In hip-hop more than in other musical genres, a certain pride is taken in writing your own lyrics. Being able to drop dope punch lines or layout a narrative in rhyme is part of what gives an emcee credibility. So how do you react when a so-called emcee runs around openly gloating about how he got everyone else to write and produce his album? And, similarly, how do you approach that emcee’s album in a critical manner?
On the one hand, Diddy has managed to put out one of the more progressive pop albums of the year. I’d even go as far as to say that it pushes the boundaries further than Justin Timberlake’s Futuresex/Lovesounds. On the other hand, Diddy didn’t do that much in the creation of this album. He put in work behind the boards, and he ultimately had the final say in what made the cut. But it’s like an editor taking credit for a book and giving minimal credit to its author.
I will give him the credit for opening up his checkbook to ensure that Press Play came out proper. Enlisting an all-star production cast including Pharrell, Kanye West, Will.i.am, Havoc and Just Blaze; an all-star guest cast including, Big Boi, Nas, Cee-Lo and Timbaland; and an all-star cast of writers including Pharoahe Monch, Common, Talib Kweli and Kanye West, Diddy set the album up for success. Much like Timberlake and Timbaland, Diddy employs the same strategy of heavily synthesized, spacey production that had not really seen the mainstream airwaves before this year. It’s not so much that the beats are groundbreaking as much as they are more accessible than what the Neptunes, J-Davey, or Sa-Ra have been doing over the past few years with synthesized hip-hop and soul.
“Come to Me,” “Wanna Move” and “P Diddy Rock” sound a lot like what would happen if 8-Ball and MJG decided they wanted to make club bangers. “The Future” and “Hold Up” sound like something Dilla would have cooked up if his Ruff Draft EP were intended for an MTV audience. Production-wise, all of these songs sound like they could have been on another album, and at the same time they sound like they could be on no other album. Where else are you going to hear Brandy singing over a drum ‘n’ bass track? Lyrically, Press Play is probably going to be the high point of Diddy’s career, though that is not saying much. His verses are sufficient, but they fail to equal the wordsmiths who wrote these songs in cadence and delivery. (Except for Kanye. He made Kanye’s work on “After Love” sound much better than it should have.) But the obvious focus of this album was not songwriting but mind-blowing beats and contagious hooks.
Save for the unnecessary interludes, the strength of Press Play is in its ability to employ so many different styles, sounds, influences and mold them into one extremely coherent package. And maybe that’s where Diddy’s genius lies. He’s never been the greatest rapper, and he lost his production touch in the ’90s, but he’s always had a great ear for beats. Nothing is more evident than that on this album. Can I give Diddy any credit as an artist for Press Play? Absolutely not. But I can praise Press Play as its own self-contained entity and call it one of the better major-label releases of 2006 on production alone.