It’s fitting that on the same day that Hilary — Southern California’s first tropical storm in 84 years — rains her way out of Los Angeles, Sean “Diddy” Combs breezes into Billboard’s studio for a sit-down interview. He’s a fascinating whirlwind of activity from the moment he arrives in his ever-present shades: stopping first to huddle with the photographer about the lighting for the shoot, orchestrating the background setup for his video chat; then changing outfits to match his vibe just before the cameras roll. “It’s just not my vibration,” he declares at one point as the backdrop is being rearranged. “I’m in a high frequency right now.”
“High frequency” and “low frequency” are phrases that often crop up during this interview and a follow-up conversation a week later as Combs talks about returning to music with his first album in 13 years, The Love Album: Off the Grid, and explains his take on what fans have been missing from him.
“You’ve always got to bring something new and fresh,” he says. “I wouldn’t have come back after 13 years if I didn’t have something to say.”
And right now, Combs has got a lot to say. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Bad Boy Entertainment and the 10th anniversary of his REVOLT TV network, with its reimagined REVOLT World summit (featuring keynotes, panels and performances by Don Toliver, Mr. Eazi and more) slated for Sept. 22-24 in Atlanta. And with his sixth studio album that his own Love Records will deliver on Sept. 15 (“Diddy Day,” he calls it), he’s officially launching a creative renaissance, too.
The R&B album features Diddy rapping alongside a guest roster of 29 established and emerging stars, ranging from Mary J. Blige, H.E.R., Summer Walker, Jazmine Sullivan and Coco Jones to The-Dream, Justin Bieber, Ty Dolla $ign, Burna Boy, Kalan.FrFr and Love Records artist Jozzy. Comprising 22 tracks and two interludes, The Love Album: Off the Grid is dedicated to late producer Chucky Thompson, who was an original member of Bad Boy’s in-house production collective called the Hitmen. The Weeknd makes his final guest stint on the album’s next single, “Another One of Me,” with French Montana and 21 Savage. Another track, “Kim Porter,” with Diddy and Babyface featuring John Legend, pays tribute to Combs’ late former girlfriend and mother of three of his children.
“This isn’t just an R&B album; it’s an R&B movie [about love],” says Combs, who executive-produced and curated the project. “It’s probably one of the biggest collections of talent ever, all unified on one album. And I happen to be blessed to have The Weeknd’s last feature. The song talks about being unique, in a sense — telling your ex-girl that another one of me won’t come around.”
As an artist, Combs’ bona fides speak for themselves. Since his ’90s heyday, the triple Grammy winner has sold 8.1 million albums in the United States, according to Luminate, with five titles charting in the top 10 on the Billboard 200: No Way Out (No. 1, 1997), Forever (No. 2, 1999), The Saga Continues … (No. 2, 2001), Press Play (No. 1, 2006) and Last Train to Paris (No. 7, 2011). He has landed 38 career entries on the Billboard Hot 100, including 15 top 10s and five No. 1s: “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” featuring Ma$e; “I’ll Be Missing You,” with Faith Evans and featuring 112; The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems,” featuring Puff Daddy & Ma$e; “Bump Bump Bump,” with B2K; and “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” with Nelly and Murphy Lee. Still, when his new album’s first single, “Gotta Move On,” with Bryson Tiller, peaked at No. 3 in 2022, it was his first top 10 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart since “Last Night” featuring Keyshia Cole in 2007, which went to No. 7. (“Gotta” also topped Adult R&B Airplay for two weeks last November.)
Then in September, Combs rocked the industry with the surprise announcement that he was returning his publishing rights to the artists and songwriters who had helped build his Bad Boy Entertainment into a success — a move that came after detractors, most notably Ma$e, alleged that Combs had treated his artists unfairly over the years. Ma$e, Evans, The LOX, 112 and the estate of The Notorious B.I.G. are among the creatives who have already signed agreements to regain those rights.
During his interview with Billboard, Combs speaks about his push to close the wealth gap for Black people and promote diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. On behalf of the latter cause, his Sean Combs Foundation recently donated $1 million to Jackson State University, a historically Black university. He also announced a $1 million investment fund in partnership with Earn Your Leisure founders Rashad Bilal and Troy Millings to provide a practical model for economic empowerment in Black communities. He notes as well that profits from the fund would support his three Capital Preparatory charter schools in New York and Connecticut.
