Sean Combs Doesn’t Need to Ask Anyone for Anything

If you want to get to the studio at Sean Combs’s house, pass the purple Anish Kapoor sculpture, then saunter into the living room, stopping to marvel at Kerry James Marshall’s “Past Times,” a startling painting reckoning with Blackness, wealth and leisure that Combs bought at auction in 2018 for $21.1 million.

Next, glide through a conspicuously undisturbed dining room, where Jeanneret chairs are lined up like sentries on either side of a long table, step out into the backyard and head left, past the generous pool, into one of the secondary structures on the property. Upstairs there one Tuesday afternoon last month, Combs was pacing a tasteful, lounge-like room and chatting on speakerphone to FunkFlex, the longstanding master of ceremonies for New York’s Hot 97 radio station, spreading the good word about his return to music.

There was some talk of a possible event they’d do. “You think I’m gonna stay in the V.I.P.?” Combs yelped, mock incensed. “I done created the V.I.P.! [Expletive] the V.I.P.! I wanna touch the people — I wanna feel alive!”

He was dressed casually in all black, down to an Apple Watch, Balenciaga socks and around-the-crib Crocs. At least two attendants were always within shouting distance, taking impromptu food requests and replacing sippy bottles of water before Combs emptied them.

Combs and associates, including Stevie J, part of the original Bad Boy Hitmen production team, were working through the medley Combs would perform Tuesday night on the MTV Video Music Awards, a couple of days before he releases “The Love Album: Off the Grid,” his first solo studio album in 17 years.

He got the rapper Caresha, his close friend slash sometime romantic partner, on FaceTime. “I’mma let her feel the feeling,” he said, rapping his verse on “Bad Boy for Life” to her. His teen twin daughters, Jessie and D’Lila — two of his seven children — came into the studio to say hello. He asked someone on his team to think about ways to generate excitement around the album cover, maybe blowing it up and presenting it like a work of art: “Ideate on that.”

Then he got to talking about P.T. Barnum, the foundational American showman. “My muse,” Combs said. “One of my heroes.” He stopped and smiled, knowing full well someone was filming for posterity, then he dropped the hammer: “But P.T. Barnum ain’t have these [expletive] hits!”

For a solid run dating from the early 1990s to the early 2000s, those hits were relentless. Combs — then Puff Daddy, and later Diddy, and now Love — was the engine behind hip-hop’s merger with R&B, and later the key driver behind its takeover of mainstream pop. He was the public embodiment of hip-hop’s boundless ambition, its entrepreneurial hustle, its unapologetic blitz on American pop culture, business, politics and more. That the genre is the lingua franca of youth culture to this day has everything to do with the fervor with which he pursued that goal three decades ago.

Combs, 53, is now in his accolades era. Last year, he received a lifetime achievement honor at the BET Awards. This week, it’s the global icon award at the VMAs. The disrupter has become the establishment.

Combs in a New York studio in 1995.Credit…Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images

Combs isn’t comfortable, though. Having access to the 1 percent, and becoming part of it, has only underscored the avenues that remain walled off to him as a Black entrepreneur.

“When I started seeing how media was using our success, whether it was Kanye’s, Jay-Z’s, mine, Rihanna, LeBron. That’s just a couple of people, but if you market it right, you put the right type of propaganda out, you may have people get comfortable like there is inclusion,” he said. “No, there isn’t.”

He’d left the studio, stripped down to shorts and kinesiology tape on his right shoulder, and made his way to the private sauna in one of the other small buildings near the rear of his property. Inside, it was 149 degrees.

“Every day I wake up in the morning,” he said, “I pray that I ain’t gotta ask a white man for [expletive].”

To that end, he’s been working on an online platform for Black business and entrepreneurship, Empower Global, which he said was meant to be a corrective for “what they took away from us from Tulsa,” referring to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma, in which the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood was burned by a murderous white mob. “It’s basically empowering myself with the pain of my ancestors and coming up with a solution, instead of having my heart turn to hatred,” he said.

“If I’m doing better, that don’t mean we doing better,” he continued. “I’m here for we.”

After 15 minutes of punishing, cleansing heat, he stepped out of the sauna and went out to the back balcony, where a cold plunge tank awaited. He reached for a pair of thermal toe covers, and then eased his way in.

