the message boards and radio station callers, the main reaction was relief.

Relief, that is, because the songs are hard and witty and unpredictable and nimble; he still sounds like the guy all the other rappers want to be. In Show Me What You Got, Just Blaze provides a blizzard of sampled drum beats and horn blasts, while Jay-Z rhymes about a new car and a newer friend: “Truth or dare, mami, listen and learn/I got a drop, I just took off the top — it’s your turn.” And in Kingdom Come he slyly alludes to the Bankhead, the Atlanta neighborhood that has spawned a series of hip-hop dances: “I got ‘em dancing on the banquette/ Like they from Bankhead.”

When Diddy is mentioned in someone else’s rhyme, it’s not always a compliment. Rappers admire his perceived wealth, but they don’t envy his reputation. Diddy produced the soundtrack to the film Bad Boys II, which included a 50 Cent track known for short as Realest. But 50 Cent mocked him anyway: “I run the city/And I don’t dance around like Diddy.”

Diddy hasn’t released an album in five years. And although he helped push his teen-pop group, Danity Kane, to the top of the album charts, he has also learned to lie low. Two acts on his label, Bad Boy – the R&B singer Cassie and the pop-friendly rapper Yung Joc – scored summer hits without much visible involvement from him.

Diddy’s fourth album, Press Play (Bad Boy/Atlantic), hits shops today. It ranges from The Future, an oddly dour track produced by Havoc of Mobb Deep, to Last Night, which Diddy sings — sings! – alongside Keyshia Cole. The best songs surround Diddy’s clumsy verses with inventive beats: Timbaland helps concoct the moody, mechanical-sounding After Love; Mario Winans creates an airy double-speed rhythm for Thought You Said, featuring Brandy. The worst ones lean too heavily on Diddy’s rhymes or, more wincingly, his lyrics.

This is a garish, puzzling album, and it isn’t the sort of CD people pick up when they want to explain what’s great about hip-hop. But if Diddy has stuck around, it’s because the genre needs him. Hip-hop exists not only because of virtuosos like Jay-Z but also because of hucksters like Diddy, entertaining and stubborn self-promoters who simply refuse to go away or shut up, at least for very long.

Part of what’s interesting about Jay-Z and Diddy is that they sometimes seem eager to switch places: Jay-Z is always reminding listeners that he’s a hustler, not just a recording artist; meanwhile, on Diddy’s Web site, there’s a section devoted to Diddy “the artist.”

Beneath this odd role reversal lurks the sneaking suspicion that the two roles are related, and that every rapper is a bit of both. Jay-Z is rightly celebrated for his extraordinary breath control, while Diddy just huffs and puffs about his own Diddy-ness. (And, these days, about Burger King too.) In more ways than one, hip-hop runs on hot air.


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