The mogul's game? Diddy spells it out


"Press Play"

(Bad Boy Entertainment)

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As Diddy points out repeatedly on this nearly 80-minute, 19-track opus, "You know my name." Oooh, yeah. And we know the hip-hop mogul's game too: success at every turn with his record label, clothing line, fragrance, restaurant chain, film production company and more.

Yet on "Press Play," his first new collection since 2001's "The Saga Continues," the artist formerly known as Puffy is happy to recap the highlights and lowlights: his blinding early ambition, his initial triumphs as a producer and label head, the murder of friend and Bad Boy recording artist Notorious B.I.G., his own move into the spotlight, his relationship with J.Lo and the infamous nightclub shooting, and on and on.

Along the way we're reminded, through the usual tired laundry list of rapper-approved material possessions (fancy autos, voice-activated cribs, worn-out credit cards, etc.), that he has everything anyone could possibly want ... and yet it's not enough.

He's innovative and versatile too. Just ask him. "Press Play" employs much live instrumentation and relies less on the savvy sampling for which Diddy is known (and sometimes dismissed).

It certainly weaves a wide range of up-to-the-second pop styles into the mix: throwback '70s funkiness, dance music's two-step and drum 'n' bass, new-wave soul.

But too many overly long and overblown numbers remind us of something else about Diddy: What he's really good at is identifying talent and surrounding himself with it. The album is bolstered by both hot producers (Neptunes, Timbaland, Kanye West, etc.) and a range of hip-hop, R&B; and pop artists -- all but four tracks feature performers including Christina Aguilera, Big Boi, Mary J. Blige and Jamie Foxx, helping him convey his inner thoughts while he raps his lines around theirs.

Still, he is no Prince -- a comparison he clearly aspires to with such tunes as, among others, the gospel-tinged free-form R&B-jazz; interlude "Claim My Place" and the electro-funky "Special Feeling." His ideas aren't so fresh, despite cool moments such as "Hold Up," featuring call-and-response vocal interplay mixed with a stark rhythm track and an encouraging message.

The ego-tripping drags on for just over half the disc, as Diddy puts Pussycat Dolls leader Nicole Scherzinger to work sexily musing about being with him on the pulsating "Come to Me," gives Xtina a similar task on the club-thumping "Tell Me" and runs down his accomplishments and losses on the brass-tinged, driving funk number "Everything I Love," featuring Nas and Cee-Lo.

But something surprising happens around the midpoint of "Press Play." It shifts emotional gears, focusing on the ups and downs of an intense romance -- seemingly his longtime relationship with girlfriend Kim Porter, with whom he's expecting twins -- and reveals real vulnerability as he realizes what's missing in his life. The struggle progresses through the Timbaland-produced techno-soul reproach "After Love," the push-pull volatility of "Thought You Said" and the electro-tribal vamp of "Last Night."

When we arrive at the album-closing "Partners," in which the marriage proposal finally comes, we actually feel like we've witnessed quite a journey.

Too bad the scenery wasn't more interesting along the way.

-- Natalie Nichols

Well, it's a long list of acquisitions

Lloyd Banks

"Rotten Apple"

(G-Unit / Interscope Records)

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Like Julie Andrews, Lloyd Banks knows his favorite things. On his solid sophomore release, "Rotten Apple," he catalogs them extensively: high-quality weed, exclusive luxury cars, gaudy diamond bracelets and other people's wives.

Despite the obvious shallowness, Banks describes a hyper-juvenile testosterone-fueled world that is uncomplicated and dangerously irresistible -- a world with no hangovers, no moral quandaries and no consequences. Like a good gangster movie, revenge is simple and the guys with the biggest guns win.

This type of lyrical content is the meat and potatoes of New York's regional mix-tape scene, from which Lloyd Banks sprang. Thanks to his affiliation with 50's G-Unit, his 2004 debut album, "The Hunger for More," sold 1.5 million copies, an achievement that owed more to competence and good timing than true superstar charisma.

"Rotten Apple" is coming in a decidedly different musical climate, when G-Unit's popularity is waning and expectations are low. Banks doesn't have any noble pretensions. He just wants to be good at his job: crafting clever punch lines, selecting lush, cinematic tracks and relying on tried-and-true hooks that aren't hard to like.

There are a few missteps, such as the vapid "Help" or the predictable club banger "Hands Up." But for the most part, Banks rhymes consistently over a variety of production styles, from the piano stabs of "The Cake" to the dusty drums of "Make a Move." A unifying moodiness holds the album together and succeeds in defining a regional New York City sound -- and there's nothing rotten about that.

-- Serena Kim

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed are already in stores except as indicated.

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