The Saga Continues...
When we last heard from Sean ”Puffy” Combs, on 1999’s Forever, he was a hip-hop mogul under siege, bemoaning the playa haters in his midst and attempting to retain his street cred while wearing Gatsby-white linens. Too bad the strategy didn’t work artistically, commercially, or emotionally: Combs’ claims to martyrdom mostly felt like whining.
In that regard, Combs’ recent skirmish with gun possession and bribery charges could be his best unintentional career move yet. The trial, in which he was found not guilty — while gun-wielding protege and tragic pop figure Shyne went directly to jail — transformed Combs into precisely what he wanted to be on Forever: the rap magnate victimized by the system. Suddenly he seemed hardcore, and on The Saga Continues…, credited to his infantile new moniker P. Diddy, he, not surprisingly, works it hard. In the inside photos, he’s wearing baggy black pants and baseball caps askew, and on the disc itself, he plays the pain card nonstop, never letting us forget about that ”situation” (his word) and his triumph over it.
Although Saga isn’t strictly a Combs album, since it features acts from his label both performing with him and on their own, its recurring focal point is Combs’ trial. On ”Let’s Get It,” he pronounces himself ”not guilty”; on ”The Last Song,” he gloats, ”No evidence, no possession.” The spoken-word ”Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” features him intoning, in his mumbled manner, about ”so many obstacles, so many hopeless days” and ”so many people working against you.” ”That’s Crazy,” which catches a buoyant Caribbean groove and rides it, finds him alternately defensive (”They had the nerve to say I had a gun/Man, for 12 years I had to run”), cocky (”I killed ’em with the charm/Yeah, it looked like there weren’t nothin’ wrong”), and feeling self-satisfied about his victory (”Man, New York never looked so pretty”). Elsewhere, he proclaims that his company is on the rebound (”Back for Good Now”), while in ”On Top,” he makes the dubious boast that he’s ”still platinum back in London and Sweden.” The Muzak-y R&B of ”I Need a Girl (To Bella)” both eulogizes his affair with Jennifer Lopez (”How we used to drive the whole city wild/Damn, I wish you woulda had my child”) and subtly hints at why it ended (he needs a girl who’ll ”go to court for me”). On the single ”Bad Boy for Life,” he announces, ”It’s official/I survived what I been through.”
That song’s sputtery guitar riff, which aims for Sly Stone funkiness but merely sounds clumsy, is representative of the album’s failings. Combs’ 1997 No Way Out relied on ready-made-hit samples that at the time seemed lazy, but listening to it now, the tracks feel surprisingly expansive — taut, springy, and containing just the right mix of pop elegance and street vibe. Saga adheres to the formula set by that album: guest stars, a reliance on reheated oldies (albeit less blatantly), ballad-inclined modern R&B, lame between-song skits, and Combs’ own scrawny rapping. But the similarities end there. Combs recently bragged that the album uses fewer samples of smashes and more original melodies by his array of coproducers. He’s right to some degree, but the low-rent synth-pop of ”Blast Off,” the secondhand blaxploitation-soundtrack collage of ”Where’s Sean?” and the sub-Dre crawl of ”Roll With Me” succeed only in making a solid case for samples. The blippy, bouncy production of ”Diddy,” courtesy of the Neptunes, can’t redeem its inane chorus (which spells out his new stage name) or lyrics like ”my repertoire is menage a trois.”
To its detriment, the jumbled The Saga Continues…is truly all in the Family. Unlike Combs’ previous two albums, which welcomed name contributors like Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G., and Busta Rhymes, the guest vocalists and rhymers here are all on the Bad Boy roster. And from blunt-toned rapper G. Dep to smooth-voiced singer Cheri Dennis, they’re not the most singular lot. Faith Evans wraps her formidable pipes around ”Can’t Believe,” but the song itself is banal. (Notable for his absence is the imprisoned Shyne, who will have to be content with Combs’ noncommittal passing nod in the liner notes: ”Hold your head up & God bless you.”)
Combs has the right to bitch all he wants, especially since the accusations against him always felt a tad overinflated. But on The Saga Continues…, Combs faces three new charges: ignoring his pop smarts, sending contradictory messages (the bling-blinging playboy indulging in thug-life poses), and not taking responsibility for glorifying a lifestyle that would compel anyone to carry a gun into a crowded club. And he’s guilty on all counts.
P. Diddy and the Bad Boy Family...The Saga Continues