Referencing Tulsa, Okla.’s iconic Black Wall Street — which was destroyed in a racially motivated massacre just over 100 years ago — Combs says, “I’m about empowering Black minds, Black ideas, Black businesses. That’s my focus. I used to be looking for the next Biggie. Now I’m looking for the next entrepreneur that I can help support through resources and knowledge. My purpose has leveled up.”
Dina Sahim, who has been co-managing Combs at SALXCO alongside company chief Wassim “Sal” Slaiby since 2021, says there’s a reason why her client has helped foster the careers of so many other stars: “He doesn’t take days off. Every minute of every single day is spent doing something that contributes to his growth as a person, as a businessman and to the people around him. He didn’t get to where he is by mistake. And he lives to perpetuate wealth and inspiration. He wants everybody to eat like he’s eating; wants to teach everyone to take what they have, build on it and create an empire.”
But make no mistake: Combs is still all about having fun as he jubilantly navigates his return to music’s center stage. “I’m a 26-year-old in a 53-year-old body,” the MTV Video Music Awards’ (VMAs) newly minted Global Icon Award honoree says with a laugh. “There are still a lot of things I want to do on my Diddy list. So yeah, I’m back. Just in my bag and having fun. Whenever it feels like work, I’ll leave.”
Combs photographed on August 21, 2023 in Los Angeles. Austin Hargrave
First things first: What prompted you to return the publishing rights to the Bad Boy artists and writers?
I decided to reassign publishing rights to the whole catalog in May or June 2021. The news is just now coming out because it took time to finalize everything. But this was during the time that I was holding the Grammys to task. I was also getting major offers for the catalog during the [acquisition] frenzy back then. When I was looking at the catalog and everything, I was put in a position where I felt like I had to look in the mirror. I had to make sure that what I was standing for was my total truth. We live in a time where things are constantly evolving. And it was about reform for me. It was me looking at ways I could reform things as a person that’s been asking for change. It was just the right and obvious thing to do; something I’m proud I did. As a businessman, there comes a time when you have to pick purpose over profit. I’m glad that I’ve seen both sides. As a businessman, I’ve evolved and was blessed to be in a position to give the publishing back.
Ma$e was very vocal about reclaiming his publishing rights. Have the two of you reconciled?
Everything’s cool and good now. You know, we’re brothers and brothers fight. I love him and that’s it.
The other big recent news is the release of your long-promised ode to R&B, The Love Album: Off the Grid. Why a return to recording at this point in your career?
It’s been 13 years since Last Train to Paris. When it came out, it kind of broke my heart because people didn’t understand it right away. It was a bit before its time, and I know I was in my ego.
What didn’t they understand?
I had to compromise the uncut Blackness and soul of what I was trying to do, like on the song “Coming Home.” I have the talent as a producer, you know, to make a No. 1 record. But that’s very dangerous because sometimes that record may not be authentic or your intentions aren’t in the right place. My intentions were to get another No. 1 record instead of keeping the album uncut and soulful.
As time went on, people were able to connect with the album, and it’s become a cult classic. But for a couple of years after that, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t hearing the sounds. Then I started just dealing with life and had to go through a healing journey. When I came out of that, I was like, “What do I want to do that makes me happy?” And it was, “I need to get back to music.” So I immediately said, “I’m going to start a new label called Love Records, and I’m going to focus on R&B and bring back what it’s missing: that soul, that love, that unapologetic Blackness, that expression of vulnerability and on a different, higher frequency.”
The album sounds very autobiographical. Was that also one of your intentions this time around?
Yes. This time I decided, “I’m going to just bare my soul and give people my truth.” So this is my love story through all of my different relationships. It’s about going away for 48 hours with a young lady, turning the phones off, locking in and connecting. We should all go off the grid with our significant other, whoever it is you love, and get to know each other better. And I had the musical vision for my story. I was like, “First, I’m going to make some R&B music for dancing to make her feel comfortable, then some slow love- and baby-making music for the strokers, then some baby-don’t-leave-me music.” And I have some of the best — and my favorite — voices in R&B telling my love story. What I’m bringing back to the game is that Puffy sound, not following any trends or algorithms. I’m not knocking anything that’s out there, but a lot of things are just so toxic.
Combs photographed on August 21, 2023 in Los Angeles. Austin Hargrave
Why has R&B become such an important crusade for you?
My first love is R&B. The first record that I produced was the remix of “Come and Talk to Me” by Jodeci. And from there going on to Mary J. Blige and, you know, to being the king of hip-hop soul.
