''Press Play'' is the entertainment mogul's first record in five years

October 13, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

”She’s definitely a pro, man. She’s a beast!” says the artist currently known as Diddy, staring at the scarily seductive Christina Aguilera on a monitor. The superstars are on an L.A. soundstage filming a video for their duet, ”Tell Me,” which is on Press Play, Diddy’s first album in five years. It’s a testament to his lingering pull that Aguilera not only cut the track but agreed to let it be released as a single when she has her own CD to promote. That’s almost unheard of, but Diddy attributes it to her preholiday marketing acumen: ”I think it’s savvy of her to have two records on the charts going into the fourth quarter.”

But Aguilera’s beastliness is no match for the full-on wind tunnel she’s in. She tries pawing her elbow-length tresses out of her face, but the hurricane-force wind machines are giving her an albino Fu Manchu. Luckily, Diddy knows how to bring the sexy back. ”Can you turn the fans on and off so they aren’t all on her at once?” he calls out. Success! Hirsute disappears, sultry returns.

Today is casual-bling Friday — there’s just a gold medallion over a simple black T-shirt — and Diddy seems surprisingly humble for a guy whose new record mentions ”the potential to be the first black president” and wonders if ”you’ve ever seen a black man walk on water.” Besides commanding the winds and water, he certainly commands one hell of a guest list. In addition to Aguilera, the disc includes Mary J. Blige, Jamie Foxx, Brandy, Keyshia Cole, Ciara, Big Boi, and lead Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger. Even hardcore Diddy dissers might concede that the record is the year’s best-produced album, if only because it has a who’s who of accomplished producers (Timbaland, the Neptunes, will.i.am, Kanye West, Rich Harrison, et al), none of whose hooks sound like leftovers. ”I’m the kind of artist that works better on a team,” Diddy admits.

Nine years ago, he used the Police’s ”Every Breath You Take” as the basis of ”I’ll Be Missing You,” and that smash turned him from someone best known as Bad Boy’s label chief and Biggie’s street-savvy producer into the kind of teen-friendly pop culture phenom not seen in rap since MC Hammer. But it also made him the butt of jokes, as ”that guy who can’t have a hit without a sample.” Bring this up now and he won’t even get defensive.

”I always understood why people said that,” he begins. ”That’s where I was at, so I had to take that one on the chin. I would have to agree with a lot of things that critics have said. I wasn’t as good as some of my counterparts. I had a huge amount of success as a beginner. It’s almost like a kid who’s playing junior high basketball and he scores 100 points: The whole nation may be talking about him on ESPN, but he ain’t reached the level of being a pro yet. This is probably the first time I feel like I became an artist.”

The opening stretch of Press Play is full of that braggadocio — like the repeated boast ”I’m richer, bitch!” — and references to the ”Bugs Bunny money” he got when his Bad Boy label moved under the Warner umbrella (and had a comeback this year with hits by Cassie and Danity Kane). The rest of the CD charts the rise, fall, and resurrection of a love affair. ”In the beginning, I talk like this cat who thinks he’s one of the baddest motherf—ers ever to walk the face of the earth,” he says. ”But then, as it happens in real life, that person meets a girl and falls in love, and there comes some pain, and you realize I wasn’t as bad” — read: fantastic — ”as I thought I was.” This mythical woman is explicitly revealed in the last song as his longtime (pre-/post-J. Lo) girlfriend, model Kim Porter, 35, mother of his second child, Christian, 8. There’s even a line about having ”a couple of kids” with her — recorded before learning they were expecting twins. ”The s— you be putting in music, that s— is gonna come true!” he says. ”This [album] is one of the most honest statements for me, because I love being in love.”

A Diddy of All Media, he calls his sold-out 2004 Broadway run in A Raisin in the Sun his biggest challenge; reviews were passable, but he admits that some nights he stunk up the Great White Way. “Live theater, if I would’ve got warned what it was, I don’t know if I would’ve done it. The best thing was that I was so naive. You don’t want to be up there for two and a half hours saying the words when you can feel you’re being bad. But the more nights I felt like I sucked, the better I got, because you don’t want that feeling.” He’ll film the TV-movie remake of Raisin in December, and “to be honest, I’ve gotta go in deeper [than on stage] and have a real transformation, or else I don’t need to do it.”

Diddy adds: “This is the year for me to let go and leave all the hype of Diddy and the other s— that surrounds me behind. When I’m a recording artist, I can still have that swagger, but with the other things — the acting, fashion — I need to not bring all that with me. It’s almost corny, or something to laugh at, if you don’t take the risk to make that change.”

Diddy’s Must List

The man of many names is a man of many opinions.

”Jack Bauer [Kiefer Sutherland] manages to be the coolest mother-f—er on TV while saving the world at the same time.”

‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ 1965
”Everyone should read this book. It’s important because it shows you that no man is one-dimensional.”

Biggie Smalls
”He was my best friend,” Diddy says of the rapper, born Christopher Wallace and killed in 1997. ”Hands down, he’s the best rap artist of all time.”

‘Here, My Dear’ 1978
This Marvin Gaye album is ”romantic, soulful, and puts you in the mood no matter where you are — it’s timeless, just like me.”

‘Scarface’ 1983
”I can relate to the story. Tony [Al Pacino] came from nothing to own the world, and it just goes to show how, if you’re not smart, you could lose it all.”

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