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Intro to Diddy: Are Courses that Focus on Pop Culture Enriching for Students or Colleges?

On one of the final days of the semester at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Tisch School instructor Jayson Jackson is lecturing his students on the finer points of controversy.

“When you’re holding a stolen gun, we call that a burner,” he explains, a sprawling flowchart of assaults, murders, and arrests scribbled on a whiteboard behind his head. “If you’re defending yourself, then it is what it is, but if you’re planning to do harm and get away with it, you use a gun that’s stolen or a gun with the serial numbers etched out so you don’t get caught.”

The course is “Topics: Sean Combs and Urban Culture,” and Jackson is referencing the infamous night in 1999 when his subject — known at the time as Puff Daddy, in later years P. Diddy — found himself at the center of a near-deadly shoot-out at Club New York, ultimately leading to an acquittal on weapons charges. Later during the same class, Andre Harrell, the former Motown Records CEO often credited with discovering Combs Skypes from California to help recount the night in 1997 when Puffy’s Bad Boy Records labelmate Biggie Smalls was murdered.

Billed as a crash course in ’90s hip-hop and urban entrepreneurship, Jackson’s seminar may feel a tad out of place at a prestigious institution of higher learning, but it’s only one of a growing number of college courses in the tri-state area centered on celebrities and pop culture. This summer at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs marked the inaugural semester of “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus: Race, Class, Gender, and Media,” which, according to the school’s course description, follows the pop princess from “Disney tween to twerking machine” and deals with issues of gender stratification and cultural appropriation. Rutgers University offers a women’s studies class called “Politicizing Beyoncé,” which explores race, gender, and sexual politics “through the music and career” of the self-described feminist singer. College students can now learn about everyone from Bob Marley (NYU) and Frank Zappa (Indiana University) to Jay-Z and Kanye West (University of Missouri), all the while working toward a degree from an accredited four-year university.

While bold titles and name recognition certainly help fill seats (two separate sections of the Beyoncé class filled up on the first day of registration), they’ve also spawned claims that studying celebrity is a waste of university resources, as well as students’ time and tuition. Andrew Hacker, professor emeritus at Queens College and author of Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, puts it bluntly: “If you’re paying full sticker price and taking four classes a semester, you’re spending about $6,000 on one of these courses when you could just be reading Spin or some other magazine.”

Still, many universities believe pop culture and academia can mesh in meaningful, thought-provoking ways. One method is to focus on the business aspects of celebrity, immersing students in the world of a particular artist or media mogul and bringing in members of the subject’s inner circle to impart insider knowledge.

For Jackson, who ran the marketing department at Bad Boy in the late ’90s before becoming Lauryn Hill’s manager, the reason to devote an entire course to Puff Daddy was obvious. “Sean Combs is the only guy worth $700 million that I can get on the phone,” he explains nonchalantly. “I’ve worked with Puff; I’ve known him since I was 16.”

Many of Jackson’s students hope to launch careers in talent scouting and artist manage-ment, with some already interning at major labels like Columbia Records, and the course aims to outline how one might succeed in such a competitive industry. Final projects consist of “elevator pitches,” in which students have five minutes to make a viable business proposal to a would-be team of senior Bad Boy executives. When guests like Harrell visit the class (other cameos have included Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, former captain of Bad Boy’s legendary “Hitmen” production team; and James Cruz, current president of Bad Boy Management), students are urged to treat the experience like a business meeting and make lasting impressions. The goal is not only to tell the narrative of Sean Combs’s rise to fame but also to simulate real-world experience in a notoriously cutthroat and lucrative business, something NYU has preached for years in its experiential-education programs.

“Roy Disney was no fucking Papa Bear. Steve Jobs was no fucking nurturing kind of employer. It’s really sink or swim,” Jackson says. “For Sean Combs, I don’t think anyone has really considered his achievements in business, and that was one of the main reasons why I wanted to do the class.”

The alternative approach is to use a pop star’s career as a lens through which students can view larger sociopolitical issues such as race and gender inequality. Looked at that way, the scathing response to Miley Cyrus’s performance at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards — including criticisms of her body to her haircut, her outstretched tongue, and her apparent appropriation of black culture — offers plenty of material for an intensive, five-week sociology course.

