Crossing the threshold of Sean Combs’s Los Angeles home is an immersive experience. The first level is almost entirely glass on two sides; you can see the Pacific from every corner. As you stand at the center of the great room with all the glass doors open to the temperate climate, an infinity pool in front of you bleeds into the edges of the ocean and the sky. There is a curated Cîroc collection to the right and artfully framed family photos to the left. Within moments of entering, a member of his staff offers you a drink and sets out a lovely spread of hors d’oeuvres. A chef waits for you to appear hungry. Music streams overhead, first from Nigeria’s Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, then Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album. I dub the playlist “Global Black Dopeness” in my mind for how it broadcasts the man who lives here. As I wait for Combs to join us, a steady flow of casually dressed people attend to my comfort. The hospitality is both overt and inconspicuous. You will enjoy yourself here or someone will die trying.
We are meeting on a blustery West Coast day, a Friday. Mr. Combs is hard at work. Emergency calls keep him from joining us right away, and I wonder what constitutes an emergency for a global celebrity businessman. People scuttle up and down the staircase with a deceptive lackadaisicalness that feels more L.A. than the Harlem hustle that produced an ambitious young man the world would first meet as Sean “Puffy” Combs. His publicist says they used to take summer Fridays, that mythical thing I have heard of where New Yorkers break early on Friday afternoons to escape the city heat. For all the trappings of ease, this is clearly still a place where work gets done.
Combs descends the stairs just as a house staff person (I have no idea what you call a waiter in a private home) replaces my first glass of red wine with my first glass of champagne. Impeccably groomed, he still walks like a Harlem dude. It is an attitude as much as it is a rhythm, although he does move like a gymnast or dancer. Combs is wearing the classic hip-hop uniform that he helped enshrine in our popular imagination: white tee, track pants, and diamonds. A nameplate necklace with “Love” in bejeweled rose and white tones glimmers like neon pop art. He welcomes me and my assistant with a bear hug. When I mention it is one of my first hugs since COVID-19 made human contact feel dangerous, he comes back in for another. Sean Combs likes to spread the love.
After taking a few more calls and offering a sincere apology for keeping me waiting, Combs moves our chat outside. His instincts for mise-en-scène are on full display. We sit on a wooden bench at the edge of his infinity pool like sweethearts as he instructs his staff to make the setting “sexy.” That means moving a centerpiece of pink tea roses from inside to our feet, for ambience. He calls for an ebony pashmina—not a blanket, he specifically asks for a pashmina—to help me ward off the chill in the air. I am settled, but he thinks I could be more comfortable. He wraps me in the massive woolen throw like a burrito, fixing the edges to his satisfaction. His hands are elegant and competent, much like the man himself. I tell him he was obviously raised right, and he concurs easily. “I love the company of women and I take care of you,” he says. It is his way.
“Love” is Combs’s latest nom de plume. Born Sean Combs in Harlem in 1969, the 51-year-old businessman has had several names through the years. His staff talks about these as eras. I ask Combs if that is how he thinks of them. “Yeah, I do,” he says without hesitation. The name changes are about the almost-billion-dollar brand he built. Each one signals an ideology and a strategy. Combs calls them off easily enough. “You have the Puff Daddy era, that’s like this young, brash, bold hip-hop, unapologetic swagger on a million and just fearlessness and really doing it for the art and rooted, the only thing I know is hip-hop. I don’t know about changing the world or anything like that as possible.” The Puff Daddy era is not just Combs’s cultural foundation, it is also a defining moment for pop culture.