“I hate the cold,” he said. “It makes me deal with reality in a whole different way.” But when he emerged from the frigid water, he proclaimed, “I’m so happy to be alive.” He sat in the icy wet for a few minutes, grinning, still and beatific. What the water was truly good for, he insisted, was for “waking your ass up.”

His radical impulses, he said, dated back to his days at Howard University, when, in 1989, he was part of a group of students that occupied the administration building to protest the appointment of Lee Atwater, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, as a trustee. The first time Combs met Jesse Jackson, he said, was during the standoff.

“I had dealt with depression before,” Combs said. “But this one was different. I actually locked myself in my room. For like a year and a half.”Credit…Erik Carter for The New York Times

Combs was part of the Rooftop Posse, a group of students that ensured the police didn’t attempt to breach the building from above. He later sold T-shirts and posters commemorating the protest.

“He was up there with a microphone on his head, you know?” said Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, who was one of the student leaders of the protest.

“All those people that were on the roof, those guys were like the popular guys on campus. And so for them to say, we are taking over the administration building, that this is the right thing to do, it popularizes the movement.”

Combs already had his eyes on the music industry at this time — he was a party promoter at Howard, and left college after a few semesters for Uptown Records, then the most forward-looking label working at the intersection of hip-hop and R&B. He helped craft a streetwise presentation of soul music via Jodeci and Mary J. Blige, and then, after leaving and forming Bad Boy Records, worked in the opposite direction, bringing the sensuality, pulse and joy of soul music into hip-hop via heavy sampling that emphasized hip-hop’s place in the Black music lineage.

He intended to be a personality, not a performer, but that had to change after the murder of the Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. “I’ll Be Missing You,” the song that put him in the spotlight, is a permanent entry in the pantheon of American melancholy, right alongside “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “All Too Well.” Combs was the owner who became the star, making inseparable the endeavors of art and capitalism.

Success in the fashion world and the spirits industry followed. He made the cover of Forbes. His halcyon years were halcyon, indeed. “I ain’t gonna lie to you. I had got a taste of wealth and I was going to do anything I could do to protect that,” Combs said. “I just remember those days of roaches crawling on me and it’s just like, I need to focus on this money right now, ’cause nobody else has the opportunity that I have.”

A few years ago, though, his carefully polished life began to unravel. In late 2018, Kim Porter, the mother of three of Combs’s children, died of pneumonia. She and Combs were no longer involved, but they’d remained close friends. In May 2020, Combs’s mentor Andre Harrell — who’d given him his Uptown internship and then cast him out, only to reunite and work for Combs for many years — died of heart failure. In between those losses, Combs turned 50. The series of events left him uncharacteristically wandering in a spiritual desert.

“I had dealt with depression before, you know? Through a lot of different things, trials and tragedies,” he said. “But this one was different. I actually locked myself in my room. For like a year and a half. In my bathroom. I wasn’t talking to my kids, I wasn’t talking to nobody.”

Guy Oseary, the powerhouse music manager, has been a close friend of Combs’s for 30 years, and emphasized how, ordinarily, Combs is a motivator nonpareil. “He has all these amazing notes on his mirror in his bathroom. Positive quotes, positive affirmations. He wakes up to that every day,” Oseary said. “And then you bump into that guy, and he’s giving that to you.”

“I ain’t gonna lie to you. I had got a taste of wealth and I was going to do anything I could do to protect that,” Combs said of his halcyon years.Credit…Garfield/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images

Which meant that when Combs was at his lowest, it felt somehow even lower. Oseary described that stretch of time as concerning. “When he was down, it was like, oh no, we’re in trouble,” he recalled. “It was strange to have the life of the party not even want to join the party.”

Slowly, Combs embarked on the work of remaking himself. He began referring to himself as Love (and legally changed his middle name to Love). He used therapy: “It probably most likely really saved my brain. Because when you have a genius brain, it’s also a crazy brain.”

And he continued to try to understand life beyond the conventional earthly plane. “I’m a big old hippie,” said Combs, who has attended multiple Burning Man festivals. “I had a little bit of ego left in me. And when I did toad, I officially had a ego death.”

Psychedelic toad venom has been life altering, he said. “It’s a journey you don’t even remember,” he said of the hallucinogenic. “The best way to describe it is it’s just like a opening of a whole different portal, without you seeing it open.” (Combs urged safety and caution for anyone interested in seeking out that same portal. “I’m a top level hippie,” he said. “The testing, the ambulance in front of the house — I don’t play around, baby.”)

