Love was getting a haircut, they said and could talk to me again. I was ushered upstairs. By then I had been inside the Combs compound in Beverly Hills since morning, and it seemed unremarkable that the house would include a home barbershop. He sat in the chair with his back to me. The barber was moving around his head like a big bee, sometimes with scissors, sometimes with little tiny brushes, sometimes with a looking glass. Love's hair was already quite short and to my eyes perfectly trimmed, but there is perfect in our world and perfect in Love's, and if the twain meet it will be by chance.
He is called Love now, or Brother Love. Not Diddy or Puffy or Sean or any of those. He will still answer to them, though. He is not a snob about names. But he would prefer now that people call him Love, because that is what matters. “Even people like me?” I asked, meaning God knows what. “Yeah,” he said. “I like re-inventing. That's probably why I have so many name changes. It's why I follow David Bowie and Madonna.”
Dictating what others call you is an expression of power, and the control Love exerts over his world helps explain the longevity of his career. Think of how many celebrities start clothing lines. Now think of how many of those are operating five years after they appear, forget about the 20 that Sean John has been around. Love also gets paid every time they play a Bad Boy Entertainment song on the radio or in a commercial. He is making money by the minute. He is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Get this: He was the highest-paid American musician of 2017, and he did not release any original music last year.
Now he is returning to what made him famous in the first place: spotting talent. In the barbershop, Love was watching pre-edited footage from The Four, his new reality show on Fox, which is meant to be a competitor to The Voice. The footage was beautiful. Which was not what a person would necessarily expect if he or she were I and unwholesomely familiar with the genre of televised voice competitions—familiar, too, from early days, with Love's first venture onto this field of combat, Making the Band 2. No need to get into that. Either you remember Chopper or you never knew him. But the show was how a lot of people, including me, first got an up-close feel (albeit simulated, exaggerated, packaged) of Love's personality, his style of relating, which I would describe as friendly and sly and quiet—in a way that makes you wonder if he is cocky or shy; the quietness seems to contain both qualities—then sometimes suddenly firm and cold. Mainly, though, he seemed nice. When you are about to spend the day with a famous person, it's one of the first things you wonder: Will he be nice?
On Love's barbershop TV was a young man named Vincint Cannady, a 26-year-old self-described “black, gay, weird” singer from Philadelphia. He was doing a sort of torch-song version of Radiohead's “Creep” and slaying it with a flaming sword. It was undeniable. There were about eight people in the room. Someone said, “He just took that song from Radiohead.” I knew what he meant. You felt like this was now the definitive version, or that it had been, for a moment. To have realized the song would bear this kind of operatic deconstruction had been a stroke of artistry. Now Love's head turned a tick. “Did you hear that?” he said, referring to the remark about Radiohead, not to Cannady's performance, though both were swept up in the question. “We gotta do something with that,” he said. “We can put that out special.” We could, or rather he could, and did, and two days later the clip went viral on Facebook, generating some ungodly number of views. The barber, who had been frozen with his hands withdrawn, drawn up like paws, the way barbers do when they're waiting for you to stop talking, began to move and buzz again.
They placed me directly in front of Love, facing him and maybe 12 feet away, but seated lower—in quite a low chair—whereas his barbershop chair had been pumped up, elevated. It was papal, this whole exchange of postures between us. Love made very direct eye contact. I started asking my questions. Love was supposed to be at a TV studio soon to tape Ellen. He maybe even should have been there already. But he appeared completely calm. Like a person whose body was heavily sedated with a drug designed to have no effect on his mind or even exert a speed-like influence there. But I suppose we all sit very still in barbershop chairs.
I said that people at home had told me to ask for untold Biggie stories, but that I didn't want to send him on a nostalgia trip. Instead, I asked him to go back and get the old Puffy and bring him forward, to imagine that he was still the hungry, young self-made exec who broke Biggie in the first place. If he were to look out on the current scene with that hungrier man's eyes, was there anyone who gave him the same excitement?
