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The Spotlight Turns on Puffy Combs : Dancing Close to the Flames

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Record mogul-turned-pop star Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, whose “No Way Out” debut album hits the stores today and is expected to enter the sales charts next week at No. 1, has the spirit of the dancer in him.

It’s the sense of motion that is Combs’ constant--whether he’s going though good times or bad in his music and videos. Even in the video for “I’ll Be Missing You,” the hit single that is included in the album, the last thing you see Combs doing is self-absorbedly dancing in the rain under a street lamp.

Coming in a tribute to his closest friend--the slain rapper the Notorious B.I.G.--that scene might strike some as an oddly upbeat or even disrespectful gesture. But Combs’ whole philosophy might be summarized as “motion against commotion.” It’s no accident that he started his career as a dancer.

With “No Way Out,” nothing has changed. Combs is still dancing--emotionally speaking. But the reasons are different from the sheer celebration of the past.

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At first, the movement was all about joy--a poor kid from Harlem who hustled his way into the music business and became a millionaire by his early 20s.

Now, with the death of B.I.G. and the possible fear that he, too, is getting too close to the flames in the volatile world of rap, Combs seems in this album to be dancing for survival in the face of adversity.

In the closing track, “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” his rap is filled with rhymes about his bank account, his Rolex watches and “a Benz [he] ain’t even drove yet.” It’s typical of the swagger and self-congratulation of rap, and also of Combs’ image.

But by reworking a line from Grandmaster Flash’s classic single, “The Message,” Combs conveys the anxiety of someone caught in a trap: “It’s like a jungle sometimes / It makes me wonder why they want to take us under.” Against the backdrop of B.I.G.'s murder last March, the lines give the song a chilling sense of reality. He adds his own life-affirming tag: “Nobody’s gonna break my stride . . . I got to keep on movin’ .”

The album, which is one of the strongest pop collections of the year, is filled with moments like this--celebration of the good life (the absolutely dazzling “Young G’s” with B.I.G and Jay-Z, and the confrontational “Victory”) balanced with flashes of soul-searching pessimism (“What You Gonna Do” and “Is This the End”).

But the defining moment of the album is the haunting “Pain,” where Combs recounts everything from his father’s death as a hustler to his own prayers over B.I.G.'s dying body.

By finally stepping past the vainglorious gloss and letting us in on his deepest feelings and doubts, Combs touches us most deeply and reveals his potential and power as an artist. In that moment and the rest of the album, it’s finally easier to love Sean “Puffy” Combs because he’s talented than to hate him because he’s beautiful.

* * * 1/2

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PUFF DADDY & THE FAMILY

“No Way Out”

Bad Boy

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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