Diddy: Press Play

The best ghostwriting is by definition invisible. If the audience fixates on a puppet's strings, then the puppeteer clearly isn't doing a very good job. Consequently, the stable of ghostwriters serving rapper-producer-mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs have generally written remedial rhymes befitting his beyond-basic flow. So it's incredibly jarring to find Diddy wrestling manfully with Pharoahe Monch's famously complex rhyme schemes, polysyllabic lyrics, and challenging delivery on his solo album Press Play. Listening to Diddy indulge in a terrible Monch impersonation that'd get him laughed offstage at the Apollo is like watching a second-grader attempt calculus, or a middle-school drama club try its hand at Glengarry Glen Ross. If Diddy was so keen on infusing his first solo album in five years with that Monch feeling, why not just let Monch deliver his own rhymes?

Press Play's ambition doesn't end with one of rap's most simplistic rhymers channeling one of its most complex. "Thought You Said" experiments with pummeling drum-and-bass rhythms, and on the standout "Diddy Rock," Diddy shows surprising facility with a machine-gun flow, only to have Twista and Shawnna rap dizzying circles around him. Though he's clearly trying, sometimes way too hard, Diddy still isn't much of a rapper, but from his early days infusing R&B with hip-hop swagger at Uptown, he's shown a remarkable gift for making dance music that pops.

On Press Play's best tracks, Diddy happily takes a back seat to the monster grooves of producers like The Neptunes, Timbaland, Just Blaze, Will.I.Am, and Mario Winans, plus an impressive array of big-voiced female R&B singers who are only too happy to upstage the Bad Boy kingpin. Diddy would probably be the last to admit it, but there's more R&B than hip-hop in his musical DNA, and while Press Play fails as a rap opus, it largely succeeds as a slinky dance album full of outsized divas, big beats, and icily impressive electro-funk.

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