I would estimate that about two and one-half billion things “happen” on Diddy Dirty Money’s well-stuffed (and quite good) new album, Last Train to Paris. Justin Timberlake does hashtag rap. There's an appearance by the Notorious B.I.G., who, naturally, has not recorded since 1997. There’s house piano. Trey Songz is instructed on where to put his tongue. There are trancey synths and the insistent martial knock of drums. An NYU employee shouts hype at you, and Rick Ross lurks around multiple corners. There are husky R&B come-ons and heavily thematic uses of the word "motherfucker," especially in songs about love.
The event that sticks with me, though, turns out to be the part where Diddy himself says that he's open to trying new things and would be willing to "make love with you on marmalade," if that's really what you'd like to do. On the marmalade, not in it. This doesn't make a great deal of sense, but it almost pretends to half-rhyme with the word "stage," if your ears can squint.
I mention this detail up front just so we can get the eye-rolling and titters cleared out of the way. Feel free to take a moment to yourself and chuckle, as is your right, at the general delightful absurdity of the modern-pop showcase, or at Diddy himself. For a career pop star, Diddy gets chuckled at a lot. People think he's dopey, both for reasons that are under his control (his rapping, his dancing, his name changes, his performance as Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun) and for reasons that are unfair and not his fault and may even have an orthodontic component (his chin, when he talks). But I believe he's very clever, and Last Train to Paris is one of the first records that's really made me feel like he sounds clever.
Let me explain why. It seems to me that over the past few years, a few of the more commercially successful artists in hip-hop have begun to feel a desire to Push Things Further and invent New Sounds. They've looked around for exotic new ideas to draw into their music, and often they've wound up looking in the same direction: hip rock music, of the sort critics tend to love and consider categorically more sophisticated and artistic than chart-topping rap. Kanye West, for instance, is currently topping critics' year-end lists with a hip-hop record that works more like a moody art-rock one. Jay-Z just published a book in which he suggests, in passing, that indie music might be usurping hip-hop at the cutting edge of creativity.
Meanwhile, Diddy has been more interested in booming speakers, western Europe, trips to the long-running Mediterranean club paradise of Ibiza, and electro D.J.'s. He's worked with Felix da Housecat (of Chicago) and DJ Hell (of Germany). He's paired up two women, Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harper, into this Dirty Money duo, which softens me up by vaguely reminding me of Electrik Red, the gritty/cute/futuristic R&B girl group developed by producers Tricky Stewart and The-Dream. And now he's turned some of these trappings dance music, high fashion, European rail travel, dirty divas, moody synth pads into a shiny action movie of a record. The problem is that there's no series of ridiculous tweets Diddy could have deployed to get us to pay quite as much attention to this album as we did to Kanye West's similarly ridiculous showstopper.
The things about Last Train to Paris that most resemble My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tend to fall under the category of "flaws." Both albums have so many guest stars they feel like Robert Altman films. Both mistake grandeur for art, as if the thing that makes a "masterpiece" is the fancy frame, or the marble pedestal, or the velvet curtains, and not the work itself. Both imagine songs will get better if you just keep adding cool stuff to them, and that "ambition" is about scale, not meaning. Both stomp around with the conviction that you can earn magnificence through sheer effort. It's possible Diddy doesn't make these flaws sound quite as neatly justified as Kanye did, because he's not pretentious enough to just say they're his whole subject matter to begin with. And he also makes what seems to me to be an aesthetic error, which is that if you want to put sleek, rainy-sounding synths everywhere and choose an album cover that looks like you really enjoyed Lost in Translation, you should probably let things stretch out and breathe more often, and not spend too much of your time aiming for an extravaganza.
When this album hits its mood right, though gray skies, Eurorail, and drama it's excellent stuff. The hectic format fades away, and the music actually becomes the hypnotic cruise it aspires to be. And when I compare that to some artists' arty touchstones, it makes me want to congratulate Diddy on steering his fantasies in a direction that's often more vital and interesting, if not in his hands then in those of others: this space of dirty-earthy R&B and synths that alternately drizzle and grind, where Lil Wayne's alien voice can rap over alien-sounding electro/tech beats where "serious" people don't always consider the moving parts sophisticated, leaving them extra room to actually be surprising.