And so here's where we finally begin to suspect that the dastardly motherfucker is beginning to lose his shit. When Sean "Puffy" Combs backs a thank-you letter to the Lord with a sample of Christopher Cross' bourgeoisie escape fantasy "Sailing" it sounds a lot like the self-critique of a man reduced to self-parody. But listen. You can almost hear Puffy mawkishly blowing into the wind of his own stylistic innovations: "Ha, you think I'm over, I'll give you motherfuckers over." The reality is a bit simpler. This time out Puffy isn't blowing anything: He's sucking.
Only two weeks in release and already falling out of the Top 10, "Forever" is being passed up by wise consumers for brighter lights and bigger hitters. Maybe it's because even in a jigga genre where a limp vocal cadence underscores the detachment of getting so paid that any physical or emotional exertion seems plebian, Puffy's usual monotone delivery seems unbearably limp, especially when set against newcomers like Jay-Z. On the party cuts up front (the duet with Jay-Z, "Do You Want It? Do You Like It?" and "I'll Do This for You") Puffy seems to relish the idea that feigning the buoyantly bumpin' pop-hop of his older hits like "Been Around the World" might put this lackluster music over. He's wrong.
By the end of the album, he's arrogantly turning a version of Public Enemy's agit-prop "Public Enemy No. 1" into a flat rant about playa persecution. What's amazing is that the song doesn't really wave audacity in the face of the indie-rap romantics who want Puffy dead. Instead, it pretends that the romantics don't even exist, and that the schism they've invented between underground, "real" hip-hop and commercial rap is as mythological as some old, wick-wick weird America. (Which, of course, as far as the real real world is concerned, it is.)
There's a sexiness to all this. Puffy's "No Way Out" (1997) was the "Hotel California" of rap -- a dark, decadent essay on jet-set jaundice. That was an amazing thing. But to make the record after "Hotel California" and the one after that and that, and to relish your power and spit in the face of your own demise -- now that is something special. That's America, simple and straight-up, America as no Randy Newman satire or Bob Dylan mythology could even hope to distill, America as your old man and my old man and pretty much everyone's old man that I've ever met would have it -- America as a place where you work your balls to the nubbins until you make enough money so that you'll never have to work again and then you get fat.
But if most of "Forever" is about as not-workin' as it gets, it's still fun to watch Puffy try to live in his dwindling utopia. After the would-be hits at the top of the record, things get real dark, and kind of compelling even, real quick. "I Hear Voices" is boring but spooky, and his pseudo-slammin' cover of MC Lyte's "Fake Thugs Dedication"
is the only cut that could ever make the Cash Money generation wonder if they've fully usurped a forebear, even if it's guest Redman's blathering that provides the real fireworks.
Throughout, Puffy fetishizes his life, but he can't live it without looking over his shoulder; he can't stop grasping for more. The megalomaniacal paranoia that unfolds on the rest of "Forever" goes way beyond the average don't-hate-on-me bullshit. It's real. Puffy hears voices, he sees visions, he wakes up in his bed out in the Hamptons sweating. "Missin' my hood now ... surrounded by woods now," he raps on "Journey Through The Life." He's an Ebenezer Scrooge clawing around his bed chambers grasping for the ghosts of Haters Yet to Come. "Can 10 shots stop spirits?" he asks. His dream may be dead, but the nightmare is just beginning, and there's a freaky, fucked-up future just around the corner.