As the late 1990s were giving way to the 21st century, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs had taken hip-hop iconography to scale. Much has been made about the shiny suits and over-the-top videos that made Bad Boy Records, Combs’s eponymous record label, a massive hit factory. Perhaps too much has been made of it, at the expense of understanding what Combs meant in the culture. It is something to which his team is very sensitive—what they might think of as his rightful context. In fairness to the audience, it was hard not to be distracted by the shiny things. They were designed to distract. The visuals, the braggadocio, and the drama kept us entertained in the 1990s and early 2000s. But beneath the showmanship was Combs the innovator. He understood hip-hop as a lifestyle at a time before “influencer” had entered our cultural lexicon. His image looked larger than life in 1999, when consumers watched music videos on television and bought clothes at shopping malls. We were still sending SMS messages on our cellular phones and two-way pagers as Combs was making hip-hop art that predated visually driven social media culture. He was a GIF machine before we knew what a GIF was or how, 15 years in the future, making viral content could turn anyone into a celebrity. Most of the celebrities from the Puff Daddy era are locked in a social media liminal space. Try to find, as I did recently, an Insta-quality image of your defining pop culture memories before 2010. There may be some YouTube video or a few grainy GIFs. You will remember the moments as important, the actors as celebrities, but they were massively huge before we had the technology and taste for content. Content is now king, and Combs was one of the first mega-celebrities to turn music, art, fashion, and branding into a content machine.
A search for Puff Daddy’s peers on Twitter, Facebook, or TikTok GIF archives turns up little for his 1990s cohort of cultural ambassadors. Suge Knight, Tupac, and Dr. Dre are direct comparisons, but broader cultural icons like Michael Jordan and Leonardo DiCaprio are also examples of celebrities whose stardom seems fossilized in the medium of that time: outdated gossip blogs, periodicals, and Gen X memory banks. Bad Boy-affiliated artists are an exception. There are clips of Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Lil’ Kim and Biggie and Puff himself all over social media. They look as modern as celebrities who were being born the year that the East Coast-West Coast wars were at their peak. Audiences have dragged the Puff Daddy analog iconography into the digital content era because the image that Puff built still looks fresh. That speaks to Combs’s cultural prescience and to his hustle.
Combs talks a lot about being a hustler. It is the bedrock of his first eras. It is how a young Black man, raised by a single mother at a time when that overdetermined how little the world expected from you, turns himself into a global lifestyle brand. “I always was a hustler, always. My father, my first paper route was when I was 12 years old because my mother said she couldn’t get no sneakers and I wasn’t old enough to work,” he says. His father was murdered when Combs was two. Still, his father’s legacy of making ends meet by any means necessary is foundational to Combs’s autobiography. It’s a well-worn vignette, but his father’s legacy feels very tactile when he tells it. We are sitting at the edge of an ocean, and yet Combs can still reach back and touch the hunger that shaped his outlook on the world. At one point during our leisurely afternoon together, he takes me into a small studio in the back of his home. There is a massive picture of 22-year-old Puffy and 19-year-old Notorious B.I.G. standing in pre-gentrified Harlem. He points to himself and says, “Look at him. He was hungry. You can’t beat a man who still has that hunger but now I got all these resources. He can’t lose.”
Loss is something Combs knows about, even as he tries to stand down the inevitable toll that losing brings into every life. The Puff Daddy era ended with violence, loss, and trauma for the culture and for Combs, the man. “Puff Daddy had just got through East-West war. Nobody wanted to get in the room with me. They thought they was going to get shot.” That is when Combs started to think of himself in eras: “When I changed names, I put periods on those eras.”
The Diddy era was an homage to his brother Biggie, who clowned him about his rhythmic “diddy bop” swagger. “Then after Biggie, I just, and after all of that, I wanted to get into other businesses. And so Biggie had called me Diddy because of my bop, the way I walk, my swagger, and they got something called the diddy bop, that just, it just happens to, it’s not me, it was something before me. That’s the diddy bop. It’s the way a brother would walk around, walk down the street.” The diddy bop story brings to mind the famous Gwendolyn Brooks poem “We Real Cool.” The poem is about that certain brand of Black masculine cool that looks like rebellion when it is really a desperate plea for belonging. Brothers bop to prove that they have value in a world that measures a man by his economic value. Combs put the period on his drama-laden Puff Daddy era when he ushered in his entrepreneurial era in 2002. Diddy was a moniker based on an idea of Black cool that, like Combs, wants to prove to the world what its possessor is worth.