“I’m not necessarily a sociologist of Miley, and I’m not necessarily a sociologist of celebrity,” says Carolyn Chernoff, the professor who teaches Skidmore’s Cyrus course. “I do urban and cultural sociology, so I look at the role of culture in either reproducing or interrupting social problems. It’s less about using a celebrity as a hook or a trick and more about looking at how power and inequality operate through entertainment, through the stuff that we’re surrounded by every day.

“Miley is a lens,” she adds, “a useful lens because she’s so polarizing.”

That argument is a hard sell for many academics — including some involved with other celeb-based courses. Clive Davis Institute chair Jeff Rabhan was the first to approve the Sean Combs class before sending the proposal on to a university curriculum committee. Two years ago, he taught a similar course on Jay-Z, which incorporated guest lectures from Dream Hampton, co-author of Jay-Z’s memoir, Decoded, and former record executive Steve Stoute.

“Respectfully, there is a huge difference between Jayson Jackson teaching a course on Puff in New York and having access to all the people, all the information and real-life experience of that, versus somebody teaching a Puff course at any other university, really, in the world,” Rabhan says. “For Skidmore [to offer a course on Miley Cyrus] — and I don’t know the context of the class — but I just don’t see what that’s providing. Unless she’s coming and talking, or unless you have access to the real inner circle so you know what’s going on, what you’re doing is essentially generating publicity, press, and interest based upon something that is not really serving the needs of the students.”

Yet some students say they appreciate courses that help them view modern media representations with a critical eye. Samantha Reisman, a sophomore at Skidmore, describes “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” as one of the best courses she has taken. Despite some early skepticism from her peers and her parents, she says, she felt intellectually stimulated by the assigned readings, in-class discussions, and guest lectures from bloggers at Jezebel and BuzzFeed, who provided context concerning the media’s obsession with the pop star.

“We would be looked down upon and kind of have to justify the reason we took the class when we were telling people about it, because they assumed right away that it was a history class on Miley Cyrus,” she explains. “We weren’t looking at Miley as a person, because we don’t know who Miley as a person is. We were looking at Miley as a brand and how she relates to the greater social world and the media.”

Still, name recognition does play an important role in choosing topics for these courses, especially as schools seek ways to hold the attention of increasingly distracted, millennial students.

“At least for me, in my teaching of other topics, you see just how hard it is to get the kids interested,” admits Kevin Allred, a 33-year-old Ph.D. student at Rutgers, who teaches the “Politicizing Beyoncé” course, which incorporates a long list of weighty texts from feminist theorists, authors, and women’s-rights activists like Sojourner Truth, bell hooks, and Angela Davis. “They’re on their phones and Twitter and doing a thousand things at the same time,” Allred says. “Certainly, using ‘Beyoncé’ in the title, and as the subject matter, is a way to get students interested in something they otherwise maybe wouldn’t think about signing up for. There’s a gimmick title, but it is a real class.”

The rise of celebrity courses is an indicator of a shifting landscape at American universities, where schools are in fierce competition to offer the most enticing classes in hopes of attracting the best, the brightest, and the largest volume of applicants each year. Though NYU received a record 48,606 applications in 2013, the mentality may very well be to give the students what they want now or risk losing momentum in the future.

Professors, too, are changing, as younger, media-savvy instructors enter faculty and adjunct positions at major institutions, pushing for universities to accept pop culture as not only a kitschy elective but also a legitimate subject of academic discourse. If a class on a rap mogul or a pop singer helps prepare students for careers in business (or, at the very least, gets them looking at media with a critical eye), maybe these courses are indeed serving a real intellectual purpose.

For many students, though, the impetus for taking a course on their favorite celeb remains relatively simple.

“I think it was evenly split between people who were very interested in the topic and wanted to take the class for their life and their career, and then people who really just wanted to take a cool course,” says Alfredo Tirado, who enrolled in the Sean Combs course. “I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want to take a course on Diddy?”

