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Puff Daddy Never Gets Old

How the Bad Boy founder has diddy-bopped past the hip-hop retirement home

Brian Taylor illustration
Brian Taylor illustration

Puff Daddy is young, never mind his age: He’s 46. He’s got six kids, one of whom — Justin Dior Combs — squirmed in his father’s lap in the 1994 video to Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear” remix. Watching father and son today in clips from Puffy’s Instagram page, you get the sense that only one of these men has grown beyond our earliest recognition; the other is the same, groovy despot whom the comedian Dave Chappelle canonized in his 2004 sketch about Puff’s reality show Making the Band.

Puffy still parties. He hasn’t had a proper hit record since 2007’s “Last Night” with Keyshia Cole, but Puffy is still churning out music, including collaborations with the likes of Future, Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, and French Montana — the cool kids these days. “Don’t be afraid to get old, man,” he says at the top of his 2014 single “Big Homie,” an admirable stab at resurgence that never quite landed. “You may learn some shit.”

In hip-hop, there’s no shortage of teachers. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Jay Z — these guys are multimillionaires, and so they’ve aged about well as you’d expect. Dr. Dre, now 51, looks like he’s taken up weightlifting and yoga all at once. Jay Z, 46, is the spitting image of middle age. Meanwhile, a graying Snoop is currently in front of a green screen with his GGN Hood News series on YouTube, and soon to be in the kitchen with Martha Stewart on VH1.

Puffy, according to Forbes, made more money than any rap mogul last year. He’s also — Dre’s taut physique notwithstanding — the only one who has tapped the fountain of youth by renewing his stamina, keeping his cool, and hardly aging at all. And a lot of that is thanks to a little help from his friends.

“Big Homie” is a booming trap monstrosity of a song. It’s not quite typical in Puffy’s repertoire, and it wasn’t a hit, but it does leave some crucial clues to understanding the longevity of Sean “Puffy” Combs.

Puff Daddy with French Montana (Getty Images)
Puff Daddy with French Montana (Getty Images)

The song itself is an extended Puffy boast about his credibility in “any hood,” where gorgeous women lust after him and the men all respect him. It’s a “solo” record that features a third verse from Rick Ross, who likely wrote the song, with sprinkled ad-libs throughout from French Montana. Naturally, the music video for “Big Homie” features several famous rappers, young and old, who can vouch for the boss; Snoop, A$APs Rocky and Ferg, Meek Mill, plus French and Ross are mobbing together outside a car wash and in the parking lot of Kennedy Chicken at Puffy’s behest. Puffy isn’t just the star of his own music video; he’s the patriarch, the subject of tithes, homage, and glad-handing. He’s hardly the best rapper, and he hasn’t been a truly great record producer since the 1990s. But Puffy brings people together. Top down on any block. Niggas know me.

Puffy is one month older than Jay Z, a fellow hip-hop mogul who, for more than a decade now, has gotten an increasingly bad rap for his exponentially profitable manner of selling out. Jay markets an also-ran streaming music platform; Puffy is a hyperactive brand ambassador for Cîroc vodka. His spectacular bachelorhood has afforded him an ageless brand of cool, the sort of immortality suggested by the skin-care adage “Black don’t crack.” Thus, Puffy has dodged the death-knell descriptor that haunts Jay, Dre, and almost all other corporatist, neo-vegan hip-hop retirees: washed.

The truth is that these guys have product brands to manage, deals to close, hands to shake, Hollywood projects to produce, and, generally, better things to do than hang around recording studios. Lest we forget: Puffy’s got a television network to run, Sean John clothes to sell, and white parties to throw in the Hamptons. Yet he doesn’t seem to have a problem with balancing corporatist priorities against his personal hip-hop interests in the same way that, say, Jay Z does. In 2016, Jay Z recording a DJ Khaled single with Future should effectively demonstrate that the senior rapper’s credibility is intact and his influence is lasting. But, really, “I Got the Keys” just reminds you that Jay is so unfamiliar with the technical innovations of trap music that he’ll never catch fire on a Brick Squad beat. For Jay Z, recording new music at this point is probably just some solemn, annual fan base obligation, a somewhat profitable chore that requires a lot more energy than it used to.

Unlike Jay — and somewhat like Drake — Puffy has always employed writers to help him adapt to, and anticipate, contemporary genre trends; he has never been the sole attraction of his own music. In 1997, he let Ma$e, the LOX, Lil’ Kim, the late Notorious B.I.G., and the Hitmen carry most of No Way Out. In 2001, he let Bad Boy’s second-gen roster — G. Dep, Carl Thomas, Cheri Dennis, Loon, and Mark Curry — do most of the voice work on The Saga Continues. In 2010, he worked with Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harper on Last Train to Paris to head off the insurgency of “alt-R&B” at the pass. (Here’s your annual reminder that Bad Boy’s R&B legacy is at least as important as the label’s hip-hop catalog, if not more so.) Ever since he shifted into this studio-as-workshop style at the turn of the century — roughly when Puff Daddy became Diddy — Puffy’s actual appearances on songs, be they his friends’ or his own, can seem like a happy accident of ad-libs.

Puffy’s closest contemporary in this regard is Cash Money Records cofounder Birdman, a dark and cryptic puppeteer whose mysterious demeanor is much less attractive than Puffy’s motivational vibe. Whose life would you rather have: Birdman’s or Puffy’s?

In May 2014, Puffy delivered the commencement address at Howard University. Puffy, who dropped out of Howard after his sophomore year, received his honorary doctorate that spring day. Forgive Puff for dropping out of college early: He was busy. Puffy left Howard a party planner and record label intern in the early ’90s, and he returned, a few decades later, a wild and improbable success story, an exciting figure in his own school’s mythology. “I am a unicorn,” Puffy told the crowd on Howard’s main yard. “We are unicorns.”

That positivity and the bare minimum of professional refinement both go a long way. Alternatively, I think of Dame Dash, another Harlem hothead who founded a hip-hop record label, helped launch one of the greatest rap careers of all time, and then — rather unlike Puffy — made a point of alienating every business partner with whom he’d ever worked, including Jay Z, his original ace prospect and Roc-A-Fella Records cofounder. Dame Dash spent a career wishing he could get away with the wild shit Puffy has done in just the past 24 months: reportedly putting his hands on Drake at LIV nightclub in Miami and allegedly swinging on one of his son’s college football coaches with a kettlebell.

Puffy walks free. As much as the “Big Homie” video is staged as an afterparty, I also think of it as a rally at the fountain of youth, where Puffy has held court for a quarter century now. That’s the big homie.