The turn to businessman Diddy is steeped in Combs’s hustler lore. In actuality, the Diddy era is more akin to neoliberal corporate hustling—branding, acquisitions, and mergers—than it is to street hustling. As hip-hop became the de facto multicultural youth culture at the turn of the century, Combs expanded his definition of the culture to include lucrative deals with liquor companies, an elite fashion brand, Sean John, founded in 1998, and branded partnerships.
“His business style is intuitive and intense,” says hedge fund manager Ray Dalio, who met Combs several years ago at a Forbes event; Combs later asked Dalio to mentor him. “He has a natural talent of seeing what is great—great talent in others, great products, great concepts—and intensely pursues bringing them out. He also is humble and empathetic. I had no idea how humble he is until I got to know him because his public persona isn’t like that,” Dalio continues, adding, “Because he is empathetic, he can feel what others feel which is a great asset in finding what they would like.”
For a younger generation, Diddy is known for at least a half dozen things other than music. Businessman. Celebrity host. Reality television judge. In many ways, Diddy won. He proved that he was more than a music guy who got lucky. He translated his cultural dominance into economic power, with all the complexities that entails. (Though he didn’t discuss it, a former employee sued him for sexual harassment and other work-related claims in 2017; they settled the case two years ago. At the time, a Combs representative said, “This is a frivolous lawsuit by a disgruntled ex-employee who was fired for cause.” A lawyer for the former employee did not respond to Vanity Fair’s inquiry.) Along the way, he reinvented himself for new audiences while building successful businesses in competitive industries like fashion, telecommunications, and technology.
Despite keeping him relevant and making him a lot of money, something about being in those rarefied spaces did not sit completely right with Combs. Personal loss shakes him. The mother of three of his six children, Kim Porter, died in 2018. His mentor and friend Andre Harrell died in 2020. He talks freely about how private losses moved him to reconsider his life’s work. Combs describes Porter as the love of his life. His daughters want him to settle down and get out of these streets. He knows what you are thinking, but he says there is no reason to expect a redux of the Diddy-Lopez romance. He and J.Lo are just friends. Of the social media post that set tongues wagging over the summer, he says that it was just a throwback post from a great time in his life. I push him gently on this because the streets want to know. “It wasn’t no trolling involved, that’s just my friend. And I don’t have nothing to say about her relationship or her life.” Over the several hours we spend together at Combs’s home and later on Zoom, it is clear that if any woman was going to tie the renowned playboy down, it would have been Porter. “And so, you know, I had to start to deal with it when I lost Kim. ’Cause I was like, man, you had it. I’m not saying I would do any of it differently. God willing—I would have had more time,” he says, then adds, “I look at my life as I got a second chance. I’m on my second mountain.” Losing Porter brought home for Combs that not only life is fleeting but so is public acclaim.
As private traumas brought Combs closer to God, the public traumas that define the 2010s—police brutality, civil disobedience, and political retrenchment—forced him to take a hard look at his legacy. I am amazed when he brings up #MeToo before mentioning Black Lives Matter. “If you living on this earth and you trying to keep on dealing with this shit, that ain’t the way we going to live. And people out there that are tired of it. And it’s not just a Black and white thing. You know what I’m saying? It’s just tired of the way that it doesn’t have to be. Like when they said it was over—when they said in the #MeToo, when it was over, it was over,” he says emphatically.
Combs sees #MeToo as a qualified sign of progress and evidence that celebrities can change the world. “The #MeToo movement, the truth, is that it inspired me. It showed me that you can get maximum change,” he says. What Combs wants now is for that maximum change to come for his tribe. Enter the Love era.
I rolled my eyes when I first heard about Combs’s new name, Love. He announced it in a social media statement in May and followed it up with a picture of the driver’s license that lists Love as his legal middle name. It is easy to be glib about the rebranding. On a lesser man it sounds like an anthropomorphized “Live Laugh Love” sign from a discount decor store. But this is Sean Combs we are talking about. He does not ask his people to bring us snacks. He asks them to set us up a “sexy situation.” His instinct for elevating the mundane into an experience is part of his charm and his success. What does he have planned for the Love era? Oh, just a little justice and a lot of Black capitalism. For Love, those are one and the same.