But perhaps most pointedly, there’s music. The choice to return so prominently, after a long stretch away, indicates a return to the core of what motivated Combs decades ago. “Music had always fueled all of my dreams. So when I stopped music, I kind of stopped dreaming,” he said.

“I don’t know if this world we living in is real,” he continued, “but I know that feeling that I get when I make music, I know that’s what brings me joy. And the thing I’ve done to bring the most people joy, you know?”

Corey Jacobs, a senior adviser to Combs, has known him since the two were teenagers on the football team together. “In the recesses of his mind, deep down inside, psychologically, even if he doesn’t fully know it, it’s for him to find purpose in life again,” Jacobs said of Combs’s music making. “After Kim, he has to find purpose in something that feeds his soul, and nothing feeds his soul like music.”

“The Love Album” feels modern and engaged, a blend of sensuality and slick talk. To make it, Combs collaborated widely — the Weeknd, Summer Walker, Mary J. Blige, Justin Bieber, Burna Boy. “I called everyone and said ‘I need your help telling my love story,’” Combs said. He brought in Babyface, the maestro of delicate R&B, to work on “Kim Porter,” a tender seven-minute meditation inspired by Combs’s ex.

“He said he wanted to make this song so good that Kim would come visit him in his dreams,” Babyface recalled. It was the first time the two had worked in the studio together; in the early ’90s, they represented competing visions for the directions R&B might take, via their work at Uptown and LaFace. (“We were from different places, and we loved differently,” Babyface said.)

“As a Black man, I’m not gonna allow myself to be programmed to not love myself, and not go after what I deserve as a human being for me and my people,” Combs said.Credit…Erik Carter for The New York Times

But Babyface left the collaboration impressed. “My takeaway from it was that Puff is a very emotional, very passionate producer. And even though he may not know the chords or the right words for things, he knows, like, nah, gimme this, gimme that, gimme, ugh. He’s stretching for a particular thing. And I was able to see that. In my opinion, Puffy’s one of the most underappreciated producers.”

The choice to make R&B music is also pointed. “You have people in control that really think that R&B and hip-hop are the same thing,” Combs said. “R&B is really, really being erased. But I’m gonna be making R&B records. You’re gonna be seeing unforgivable Blackness. Unapologetic Blackness.”

At the same time, Combs’s musical catalog is helping form the foundation for a new generation of hip-hop. Much like he sampled ’70s and ’80s classics to make his hits of the ’90s, younger artists are mining the Bad Boy catalog for inspiration.

One of this summer’s biggest hits, Metro Boomin’s “Creepin’,” is an update of Mario Winans’s “I Don’t Wanna Know” that features the Weeknd and 21 Savage (and Combs himself lends his velvet whisper to the remix). Combs’s own son Christian, with Kodak Black, recently released “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” riffing on a Combs catch phrase, that echoes a Bad Boy-adjacent Lil’ Kim hit.

“I can’t deny a sample,” Combs said later in the evening, in the back of a black Maybach S.U.V. en route to see Drake perform at Arena. “I remember Prince was denying samples and I would be like, Prince, like, that’s wack that you would deny my sample and you my boy. And he would just be like, ‘I’m not clearing that sample.’”

And more broadly, the current pop moment — in which established stars and would-bes alike are excavating recent pop history for five-alarm samples that will translate across generations — feels not unlike the peak Bad Boy era, which took the funk, soul and disco of the 1970s and built a whole new world atop it. Combs was often maligned in the ’90s for his literalist sampling, but it has become something of a standard now.

Regardless, those are yesterday’s battles. Lately, Combs has been embracing the concept of “the second mountain,” loosely derived from the book of that title by the New York Times Opinion columnist David Brooks, in which the challenges taken on during life’s back nine trade self-involved ambition for goals that are more moral and benevolent.

“As a Black man, I’m not gonna allow myself to be programmed to not love myself, and not go after what I deserve as a human being for me and my people,” he said.

“There’s so much that should have killed me, so many tragedies,” Combs continued. “It would’ve just been all right to be like, yo, that was legendary. Just go live on the yacht, live next door to David Geffen.”

But the second mountain, the scale and uncertainty of it, has him energized. “This mountain is three times bigger,” he said. “It got volcano coming down, rocks, avalanches. And you’re like, yo, do you want to climb this mountain? Or do you want to just go for shelter and ride this thing of life out, and just die?”

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