He thought about it for a solid half minute. “No,” he said.
It was a good answer. He had searched his brain for it. He was not going to give me a name just to give me a name.
“Kendrick Lamar,” he said finally. “But Kendrick's already made.”
He's someone you would put on a level with Biggie, talent-wise?
“Yes,” he said, again after a pause. “He gives you that feeling.” He rattled off a short list of other favorite living artists: “Drake, SZA, Jay-Z, Nas, Migos, Lil Baby, Future...” He trailed off.
Love's seriousness of demeanor was probably the thing about him that took me the most aback. He was almost somber. Not slow to smile—he didn't look depressed (and I know he still parties; his doctor had recently told him he “goes too hard”)—but there was a singularity of focus. He's almost 50 now. It's the age of: Give it all or retire. He seems totally uninterested in and possibly even unaware of the option of retirement.
I asked what kept him hungry.
“My culture,” he said. “I want to be an authentic, unapologetic warrior for black culture and the culture of the street and how it moves. My thing is most importantly to change the narrative of the black race. I can't relate to anything that isn't about that.”
He said he wants to develop an app that will allow users to look at a given city or neighborhood and see where the black-owned and black-friendly businesses are. He didn't want to say too much about the app. It wasn't finished. He didn't have a name for it yet.
“This is not about taking away from any other community,” he said. “We'll still go to Chinatown. We'll still buy Gucci!” He laughed. “But the application will make it possible for us to have an economic community. It's about blacks gaining economic power.” He and Jay-Z have been talking about this, he said, about moving the race forward actively, by means of: making a lot of money and putting it back into the community.
“I don't believe in passiveness,” Love said. “At some point there has to be some kind of fight. I feel like we've done a lot of marching. It's time to start charging.”
In his conversations with Jay-Z, they've been using the term “black excellence” for leaders who came forward to uplift the race by example. It was an updated incarnation of W. E. B. Du Bois's “talented tenth,” based not on class or lightness of skin tone this time but instead on getting and being extremely wealthy. And philanthropic. “We're into psychological warfare,” he said. “The difference is, we're not trying to hurt nobody.”
Earlier that day, Love demanded that I join him for a morning training session. His sons, Justin and Christian, were with us, plus a handful of their friends. Plus some of Love's old and loyal friends, who all but live with him. Plus a couple of people who work for him, maybe security. Then there were the trainers, two of them. The trainers were guys who, when they got done working with Love, would go off to train NFL and NBA players.
Love introduced me, and each man or youth shook my hand, introducing himself. We started by running with medicine balls up and down a sidewalk. The pool with a grotto was there. The green lawn with a basketball court. Our bodies were destined not for those things but instead to run while holding medicine balls over our shoulders.
The others complimented me when I'd managed to complete some task, or more often some fairly contained and somewhat arbitrarily bracketed-off section of one of the tasks. At one point we all lay next to one another on yoga mats. Love had placed me next to him, in the middle. We all sat in a line in the position of a half-completed sit-up and passed the medicine ball down the line, fire-bucket style. A bunch of different medicine balls. Some were not that heavy. Some were quite heavy. So, you're on your back, trying to catch these balls and hand them off quickly before the next one comes. And at times, especially with the really heavy ones, it was hard for me to get it handed off to Love in time, and I wouldn't quite have brought my hands back to the catching position when the next ball came, and several times the medicine balls came close to hitting me directly in my medicine balls or did hit me somewhat before I could grab them, and Love was noticing this. He would ask the others to slow down if he'd just seen me get medicined. That's what I mean about nice. He was considerate. I looked over at him at one point and said, “I think my body is confused. It hasn't experienced anything like this in a long time.” He smiled and said, “Maybe today is the day when you'll turn it around.”
