Puff Daddy Alone, Plus A B.I.G. Angel

IN THE SONG ""PAIN,'' FROM his new album, ""No Way Out,'' Sean ""Puff Daddy'' Combs assesses his life so far: his father was murdered, women want only his money and now his best friend, rap star the Notorious B.I.G., is gone, killed in a Los Angeles drive-by March 9. ""Sometimes I want to pull it,'' Puffy raps, ""end it all with a bullet.'' But then the angel B.I.G. appears on platinum wings, telling Puffy to soldier on. ""I live through you,'' B.I.G. says. ""Make hits continuous.''

From Biggie's mouth to your ears. ""No Way Out,'' the first album from one of hip-hop's most brazenly successful producers and executives, is a meditation on death and stress, on the box Combs has helped construct around himself: ""When I think about dying,'' he muses in one of the album's many voice-overs, ""I think about a sense of release.'' The album is a work of maudlin, hitmaking brilliance.

Unfortunately, at nearly 80 minutes, it is rarely all those things at once. As a producer for platinum acts like Mary J. Blige and Jodeci, Combs helped develop an ethos of ""ghetto fabulous'': what you got when the Notorious B.I.G. expounded about the Lexus and the Rolexes and how the sex is - or, posthumously, on the Puffy album, about having ""lawyers watching lawyers/So I won't go broke.'' Stylish and communal, Combs's hits put the pleasure back in urban music. But ""No Way Out'' dispenses its pleasures in small helpings. Tupac and Biggie made the drag of urban claustrophobia feel gripping and universal; with Puffy, it feels like a drag. Known for appearing in his acts' videos, he is more charismatic than cathartic. There's some fabulously funky fluff here, but it gets lost in all that depth.