Diddy surveys his empire on "MMM," a grandiose tape that doesn't offer much in the way substance.
As someone who's put out quite a bit of music as a solo artist but will always be better known as a label head and mogul, Diddy seems to use his albums as showrooms for his expansive rolodex and impeccable taste. The man can get a verse from virtually anyone, but instead of harnessing this power for perfectly-manicured radio bait a la DJ Khaled, he'll often show you how weird he's willing to get, as seen most prominently on last year's 11 11. His back catalog still has its poppier moments, from commercial juggernaut No Way Out to the more R&B-focused Press Play, but even those feature him rapping over samples by oddball icons like David Bowie and Prince. His last commercial full-length, Last Train To Paris, might be his greatest achievement in this style, as it brought members of rap's upper echelon to a party featuring Grace Jones and a bevy of sleek, electro-inspired beats. If that project was a crystallization of the artistic aims that have driven his career, his new tape MMM can best be understood as a summery of his career itself.
Here, high-resolution imaginations of boom bap beats sit alongside samples from proggy electronic duo Darkside and the more-influential-by-the-year "Drive" soundtrack, and of-the-moment stars split time with people from Diddy's past and his latest protegé, Gizzle. This rose-tinted, revisionist nostalgia is emphasized by the lyrics, which reminisce on Diddy's life with no signs of regret, but also take plenty of time to celebrate the now. It's fitting that the title references making money, because in Diddy's music, cash is the driving force behind the beats and rhymes. MMM sounds expensive as hell, both in the sense that its recording probably cost a lot, and also taking into consideration how much was spent on those life experiences that are boasted about on here.
The "fairytale" described on the intro track, and again on hilarious interlude "Happily Ever After," is Diddy's life, the point being that he's achieved so much that the tale could pass for far-fetched legend. Self-mythologizing is a tricky game, one that requires concealing as many aspects of your life as you're highlighting, and playing cockiness off as part of the character. Diddy's too bald-faced in his confidence to achieve this in the way Biggie and 'Pac did on records predicting their own deaths, MF Doom did on Madvillain, or even as Future did on his recent 56 Nights-- for all of his artsy tendencies, he's still the guy who shows up on other peoples' albums to deliver hip hop's most conceited monologues. His already larger-than-life persona doesn't need any additional scene-setting, and MMM's many attempts to do that only make the product cheesier.
That being said, all of the flashy beats and guests are liable to make you forget about Diddy's tone-deaf Canterbury Tales on the first listen, with crisp sounds and personalities making for some serious ear candy. "Harlem"'s Noah Shebib meets the '90s beat gives way to the trippy "Drive" sample, which in turn flows into a masterful flip of Darkside's "Golden Arrow"-- by the time the detuned piano keys enter the mix on the latter, it's pretty clear that these are some truly top-shelf instrumentals. Gizzle and Sevyn Streeter float by without making too much of an impression, but on the next track you get Pusha T rapping alongside two-thirds of The LOX, a coke-rap fantasy that'll shut any rap nerd up. More inconceivable-sounding moments follow, from Future trading bars with King Los to Ty Dolla $ign doing the closest thing to traditional R&B we've ever heard from him. By the time the first listen ends with the distorted, unbridled turn-up of "Blow A Check," there have been more than enough attention-grabbing moments to sustain your interest, Diddy keeping us on the edge of our seats by continually pulling out all the stops.
Upon returning to MMM, though, it's almost like re-watching a movie that relies heavily on twists. Once you know exactly what you're going to get, and are forced to listen to what's actually going on, rather than anticipate where it'll go next, the tape rings out hollow, a rather barren clothesline strung up between flashy distractions. Diddy's rapping in here isn't terrible-- his flows and delivery have rarely been this entertaining-- but the fact that his "personality" seemingly just consists of boasts and richer-than-thou jeering becomes grating after a while. The featured rappers, while offering diversity in sound and some individually thrilling moments, don't really get a chance to display their unique attributes or share some of their own stories. It's all done in service of this fairytale that can be summarized by any number of previously-existing taglines: "Zero to hero," "Started from the bottom now we here," "Started off hustling, ended up balling," "Rags to riches," "From the bottom of bottom, to the top of the pops," "Cinderella story"... the list goes on.
It's really admirable what Diddy's achieved over the years, and if anyone personifies the hip hop dream of using music as a way out of the struggle, it's him. I just wish he could tell that story in a more vivid, detailed and interesting way.