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Record Rating: ****

DIDDY - PRESS PLAY In the late '80s and early '90s, artists like Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer and Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch set the standard for rap's pop appeal. But when the music crossed over on its own terms, poppy hip-hop all but vanished. That is, until the arrival of ace producer Puff Daddy (a.k.a. Sean "Puffy" Combs), who reinvented the genre when no one was expecting it.

1997's hip-pop blowout No Way Out was a groundbreaking record which gave new life to old hits (number one single I'll Be Missing You sampled the Police's Every Breath You Take) and overnight made him a multimillion selling superstar. Press Play is the first album in five years, and Diddy (as he now calls himself) cleverly reclaims his crown as the biggest star in hip-hop, if not popular music.

An engaging exploration of love, sex, and the club scene, the 19 tracks are a sexy, star-studded revue, anchored by irresistible hooks and infectious, fast-paced vocals. The first single Come To Me (which features the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger) is a hot urban ditty that propelled this album straight to #1 on the US charts and sets the pace for the first thirty five minutes of the CD.

But for all of his dance culture sensibilities, Jennifer Lopez’s ex-boyfriend really flexes his maturing vocal chops on a bunch of slow jams ~ there’s the Prince reminiscent Through The Pain (She Told Me) with Mario Winnans, the reflective ballad After Love (featuring newcomer Keri), and the Grammy-worthy collaboration with Brandy on Thought You Said.

Other noteworthy tracks include Christina Aguilera on the infectious Tell Me and R&B superstar Keyshia Cole working her magic on Last Night. Amid a sea of mainstream hip-hop mediocrity on the charts, Press Play arrives right on time. Surprisingly good!

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