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SHOWSTOPPER

Fans of MTV’s Making the Band 3 will
remember Dawn Richard for her role in Diddy-selected female supergroup Danity Kane, the voices behind such r&b classics as “Ride for You,” “Stay with Me,” and, best of all, “Show Stopper.” These days, having left Puff’s Bad Boy Records, after playing a key role in the mogul’s stellar Last Train to Paris, Richard is making some of the most forwarding-thinking r&b on the planet: In March, her Armor On EP offered a wider range of beats and sounds than most albums, and tonight she comes to S.O.B.’s in anticipation of the release of her recently pushed back debut LP, Goldeneye.

Thu., Oct. 25, 9 p.m., 2012

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Machine Gun Kelly Is Quick with the Tongue

Bad Boy Records on a summer’s afternoon: A gangly, tattooed white kid from Cleveland who calls himself Machine Gun Kelly is flushed from having just signed a recording contract with Diddy’s label. “I’m tweakin’,” the 21-year-old rapper says, audibly geeked. With his close-cropped fair hair, a backstory that leans toward the trailer-trash side of the tracks, and a propensity for throwing up his middle fingers, Kelly exists in the post-Eminem zone, where white rappers—particularly ones who are fleet of tongue—are slapped with the tag of being the Next Great Pale-Skinned Hype.

When news broke earlier that day that Kelly—or Kelz, as he’s fond of calling himself in rhyme—had signed with Diddy, the online reaction was swift and split: For every commentator who speculated that his talent could surpass Em’s, another questioned the merits of signing with Bad Boy, pointing out that for rappers beyond Biggie, the label has been as much a dumping ground (or fast track to prison) as a pass to the platinum rap club. But Kelly is unperturbed. He talks about the decision with a steely-headed resolve: “There was a bidding war with all the labels; Puff and Jimmy were actually the latest to the table, but they came the hardest. They agreed not to touch my music—that was the most important thing for me, ’cause I’m so anti-sellout and anti-establishment.” Quickly, he adds, “Puff doesn’t micromanage me.”

This isn’t just a willful sound bite. Kelly says that his debut album—which, like his breakthrough mixtape, will be titled Lace Up—was already recorded before he signed. It will be released in the first quarter of next year, with the hit-making producers the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League providing the only creative contributions from outside of Kelly’s Cleveland-based camp, EST 19XX. Kelly openly pitches himself and Diddy as opposite personalities, with his own “wild and unpredictable” demeanor contrasting with his label boss’s need to be “calm, in control, and wanting to plan everything out.” So there are no schemes to collaborate; there will be no quirky odd-couple moment in the studio, no fallback plan of a Bad Boy remix to rescue an ailing attempt at a single. Kelly’s motivation for signing with Bad Boy rests in his desire to have his “movement”—Diddy’s plaudit—to spread as widely as possible. He wants to take the hype that he’s mustered through mixtapes and increasingly blitzkrieg live performances to “stadium status.” The copious boasts about being “independent,” which pepper his rhymes, have been humbled in the hope of the creaky, old-fashioned music machine working its commercial magic.

Kelly’s work to date, which showcases his ability to rap at something verging on warp speed, suggests he’s a smart foil for Bad Boy. (His inspirations include fellow Clevelanders Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.) Lace Up and Kelly’s other recent mixtape, 100 Words and Rhyming, comprise his calling card; the songs excite and don’t engage in lyrical acrobatics just for the thrill of the sport. Kelly says it’s easy enough to recite certain words quickly, but what he really strives to do is “tell stories in fast mode.” Biographical details come nestled in his rhymes, which focus on a concentrated three-year period when he went from a buttoned-down “loner at school” to an aspiring rapper who was “getting my ass beat every day.” During this time, he also experienced a brief period of homelessness; a stint in the hospital after a car accident; fatherhood; and success at the rap game, which came with attendant jealousy from fellow Clevelanders.