When that exercise was over, I checked out for a while. I drank some ice-cold water from a big glass jug. When it came time to do the last exercise, Love called out to me from about 30 feet away. He and the others were lined up to do something with weights. “John,” he yelled, “you started with us, you're going to finish with us.” Everyone clapped as I jogged back in what I hoped was a game-looking way. And we all did the exercise. God has wiped the details of it from my memory.
I went back to the ice-water station and talked to Love's sons, who had uncommonly good manners that didn't seem fake, like they had accepted that it was important to treat strangers with respect. Each is primed to take control of one aspect of his empire. Justin told me he wanted to become the CEO of Bad Boy when Love stepped down: “I want to be the second coming of him. Just being around my dad and seeing what he looks for in talent, that's very exciting.”
As for Christian? He said he had been writing songs for years, “trying to find my sound. My pops is always telling me, ‘You can do this, but you gotta do it yourself, no writers.’ ” He was excited because his new single with Chris Brown was about to drop. I don't fuck with Chris Brown, neither with his music nor with his woman-battering, so I didn't say anything much. I tried to focus on Christian's contribution. And the song was pretty banging. I'm not sure it'll be a hit, but certainly it was a promising start to a young rapper's career. And who knows, maybe it will be a hit? But if it's a hit, will it have become one because of the song or because Love has the power to say, “Make it a hit!”? I don't know. Probably that will be one of Christian's challenges, dealing with never being totally sure about that. Or maybe he doesn't care, having inherited his father's knack for complete calm, even when the Ellens of the world are calling. Doubtless, he will have to crawl out from under some kind of shadow.
About an hour later, the clothes arrived for Love's GQ fashion shoot. I got up and walked across the green lawn. There were walls all around, high walls. Outbuildings. And everything was so clean. I had noticed that anytime I set down a mug or a little plate or something (coffee and snacks had been offered), a staff person would sneak up behind me to take it away, that's how quick they were. As a result, everything felt completely spotless and almost not lived-in, as if the house were being prepped for a real estate showing. The houses of extremely rich people are generally like this, and it has always given me a ghostly feeling, even there in sunny L.A. When Love said that thing about wanting to wage psychological warfare but not to hurt anybody, I had wondered out loud how that could really be. How was it warfare, then? “It's a war to love ourselves,” he said. So I asked the only question I could think of: whether he loved himself. “Yes,” he said. “Sometimes.”
In a great big open room that looked like it was possibly for parties but was really, I think, just another sitting area, Love was being fitted with various outfits. It was like watching a royal being dressed by the household staff. A seamstress stood ten feet away with a nubbin of chalk and a threaded needle in her lips, ready to pounce if an alteration was needed. There were maybe six people, and they were all working the entire time. Racing the clock, actually (the Ellen taping!—and he still hadn't even gone upstairs for his haircut). He tried on a long blue Valentino jacket that both looked like something Willy Wonka would wear and was completely chic. It was wild—I wanted it, knowing I'd never even have the guts to put it on. Maybe I would show it to people.
Love wandered over to near where I was standing, by the clothing racks. “Love,” I said, “they tell me you are re-imagining the Sean John line. How do you see the new look? What's it like?”
“A lot of black and white,” he said. We were sort of whispering. I'm not sure why. “It'll have a street cool,” he said, “but it can't be too geechie.”
“Geechie?” I said. I had heard that word before, but I didn't know what it meant in a fashion context. “What does a geechie piece of clothing look like?”
“Just...too much,” he said, running his hands over the jacket he had on. “You know, embroidery, buckles, just shit everywhere.”
“Like...too country?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said, and for a second I thought we were about to go deep, but just then he was called back to the mirror. I think maybe by “geechie,” Love had been describing the quality I grew up hearing called “tacky.” Which sort of meant: fanciness wielded by people with no taste. I never hear people say “tacky” anymore, but it's a good word, as useful as “nice.” In his unwillingness to let me get away with a shoddy definition, I saw his earnestness in wanting to figure it out. It reminded me that, even if he no longer defines cool the way he did in the late '90s and part of the aughts, he has remained a barometer of taste. He is evidently moving toward: sleek and clean.