When I was younger, R&B saved my life. I thought I was going to be a football player. Then I got hurt on my last day of camp as a senior. My heart was broken; I didn’t have a B plan. And that music really saved my life. Dancing in the clubs in New York, getting the chance to be picked up as a background dancer and seeing the industry that I fell in love with saved me. Then as life goes on, you get hit with so many things: losing the mother of my children, losing my girlfriend; just being hurt, down and lost. R&B helped me find myself and get back on my feet again. So I can’t wait for people to hear how I’ve come full circle.
In fact, I’ve come full circle on so many things. It’s rare, having a career of 30 years and still having the ability to make relevant music without selling out or trying to be on somebody else’s wave. I’m here to unify us, the whole R&B community. I returned to my roots of production; those sensibilities like when I was just starting out at 23. As a student of the game, I’m working with all the new, younger producers. We have a nice new crew of Hitmen that has been assembled to take this to the next level. I’m learning from them and their fresh energy, and they’re learning from me. That’s one of the things that I’m always going to be: a platform. I went from being on the stage to becoming the stage. So launching some new artists on the album was also a definite priority.
Why did you say last year that R&B is dead?
When I said, “R&B is dead,” I wanted to wake up the R&B universe and shed some light on it. My intention was to do exactly what’s happened. We’re now in this R&B renaissance. After leaving the game for so long and coming back, I realized there was a lack of resources, a lack of support from radio, a lack of belief. When I said [that], it wasn’t being said in a negative way. It was also part of unifying us in getting back to our Blackness, getting off that computer and getting back into feeling. If you ain’t got no feeling, you dead. So I’m here to bring back that feeling.
There are a lot of artists out there, of course, pushing the envelope with different styles of R&B. And I’m seeing people step their game up. This renaissance has such incredible artists from Summer Walker and SZA to The Weeknd and Brent Faiyaz … so much richness. But I believe we have to make some noise to be heard more and get the same resources to be able to compete. This genre deserves to be put in a position to win. R&B and hip-hop are not the same.
I’m glad to hear you say that because many people in the industry keep putting R&B under the hip-hop banner.
I’ve had conversations with some of the people in power, and almost all the people in power are not from the R&B community or the culture. That’s when you get the lack of understanding and resources. To them, it just sounds like the same thing. So I’m in a season of total independence. I had an experience with Motown where it was like, “I’ve come too far to ask somebody that isn’t where I’m from about cultural and artistic things. If I’m going to bet on anybody, I’m going to bet on the people I believe in.” So I decided to go independent with Love Records and Bad Boy. I decided to come back into the game with bolder ideas of ownership, distribution and future manufacturing because those are the things that we as a people are cut out of.
Since #TheShowMustBePaused, has the music industry overall made any substantial progress in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion?
We have some representation … Shout out and all due respect to everybody that’s in power. But [for most people], there’s still somebody over them, a white man that they have to get permission from to do something. And it’s always been the same, no matter what the industry. When you’re independent, you don’t have to ask that permission. You can do what you want to do. It’s time for change. And the only way you get change is you’ve got to make the change — and not just change progress. It’s all a bunch of bulls–t. Diversity isn’t about inclusion; diversity is about sharing power. And nothing has changed. It’s gotten worse.
What about the changes the Recording Academy has made since you put the organization on notice in 2020 for the Grammys never respecting Black music “to the point that it should be”?
They went right to work immediately. There’s a lot of work to be done, but radical steps have been made. And that’s really what I’m on: radical change. Not making tiny steps. Me making those statements made them look at themselves, made me look at myself and made the whole industry have to look at itself and our [collective] responsibility toward evolving through diversity, through economics and through this human race where everybody just wants to be better. But it wasn’t just me; there were a bunch of us [Black executives] that stepped up behind the scenes as a collective in pushing for change. And the Academy really responded in a responsible way. So now it’s also up to artists to understand how to get in there and really utilize the academy for their benefit.
Speaking of change, you signed with SALXCO for management. What was behind that decision?
Finding the right manager is hard. Someone that’s going to be kind of obsessed about every move you have going on as much as you would be. That’s what you hope for: to find someone with that kind of talent, who can actually tell you something worthwhile and understands a bigger picture. For example, one of the big decisions we’ve made is that my first concert will be in Europe, not in America, as we make this a global release. There were a lot of things that affected the whole energy behind how this project is being rolled out and positioned. So I respect Sal’s opinion and vision. And he and Dina make it enjoyable.