This hurried, concentrated growing-up period mirrors the way up-and-comers are now forced to announce themselves to the hip-hop community. One superlative guest verse on an established MC’s song used to be enough to give you a shot at a solo career, but now rappers must scatter at least 50 tracks over a number of mixtapes—more songs than are in many classic artists’ discographies—in order to get even passing notice. It leaves little room for reflection, and by the time the artist’s debut album actually gets released, the whole cycle could result in him believing his own hype.

Kelly is aware of these speed traps. To avoid lyrical burnout, he’s already putting the brakes on the mixtape circuit, vowing that the only music he’ll release before his debut album is a series of “rage packs”—six or seven singles aimed at promoting his live shows. Having scored an invite into the Bad Boy kingdom, he’s now slowing things down so he can savor his journey inside.

Machine Gun Kelly plays S.O.B.’s on Sunday

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Diddy Goes Back to the Basement

Diddy doesn’t need to make an album like Last Train to Paris. OK: Diddy doesn’t need to do anything, but in particular, no one was looking to the guy for an electro-influenced, house-tinged, avant-r&b concept album about heartbreak. “I wasn’t trying to be vulnerable for the sake of shock, or for the sake of people admiring my vulnerability,” he notes over the phone, one week before the album’s release. Instead, his goal was “to just tell the truth.” On the intro track, backed by progressive house bleeps and bloops, Diddy introduces the record’s harsh conceit: “Love is a motherfucker.”

Grief and sorrow, of course, aren’t new territory for the maudlin, forever ballin’ producer/rapper/mogul. The Notorious B.I.G.’s tragic death hangs over his every musical move, and he’s fine with that. He gave his 1997 solo debut the rather existential title No Way Out, while “Last Night,” the biggest hit from 2006’s Press Play, finds him exclaiming, “The way I feel, I wanna curl up like a child.” Nonetheless, Diddy’s all-the-world-is-a-stage approach to music- and myth-making reaches a fascinating breaking point here: Something like three years in the making, delayed numerous times, soaked in heart-on-sleeve lyrics, and assembled from 60 or so songs, the genesis of Last Train to Paris is full of odd stories involving our hero, ensconced in a darkened studio, barking batty ideas to his production team.

Consider a rap-up.com interview with producer Alex Da Kid, who contributed “Coming Home,” which had the producer of mega-hits like B.o.B.’s “Airplanes” and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” chuckling as he recounted Diddy’s oddball sonic demands. The best one: “I want a beat that makes me feel like a white man in a basement in Atlanta.” Which, goofy as it sounds, is simply Diddy’s patented way of providing inspiration. “Most of the producers I worked with, I’ve been friends with,” he explains; the album came together by “hanging out with them, taking them to parties, and showing them movies.”

The influences are broad and unexpected: clubs in Ibiza, ’80s hip-hoppers Schoolly D and T La Rock, dance music coming out of Rome, U.K. r&b trio Loose Ends, and the iconic Abel Ferrara film King of New York. “I would show the scene where they’re having the party in the basement, and tell them, ‘Put me in the basement . . . sonically,’ ” Diddy remembers, his voice slowing down to trigger hypnosis. “ ‘The hollow-ness of the basement. How would that sound coming from upstairs? We’re in Paris, but we’re from New York. What would be the soundtrack to that?’ ”

Once you hear Paris’s mish-mash (Diddy’s word) of sounds, all that producer-genius experimentalism makes some sense. “Yeah Yeah” sends psychedelic guitars through house-music filters. Croaking electronics shoot in all directions on “Strobe Lights.” “Hello (Good Morning)” has an absolutely epic acid-squelch breakdown. “Hate Me Now” and “Angels” are detours into thumping minimalism. Every song is full of swift change-ups and jarring musical detours; Vogue’s André Leon Talley compared the production to “the broken cadences of avant-garde jazz,” and he’s only half-wrong.

Diddy often interrupts these jagged dance tracks to emote. “What am I supposed to do when the club lights come on?” he asks on “Coming Home,” confessing, “It’s easy to be Puff/It’s harder to be Sean.” Even party-rap lines like “Smoke my reefer, gettin’ high” are followed up with “You know, without you I will die.” Elsewhere, he declares his desire to “Smoke weed listenin’ to Sade,” which is both awesomely relatable and a bit sad.