“Love is a mission,” he tells me with all seriousness. Combs is on a mission to lead a five-year takeover of…something. Perhaps of everything? The details are, shall we say, a little murky, but the passion is there. “I feel like that’s one of the biggest missions that will actually shift things. But besides that, we—the world—is different. We have the internet, we have the power, we have a culture, I have us on a five-year plan.” That plan is for Black people, although Combs is careful to say that he loves everyone. He says many times during our talk that Love is about moving from “me to we,” and he has a very clear idea of who is included in that we.
“My people taking time to feel like it’s all right to love. Take time to huddle up your tribe, take time to communicate and know your power. Take time to heal. You know what I’m saying, [taking care of] yourself without feeling like, oh, you’re going to be labeled a racist now because you talk about taking care of yourself.” He is on a roll. This isn’t the Black preacher elegy. It has more fury and a faster cadence. It is like a taut hip-hop verse. Combs wants to model what loving oneself can do for collective Black action. In the wake of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, Combs went looking for guidance. He jumps up during his recitation on Black love to retrieve a small journal. It looks out of place in the home’s curated opulence. The tan, embossed cover has a tiny lock, like a teenager’s first diary. The unlined pages have quotes written on them in large block letters. Combs flips to the first page. It is a James Baldwin quote: “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”
Growing up for Combs has meant coming back to God. Diddy had “gotten so far from God,” Combs tells me. He had hunger and vision but it was “so small.” Now, Combs believes he is stepping into his purpose. “It clicked in and went from me to we, that [I] was sent here not to just do those things that are kind of rooted in personal success but to be able to transfer to we, and do things that are real change and communal success.” He drops the journal on the table as he tells me this. The wind catches the pages to reveal that most of them are blank, as if he has only started to figure this thing out. That made me wonder: Who is guiding Combs’s growth in his Love era?
“I feel like God sent me, God, put on my heart, ‘What’s your purpose?’ I was looking at all these things, it’s preachers and just different people talking about purpose because I was like, man, purpose is something deep. Have I really found my purpose? I know I’m making money and I’m successful and I’m changing the game so called, but is that my purpose? And then I really prayed on it and God told me, ‘Your purpose is to play a part in saving the Black race.’ And then I immediately, I was like, I need to talk to Harry Belafonte.”
Harry Belafonte was Martin Luther King Jr.’s confidant and is a bona fide celebrity. Belafonte used his celebrity status to raise money for civil rights actions and organizations. He has been vocal about his disillusionment with modern celebrity’s lack of social responsibility, especially among Black celebrities. Belafonte’s 2012 comments that “high-profile artists” have “turned their back on social responsibility” called Combs’s peer Jay-Z out by name. (Belafonte and Jay-Z have since reconciled their public differences.) The critique could just have easily been lobbed at Combs. Or, rather, at Puff Daddy and Diddy. He does not name this critique directly, but Combs seems aware of Belafonte’s penchant for critique. That is, in part, why Combs called Belafonte when God spoke to him about his purpose.
Combs says Belafonte was a model for the kind of activism he envisions for this next stage of his public life. “I was like, we were in similar situations. You know what I’m saying? Coming from where we were having a position of power, being celebrities, and I was wondering, how did [Belafonte] get so dug into [social action]? And really dedicating his life.” He has always been dedicated to something. But whereas young Combs’s dedication was to family, friends, and making enough money to buy the kind of freedom he felt like the world was denying him, the elder Combs is dedicated to making that freedom possible for others. He says he looked through “history” and at his own biography during his journey to the Love era. In that excavation he saw the makings of someone destined to save his people. “The person that was able to go and do Bad Boy, if he’s in charge of bringing us together, it sounds like, ‘That’s the right motherfucker.’ ”
I believe Combs. I also believe the women in church who say God told them someone else’s man is their husband. If they like it, then I love it. Still, if I could ask the women in church one thing, it would be the same thing I tried to ask Combs with little success: I believe God told you that you have been chosen…but did he tell everyone else?