Combs photographed on August 21, 2023 in Los Angeles. Austin Hargrave
In addition to celebrating your 30th anniversary in music, REVOLT is marking its 10th birthday. What’s your vision for the network moving forward?
To make it not just the biggest Black-owned network but the biggest media company that I can. I’m not pigeonholing myself. Again, nobody’s going to give us power, and they’re not going to share it with us. That’s why 10 years ago, I named my network REVOLT, because we have to take our quality of life back. There’s so much value and information. And when the Black media doesn’t have an outlet that’s controlled by somebody of color, then it’s not truly a Black free press. REVOLT is the only foundation right now that’s going in that direction. But it takes time. I own 65% of REVOLT, so we could change the narrative. I’m investing in the Black future with REVOLT. It’s not a hustle, not a money play. Everything I do is to make sure that I do my best to break down the barriers. Media is one of the most important and powerful parts of freedom.
As far as our business strategy, we’re in acquisition mode to really build a Black-owned media conglomerate. That’s why we were looking at BET and at a couple of other businesses. BET is definitely the mecca, the originator of Black media, and still is. So just the thought of unifying … We’re not going to be able to reach our highest level of success in the media world, like a Rupert Murdoch, if we don’t unify. Like me, Tyler Perry and Byron Allen. We have a responsibility because it’s like 15 of us getting money, but 10 billion people in the world. We need to pool our resources, everybody from LeBron James and Issa Rae to Tracee Ellis Ross to Jada Pinkett [Smith] and Queen Latifah. That’s what I’m pushing for: unity in a disruptive way that’s never been done before. Having such a media platform is one of the most powerful tools in changing our trajectory.
Given your busy September with the VMAs, the album rollout and the REVOLT World summit, is the long-awaited Verzuz battle between you and Jermaine Dupri still on the table for this month?
The only Verzuz I want to have right now is Puff Daddy versus Diddy. The only person I’m in competition with is myself. (Smiles.) But the battle with Jermaine isn’t off the table. We’re still trying to work it out, and I definitely look forward to that.
You entered Forbes’ billionaire rappers circle last year. Who’s on their way from hip-hop’s next generation?
Nipsey Hussle, to me, was that young Puff version. But one person that I can say right now is Travis Scott. I can relate to how he’s diversifying his portfolio and really understanding how to take it to the next level. I also think Yung Miami [aka Caresha Brownlee] from the City Girls. She reminds me of Oprah with the endless possibilities that she has as far as her clothing line, television shows, performances, live podcasts. I really respect both of their hustles and see them being able to break through.
Despite this being the 50th-anniversary year of hip-hop, music pundits have written stories about hip-hop’s lack of top-charting singles and albums in 2023. What’s your take on the genre’s evolution into 2024?
Right now, people are looking for something fresh. Everything’s been so monotonous and low frequency with everybody sounding so much like each other. However, I think you’re going to see a balance. You’re still going to have your ratchet stuff, you’re still going to have the turn-up. But people are going to come up with new styles. It’s time. The beauty of it is that you can make your own type of music and cultivate your own community. When you have 8 billion people in the world, you can do all right if you have 2 million in your fan base. I just see hip-hop constantly evolving and constantly melding with different types of music. There’s Afro beats melding with trap melding with what’s going on in London melding with what’s going on in dance music. Everything’s just coming together.
The smile on your face as you say all this … it’s like maybe seeing the younger Sean during the Uptown days.
Definitely. I’ve gotten a chance to look at everything with new, fresh eyes. I learned that from my baby … You know, I just had a baby. And the baby looks around at everything. So I started to look around, hearing things and being more open-minded. The future of hip-hop, I think, is really looking up, especially with AI coming in. I think it’s going to have an impact; that it will be another category of music. But also looking at older hip-hop and R&B artists selling out arenas … it’s a wealthy season right now for music in general.
As you reflect on your career thus far, how do you view your legacy as an elder statesman of hip-hop alongside Dr. Dre and Jay-Z?
We’re all different people at different stages in our lives, you know what I’m saying? But there’s only one Diddy. There’s only one Jay-Z. There’s only one Dr. Dre. We’re all good where we’re at, and we’re in our purpose. I’m living my purpose as far as coming in and making people feel something. Breaking down barriers and showing people how to hustle, make money, make a career and living — and be successful.