I mentioned I'd spent a couple of hours the night before looking at his Instagram, and a lot of the “inspirational quotes” that Love had chosen to feature in his feed seemed like the kind of quotations a man would choose if he had been doing “some work on himself.” An example is this, from Maya Angelou: “Each one of us has lived through some devastation, some loneliness, some weather superstorm or spiritual superstorm, when we look at each other we must say, I understand.”
I brought up Biggie again, saying that in all the things I had read about Big's murder—a murder that was committed 21 years ago in the middle of the street near a huge industry party, by a shooter multiple people saw, but which somehow remains unsolved—Love hadn't said much about the fundamental horror of having lost one of his closest friends, of having been there in the vehicle just in front of Big's, in front of his best friend when they shot him. Surely those were scarring memories. He has spoken in a previous interview of guilty feelings relating to the night of Big's murder. If he hadn't made Big big, the rapper would not have been there to take those bullets, although given Big's reality in Brooklyn, he could have died sooner, for all we know. But they weren't even supposed to have been in L.A. that night. They were supposed to have flown to London. Love had tried to talk him into keeping with the plan, but Biggie had wanted to stay—which is strange, because he knew that he was in danger out there. Possibly that was the reason, his wanting to show that he would party in California when he felt like it, that he wasn't afraid. At times Love fell prey to the feeling he didn't try hard enough to persuade Biggie to leave.
I asked if he talked to a therapist about this stuff. “Nah,” Love said, “I haven't dealt with any of that yet. I try to get into it, but...that's something that just hurts so bad. That's a time that's still suppressed.”
He said that two and a half years ago, he had become depressed. He'd developed an addiction to his phone. He felt “far away from God.” He went to Sedona, Arizona.
“Where the vortexes are?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he said, smiling. In Sedona he reconnected with his magic. He was hearing new songs in his head. “I'm not 100 percent knowing how to come up with the sounds yet,” he said, but he felt almost ready to compete on the radio again.
At the end of the day, in the car on the way to Ellen, I got to squeak a few more questions through. I asked how he felt about the fitting.
“When I was growing up,” he said, “there were four magazines I wanted to be on the cover of: Essence, Ebony, and Jet. And GQ. When I'm there today and doing a fitting for GQ, I'm like, ‘Wow...dreams really do come true.’ ” This was a moment for Love. It slapped me into realizing I'd been viewing the day thus far with a jaded eye, or not jaded but feeling like we were all in on a joke or performance together, but it had been more real than that.
I said I'd noticed that as the day had progressed, as we were hanging out, the most common theme, the one real consistency from the medicine balling to the haircut, was mentorship. We had talked about his gift for talent spotting at Bad Boy. We had talked about the way he was teaching his sons. We had talked about black excellence and setting a personal example of financial success and community-mindedness. So, with The Four, did he see those as extensions of this role? Did he plan to mentor the artists he discovered?
“Yes,” he said. A few seconds of silence followed. Then he turned to me—we were sitting side by side—and said, “I think I've developed a mentorship relationship with the world.”
I had nothing for that. I sat beside him and let myself be mentored.
“God sent me here to inspire,” he said.
Then he jumped out of the car without saying anything. He was so late for Ellen that she had decided to weave his lateness into the narrative of that day's show. A camera crew was waiting for him in the alley to film his entrance into the studio. If you watch the sequence on YouTube, you can see me. It's funny, because in the two seconds I spend on-screen, I look like I work for the show or something. I'm talking at someone you can't see, who's 12 feet away, and it looks like I'm giving a command. But really what I'm saying is, “Wait, my suitcase is still in the trunk!” They handed it to me, and when I turned, Love was gone.
Date Posted: Monday, March 19th, 2018 , Total Page Views: 1925
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