Sean “Love” Combs is a man standing at the crossroads of several sea changes. He is a not-so-young man whose legitimacy as a cultural icon hinges on his power to gate-keep youth culture. The influencer culture has taken the prototypes that Combs helped innovate and mixed commerce with social consciousness. It is no longer enough to look slick or create the newest dance. Today’s celebrity has to have a position on climate change, white supremacy, LGBTQ+ equality, and politics. Combs is also a girl dad. He has six children, three of whom are 14-year-old girls at the time we speak. He wants his daughters to inherit the keys to his kingdom in equal parts with his three sons. Raising a trio of girl bosses tunes a dad into the #MeToo movement. Combs is looking back at the international playboy of his youth and a near future where his daughters become young women. And above all, Combs is trying to do the brand iteration that made him successful in a climate that is openly hostile to what his brand represents. Combs’s “Black excellence” is, in practice, a celebration of Black capitalism. And, if you have not noticed, a lot of people have labeled capitalism as enemy number one. It is a cultural high wire perhaps too thin for a diddy bop.
That won’t stop Combs from trying. He launched a diversity training program with the powerful Endeavor this summer. The six-week course is dubbed, in true Combs fashion, “the Excellence Program,” and is designed to support aspiring entertainment executives hailing from underrepresented communities. It comes at a time when the entertainment agency model has come under fire for its lack of racial diversity. It is part of Combs’s desire to use his platform for collective good. But his understanding of what constitutes good may be at odds with the communities from whom he draws some of his inspiration.
In the spring of 2021, Combs published an open letter to “corporate America” in which he demanded that companies increase their spending with Black-owned media businesses, saying that “incremental progress” in ad-spend parity is unacceptable. Combs sees himself as advocating for the Black consumer in the “If You Love Us, Pay Us” missive. But critics were quick to say his callout was hypocritical, in part because Combs owns Revolt, a cable TV network that courts advertising dollars. Rapper Noname is the kind of artist who would have been difficult to imagine in Puff Daddy’s heyday. Noname is a fiercely independent rapper who, along with other contemporary artists like Chance the Rapper, rebuffs the traditional record-label deal as both an artistic and political statement.
Former Bad Boy artists The LOX and Mase have publicly criticized Combs for trapping them in what they felt were unfair deals in the past. Black capitalism, Noname alleges, would have one celebrate Combs’s individual success as social progress. She said on Twitter that Combs was “shaming white corporations for a capitalist business model he almost completely replicated.” This is not an isolated critique. It is a generational one. Younger audiences are rejecting uncritical boosterism of capitalism. And in a wider swath across pop culture, consumers are demonstrating a willingness to demand more from their para-social besties. That instinct is quite strong among young Black audiences, many of whom participated in Black Lives Matter protests over the last two years. Hip-hop artists can still make a song like “Party and Bullshit,” for sure. But they cannot make it without the audience pushing back on whether the bullshit was consensual and if the party had a purpose.
For his part, Combs tells me that he is not worried about bringing along those who disagree with him. “I can’t get caught up in that. I know where my heart is at, and you can’t just do it alone with just Black people. You got to have all types of allies. And that’s one thing I’m good at, I’m good at being a unifier, but I’m not going to be in a room with other tribes that protect themselves and make sure that they straight and not make sure that we straight. But also, I’m not a politician, I’m not trying to be the king or the dictator of somebody. I’m a boy from Harlem that came here to make a change. We all have our story.”