To keep all this reflective playa-emoting in check, Paris is co-headlined by Diddy’s r&b duo, Dirty Money. Ex–Danity Kane member Dawn Richard and songwriter Kalenna Harper play hype-women to the ultimate hype-man, but they also provide a confident female voice, calling out Diddy as “so damned selfish” on “Yeah Yeah” and playing the sexual aggressor on “Your Love.” Moreover, this isn’t exactly the guy’s “mature” record. One of the best songs is called “Ass on the Floor” (featuring swooping Moroder synths and a Major Lazer sample), while on “Shades,” Diddy declares his intention to “make love to you on marmalade.” It’s lots of fun, and though confessional in parts, it’s overall far from the self-serious, petulant complaint-raps of say, Drake or Kanye. Paris looks back to dance music as soulful catharsis and emotionalism, not the cold thump that’s taken over as of late.

“Everybody has their time of having that hot hand and hot sound,” Diddy concludes. “And when radio’s programmed the way it is, it’s kinda hard to go against that. But that was one of the things I wanted to do.” He sounds like a wizened veteran. “Everything on the radio is so catered to the A.D.D. mentality of the ear as well as the heart, you know what I’m saying?”

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Rick Ross’s Alternate Reality

Jadakiss once wondered why rappers lie in 85 percent of their rhymes, and here’s the answer: because they don’t have the audacity of Rick Ross, who lies in 95 percent of his. Last year, the Florida don, who’d built his entire persona on his status as a criminal kingpin, was outed as a former corrections officer. For most gangsta rappers, this would be career-crippling, but Ross shook everything off—jeers from the Internet peanut gallery, 50 Cent’s bullying, his own limitations—and released Deeper Than Rap, easily one of 2009’s best rap records. He began rapping more cleanly than ever before, forgoing his previously favored Hall-of-Bosses punch-in echo chamber that made it feel like five fat guys were yelling at you simultaneously. His writing, too, turned startlingly vivid, and the production was incredible—late-’90s grandiosity taken to even greater heights, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy score repurposed for Ricky’s Vice City home. It was like watching the portly kid in gym class suddenly high-step his way flawlessly through a field of tires.

So now Ross is enjoying a weird, wonderful renaissance: Once the very face of undeserved commercial-rap entitlement, he’s now almost an underdog. Not commercially—Deeper went to No. 1, just like 2006’s Port of Miami and 2008’s Trilla before it—but critically, especially among the inner circle of rap-nerd gatekeepers. Recently, Pete Rosenberg, the earnest, affable spokesperson for all-consuming late-’90s New York rap fixation, told a roomful of like-minded followers—during a public sit-down interview with Diddy at 92Y Tribeca—that, in terms of consistency and commitment to craft, Ross was the best rapper working right now. Diddy had to quickly step in to calm the quietly seething masses.

The ridiculously extravagant and extravagantly ridiculous new Teflon Don is certain to only rile folks up further; in its sound, scope, ambition, and arm’s-length relationship to reality, it’s essentially Deeper Than Rap 2: Even Deeperer. The production is only more towering; Ross evidently decided the beats on Deeper weren’t over-the-top enough, so for “Maybach Music III,” the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League furnish him with a full orchestra to rap over, and after verses from T.I. and Jadakiss (plus a hook from Erykah Badu), Ross enters to darkening strings and a key change heralding his arrival. “Cigar, please,” he barks, over a hilarious and awe-inspiring cascade of strings, flutes, xylophone, and Weather Report jazz-funk guitars that recall nothing so much as the scene in James Bond’s You Only Live Twice when the volcano opens up to reveal the villain’s secret lair.

