The rap titan's ambitious new record may well deserve a standing ovation.
Alex Macpherson 2011-01-27
A deeply ambitious journey into the mind of a hip hop titan comprising lengthy epics, a plethora of superstar guests, expensive-sounding beats from big-name producers, luxe signifiers of an opulent lifestyle, a fixation with the difficulty of loving someone through the prism (and prison) of a massive celebrity ego? No, it's not Kanye West's latest LP – but an album from a man more routinely, and unfairly dismissed. As part of the Dirty Money trio, Diddy – together with singers and songwriters Kalenna Harper and Dawn Richard – has made a seriously impressive artistic statement.
Last Train to Paris is nominally built around the narrative of Diddy racing against time to pursue and win back a former flame – via, apparently, the last Eurostar out of London. This is adhered to only loosely. Though the album broadly progresses from seduction to redemption, its 18 songs (on the superior deluxe edition; 16 on the regular edition) are snapshots of moments rather than a linear plot – scenes from a film that's half action flick, frenetically paced and full of relentless energy, and half romantic drama, stylishly meditative and introspective. The activity moves between beach, club, cathedral, bedroom and stage, each backdrop bedecked with bespoke beats that frequently blow the mind.
For anyone who enjoys sonic thrills, this is a treat. Despite the array of producers lined up – Including Danja, Darkchild, Polow da Don and Swizz Beatz – Diddy has corralled their work into a tight, coherent whole that's absolutely packed with ideas and creativity. Industrial screeches punctuate a twisted reworking of Dead Prez's Hip Hop on Hate You Now, courtesy of Danja, poisonous recriminations buried in the sludge. Darkchild contributes a glorious blend of rippling house piano with swinging syncopated beats on I Hate That You Love Me; 7 Aurelius provides stereopanning insectile squeaks to nip at Lil Wayne's spaced-out spoken word verses on Strobe Lights.
The idiosyncrasies of Diddy's persona prove an unexpected attraction, too: this is fundamentally his story about his issues, but instead of merely presenting them to us and expecting praise he works through them with panache and slanted imagery. Shades is a strange, sad surreal song that depicts the megastar as a warped, trapped man – but rather than self-pitying, it's actually frequently hilarious, with promises such as: "I'll make love to you on marmalade". Elsewhere, Diddy raps about "fuchsia gaiters and cummerbunds", compares himself to Rembrandt and gets high while listening to Sade.
The album's central love story may involve just two characters, but they are performed by a host of voices – Diddy, the Dirty Money girls, guests including Lil Wayne, Justin Timberlake and Grace Jones – who volley the narrative between them at a frenetic pace. At times, it's like a tug of war between opposing perspectives; at others, they're the voices crowding in Diddy's head – lending the album a sense of theatre that makes it an emotionally compelling ride as well as a triumph of production. As its final notes ring out, you feel like giving the cast a standing ovation as they take a bow.