Combs’s story is a hood Horatio Alger tale. He started from the bottom and now he is here, as it were. It was a hero’s tale that made sense for where the culture was in 1999, even where it was in 2005. The 15 years before the 2008 Great Recession were a period of unbridled economic optimism. It was the era of the hustle, and Black youth culture translated it into an ethos, an identity, and an ideology. Lester Spence is a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University. In his book on Black neoliberalism, he calls this hip-hop ethos the “Can’t Knock the Hustle” mythology of modern Black capitalism. That myth made sense in the year 2000, when Black America, in particular, was battling the war on drugs by extracting every ounce of opportunity from Bill Clinton’s expanding economy. Before financial bubbles started bursting in rapid succession in the 2000s, hustling felt democratic. Anyone with the right dream and the right grind could make it out of the hood, sometimes literally but usually metaphorically. In 2021, hustling doesn’t sound fun. It sounds like the drudgery it is, a set of coping responses to a hostile social order that has left millions of people behind. That kind of moment requires a different kind of story and maybe a different kind of storyteller. It isn’t that the hustle is dead, but that valorization of the hustle culture is surely on the ropes. Hip-hop’s core constituency wants to debate the veracity of hustling when predatory mortgages, student loan debt, rising rent, flat wages, and surveillance police states choke the very life out of Black lives, Black hopes, and Black hustle. Combs speaks reverently about Black Lives Matter, calling it “part of the Black Renaissance” and very much a “part of the Love era.”
“His public face and his entertainment persona doesn’t show what’s going on in his head and behind the scenes,” says Dalio. “The way he uses his God-given talents, financial resources, and network to make products people love to buy, and then uses those resources to make the world better for the African American community isn’t apparent.”
The biggest challenge to the Love era is the death of the Black capitalism joie de vivre that produced Diddy’s first two acts. That doesn’t worry Combs. He thinks the revolution is foretold and his place in it has already been written by God. He is more worried that we have talked so much about serious stuff that we forgot to have fun. Fun is Combs’s real bag, and he does not want audiences to forget that above all, Love is supposed to feel good. God didn’t just give him a purpose. God also brought Combs into alignment with his highest frequency. “The fun part is the frequency,” he exclaims. “The fun part [of the Love era] is the music, the beat, the style, the rhythm, the walk, the talk, the fashion, the joy, the travels, the places we have never been before.”
As we are winding down our time together, Combs keeps returning to the frequency. He wants to create a vibe for the world to groove to. He invites me back for a Soul Food Sunday brunch, calling it an example of the Love-era frequency he is all about creating. He emphasizes that the soul food is healthy and the vibe is next-level. He looks pointedly at the recorder that has been between us all day, always part of his awareness. “I’m coming back into music, you know?” The room pauses for a dramatic beat. Combs obviously wants this on the record, and it is also clearly news to his team. Ever in control of his narrative, he issues the final word by telling me that he is starting a new record label. It will be an all R&B label because that is the music that makes Love Combs happy.
As his publicist looks alarmed at the unplanned disclosure, Combs tells me R&B is where he started. It is time that he comes home, not just for himself but for the culture. “Yeah, all R&B label, because I feel like R&B was abandoned and it’s a part of our African American culture. And I’m not signing any artists. Because if you know better, you do better. I’m doing 50–50 partnerships with pure transparency. That’s the thing. [The new label is so that] we can own the genre; we don’t own hip-hop right now. We have a chance to—and I’m going to make sure that—we own R&B.” And there’s the crux of Sean Combs, the man and the culture maker. He believes winning is his birthright, and he wants to share that with the world. It has worked before, and Combs is betting that he can make it work again. To hear him tell it, all we need is love.
HAIR, MARCUS P. HATCH; GROOMING, LUCIA RODRIGUEZ (SEAN COMBS). HAIR, SHANNA ANISE THOMASSON; MAKEUP, ASHLIE DOXEY (CHANCE COMBS, D’LILA STAR COMBS, JESSIE JAMES COMBS). TAILOR, TATYANA CASSANELLI. SET DESIGN, BETTE ADAMS. PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS: BYRON NICKLEBERRY, KENDALL PACK, WILLIAM AZCONA, CHRIS NOWLING; SET DESIGN ASSISTANTS: GEORGE DEACON, JASON VALDEZ, JEREMY REIMNITZ; FASHION ASSISTANTS: OLOLADE AIYEKU, JUN CHOI, SAMANTHA GASMER; POST-PRODUCTION: PICTUREHOUSE+THESMALLDARKROOM; SPECIAL THANKS: BEN BONNET, ZOE MCNICOL, MILK STUDIOS. PRODUCED ON LOCATION BY WESTY PRODUCTIONS. FOR DETAILS, GO TO VF.COM/CREDITS.
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