This is the Ricky Rozay aesthetic—lifestyle music for escaping the state police via speedboat—and Teflon Don is even more utterly devoted than its predecessor, which was perhaps saddled with a couple more “ladies’ tracks” than was strictly necessary. Those are gone now. All that’s left are 11 unadulterated dispatches from BossWorld, an imaginary kingdom that only grows more vivid the more Ross visits it. If the cold-water shock of hearing Ross rap nimbly has worn off somewhat, he more than compensates with the new lunatic conviction in his voice: “Quarter-milli for the motherfucker!” he spits on “Tears of Joy” (referring to the cost of his watch), and you can almost hear his gut convulsing. On “Free Mason,” he raps feverishly about ancient symbols, codes, and pyramids over a tangled bed of bluesy organs and a howling John Legend in the background: “I understand the codes these hackers can’t crack,” he concludes. Indeed. Ross the Boss has grasped the key to success: He used to simply refute reality, but now he transcends it.

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Styles P Wrote a Novel

Styles P has been to prison for stabbing a guy in the ass, and once chewed out 50 Cent for being soft. The Yonkers-bred member of platinum hip-hop collective the LOX is not just gangsta, he’s super-gangster, to borrow the title of his 2007 solo album Super Gangster (Extraordinary Gentleman). Along with his LOX cohorts Jadakiss and Sheek Louch, he owns a Yonkers car wash and fitted-cap store, and also runs D-Block Records, but recently, the 35-year-old added yet another job title to his CV: published author. His debut novel, Invincible, dropped June 1 on Random House’s urban-lit imprint, Nikki Turner Presents.

The book follows the trials and tribulations of one Jake Billings, an ex-drug-dealer who begins the story in prison. He’s ready to serve his time and go straight, but—wouldn’t you know it—just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in. Characters include the world’s most corrupt lawyer (known to cut throats and seduce judges), a mob boss who sodomizes his victims, and Billings’s love interest, Kim, who has “the body of a runner, the face of a goddess, and the mind and heart of a cold, calculated criminal.” Just about every character is out to kill Jake (or, at the very least, steal his money), causing him to morph into a righteous, badass, John McClane–meets–Bigger Thomas type.

“It was something I always wanted to do—I wanted to be creative in more ways than music,” says Styles, after we take our seats in the backyard of a Harlem juice shop called Fruits of Life. He’s wearing a blue hoodie and a Nike headband; among his tattoos is one on his back with a timepiece enveloping a naked, spread-eagle woman whose legs are the clock’s hands.

Yet it turns out that he is something of a new-age hip-hop man. A former vegan who still eschews chicken, pork, and beef, he keeps his bulky frame solid by eating fish, riding his mountain bike from his Westchester County home to the Metro North stop, and taking plenty of “bark” shots here at Fruits of Life. The black, Jäger-like elixir contains the “herbal” ingredient in Viagra, he says, promising, “It will keep the lead in your pencil.”

He pecked all of Invincible on his BlackBerry, inspired to begin after forgetting to bring a book on a long flight. The story isn’t so much culled from his own time in the joint as from scattered situations from his and his associates’ lives—”shit we’ve seen”—and he strove for a universal appeal: “I wanted something that, say, a businessman could relate to, and not just a crack dealer.”

But though he felt confident about the story, with only a semester at Westchester Community College under his belt, he doubted his writing chops. “I’m 35. I barely remember where the period and question mark go!” But after his lawyer sent a few chapters to Nikki Turner, she signed him on, and now raves that the final product needed surprisingly few edits: “We get tons and tons of unsolicited manuscripts,” says Turner, the Richmond, Virginia–based former travel agent now known as the “Queen of Hip-Hop Lit.” “But [Invincible] made me stop wanting to work on my own book and read his.” Turner, who last year published Fort Greene rapper “Cinderfella” Dana Dane’s novel Numbers, adds that she likes working with MCs because, for one thing, they understand deadlines.

For Styles, the publishing industry may serve as an exit strategy. Since ruling New York radio in the late ’90s and early aughts, Styles’s tough-but-melodic, gruff-yet-lyrical sounds aren’t as in demand. He famously squabbled with Interscope and 50 Cent—whom he felt were colluding to push back his 2006 work Time Is Money—as well as Diddy, whom the LOX accused of stiffing them on publishing (turns out Diddy was in the right, but he upped their royalties anyway, if you can believe that). Styles later signed with Koch/E1, who recently released his excellently titled new mixtape, The Ghost Dub-Dime, and a new LOX album is on the way, possibly on Bad Boy.

