Puffy's Crowded Orbit

On Aug. 24, the nation's record stores were piled high with 1.5 million copies of "Forever," Puff Daddy's second album. Puff, the rap superstar, meticulously primed his fans with a grueling 32-city promotional blitz. He and his brain trust chose the first single, an edgy rap titled "PE2000," to help re-establish the globe-trotting celebrity's street creds. At first, the marketing plan seemed to be working, with "Forever" selling a respectable 205,000 copies the first week. But the CD didn't debut at No. 1; and the following week sales plunged to just 119,000 copies, says industry scorekeeper SoundScan. To help stop the free fall, Puff's team rushed out a second, more radio-friendly single. Finally, last week, with the R&B-flavored tune "Satisfy You" soaring to No. 1, "Forever" yielded its first hit single. That may be a hollow victory, however, since it wasn't able to prop up the album, which slipped to No. 27 on the charts.

Yet Puffy's woes as a star may pale beside the unrest within his musical empire. Sean (Puffy) Combs is trying to negotiate one of the most difficult balancing acts in show business: he's pursuing his own career as a recording superstar, which has made him a huge celebrity, a staple in the gossip pages for rubbing elbows with other A-list fixtures such as his current companion, the sultry actress Jennifer Lopez. But Puffy also kept his high-profile day job as CEO of Bad Boy Entertainment, a music label with a roster of performers hungry for his formidable marketing and production skills. Complicating matters are a host of other troubles. He infamously assaulted a fellow record exec, allegedly with a champagne bottle, and had to sign up for an anger-management class. Bad Boy is still trying to fill a void left when its biggest star, Notorious B.I.G., was murdered in 1997. And if all that weren't enough, he's about to turn 30.

Combs first surged to prominence and fortune in his early 20s as a wunderkind star maker, a record producer with a keen ear for danceable hits and a flair for spotting talent, be it rappers (Notorious B.I.G. and Mase), a rhythm-and-blues songbird (Faith Evans) or hot producers (Bad Boy's in-house "Hitmen"). But these days Puffy vastly overshadows the performers on his label. (Puffy's 1997 debut album sold an extraordinary 6 million copies, propelled by the smash hit "Missing You," a poignant tribute to Biggie, performed to the music of Sting's classic "Every Breath You Take.") Acts are complaining that they've been relegated to the back burner as the label lavishly promotes Puffy's career. Of the nearly dozen new recordings reportedly slated for release this year, only one besides Puffy's has made it into record-store bins. There has already been one key defection, by top-selling rap act The Lox, who went to rival Interscope, citing a "combination of irreconcilable differences.''

"I applaud Puffy's success," Bad Boy star Faith Evans told NEWSWEEK. "But I do feel it took away a lot of attention in terms of work and thought put into other artists. His time availability isn't the same. A lot of artists aren't happy."

The imbalance, which Puffy has been attempting to right by staffing up, could threaten Bad Boy, the engine of Puffy's ambitious expansion into media, restaurants and fashion. It is already exacting a financial toll. Although Bad Boy will not disclose financial information, music revenues reportedly have fallen to $50 million or $60 million this year from a peak well in excess of $100 million in recent years. Puffy, who personally earned an estimated $53 million last year, declined to be interviewed. His associates complain that the press is prematurely judging the prospects of "Forever" and that Bad Boy's ups and downs are typical in a hit-driven business. They note that Bad Boy artists Faith and the group 112 have recent hits. Puffy's lawyer, Kenny Marsalis, insists that Puffy's fortunes are on the upswing, citing his No. 1 single and the album's climb toward platinum status (1 million sold). There's a big slate of releases for 2000. Adds Arista CEO Clive Davis, "Puffy is a survivor. He is showing resiliency." Arista, a unit of Bertelsmann, co-owns Bad Boy. Puffy's camp says the rest of his business ventures, including a clothing line, Sean John, are doing extremely well. Finally, Puffy's advisers believe he is the target of "player hating," hostility toward successful rap artists.

Still, the many demands on Puffy have left him with little time for the absorbing process of breaking new acts, which is the key to a label's financial health. Bad Boy has been slow to debut a promising young rapper named Shyne. Wooed by several labels, Shyne signed with Bad Boy two years ago for an advance of at least $1 million. Since then, Shyne has drawn more attention for troubles outside the studio. Soon after joining Bad Boy's roster, he crashed his new Mercedes; a friend died in the accident. The record is nearly finished, but no firm release date has been set. Shyne's record probably would have come out this year if Puffy's CD had gotten off to a stronger start, says Deric (D-Dot) Angelettie, a longtime Puffy confidant, a pivotal Bad Boy producer and CEO of the Crazy Cat label. "Our new artists had to take the background for a minute,'' he said.

In the close-knit rap world, Puff's counterparts at other labels are watching Bad Boy with interest and even offering him unsolicited advice. "I recommended he focus on breaking some new acts" before concentrating on his own recording, says Island/Def Jam CEO Lyor Cohen, a longtime Puffy acquaintance. Cohen lost out to Puffy in pursuing Shyne. But DMX, another rapper Cohen signed at the same time, has already put out two smash albums, and a third is on the way.

Lately, associates say, Puffy is throwing himself into appeasing his disgruntled roster. Critical in his efforts to restore peace in the family is Faith Evans, dubbed "The First Lady of Bad Boy"--and widow of Notorious B.I.G. She says she is renegotiating her recording contract with the label and is attempting to, among other things, regain full control over her lucrative music-publishing rights. One of Bad Boy's biggest planned releases for the year is "Born Again," a posthumous Biggie recording to be unveiled in December. But first Puffy had to negotiate with Evans and Biggie's mother over whether Bad Boy had full rights to the recordings. After months of fencing, Puffy recently worked out a deal that includes sweetened royalties and a sizable cash payment to the estate. Puffy is now devoting considerable energy to teeing up the album's December launch in hopes of a strong end to Bad Boy's year.

Yet he continues to be consumed with making a smash hit out of "Forever." His team is betting heavily on the third single, "My Best Friend," slated for a December release. In that song, designed to have mainstream pop appeal, Puffy raps a tribute to Jesus over the music of Christopher Cross's "Sailing." The title of the new single seems apropos for Puffy, as he wrestles with his two demanding roles. Should he focus on his own recording career, or go back to playing the role of "best friend" to his roster of artists? Puffy could use a little smooth sailing.