Still, Styles remains disenchanted with the rap game. “Sometimes it irks the fuck out of me to turn on the radio,” he admits. “At them times, what do I do? Do I just stay irked, or do I try to be creative and do something else?” Hoping it will segue into screenwriting and movie-making, he’s currently penning a follow-up novel: “It’s a touching story about the reality of when things go wrong with someone you’re close to,” is all he will say. Sounds gangsta.

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Formula Works in Get Him to the Greek

There are myriad moments during Get Him to the Greek—the roller-coaster spin-off of Forgetting Sarah Marshall—when it feels as if the thing will jump the rails and smash to the ground in a thousand pieces of what-in-the-fuck. It’s a complete and utter mess from the big-loud-dumb start to the awwww-that’s-so-sweet finish. It’s hardly a narrative at all, more like a loosely-stitched-together hodgepodge of scenes starring the same characters as they hurl toward the titular venue but not before making myriad soused and sentimental pit stops along the way in London, New York, and Las Vegas—all in three days’ time, tops.

Which is not to suggest it’s not entertaining—far from it. Get Him to the Greek, is a mess, but an amiable and occasionally uproarious one due mostly to Russell Brand’s reprising of his role as Aldous Snow. He is, or was in Sarah Marshall, the teetotaling frontman for Infant Sorrow, a sort of Spinal Tap redux best known for its groupies (the Sorrow Suckers) and such hits as “Inside of You,” “The Clap,” “Gang of Lust,” and “I Am Jesus.” In Sarah Marshall, Aldous was the guest star in someone else’s story—that of Peter Bretter (Jason Segel), whose TV-star girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell), ran off with Aldous to Hawaii. But even in a bit part, Brand, a comic who already fancies himself a rocker, played Aldous with the smug self-righteousness of all rehabbed rockers way too quick to remind you they’ve swapped booze and dope for yoga and politics. And: He wore leather pants to the beach.

With Peter absent and Sarah reduced to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her throwaway gag, Aldous has moved center stage, just in front of the pyrotechnics. And, initially, it seems like it could be too much of a good thing: Brand starts out at 11, playing Aldous like some arena-rock version of a Sacha Baron Cohen character. The first thing we see is a graphic, exploitive war-torn video for the Infant Sorrow song “African Child” set in “Darfur, Zimbabwe, Rwanda”—Aldous, new to cause-rock, isn’t quite sure which. He compares himself to an “African white Christ from space”; others argue he’s the worst thing to happen to race relations since apartheid. And, so, rather quickly, begins Snow’s fall—a descent expedited by the on-air bust-up of his relationship with singer Jackie Q (Rose Byrne), who insists during an interview that he was more tolerable when he was fucked up.

So off the wagon he goes—just in time for a lower-rung record-label lackey named Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) to pitch an Infant Sorrow comeback concert to his boss, Sergio (Sean Combs, never more Puff Daddy than here). Hill isn’t reprising his role from Forgetting Sarah Marshall—Matthew, the Hawaiian resort waiter with the creepy crush on Aldous. Aaron is a tempered version of Matthew (and, consequently, most of Hill’s stable of outsize characters): He’s still a fan (framed Infant Sorrow posters adorn his walls), but just a fan, not a stalker with a demo disc. He’s well adjusted enough to even have a cute-’n’-cuddly relationship with a nurse played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss. Aaron simply believes a label in need of a boost could do no better than resurrecting Snow—“one of the last remaining rock stars,” says Aaron, to whom Aldous is Robert Plant and Keith Richards rolled into one big ball of facial hair.

Sergio dispatches Aaron to retrieve Aldous, with the instructions to “mind-fuck” him into staying straight and getting on the plane and to the Today show first, followed by the gig at the Greek. Things, of course, don’t go as planned—at which point, writer-director Nicholas Stoller, responsible for Sarah Marshall, turns Get Him to the Greek into a desperately demented version of Cameron Crowe’s buzzed-on-nostalgia autobiography Almost Famous—by which I mean, instead of a scruffy Lester Bangs hanging around to mentor a shy naïf, you’ll find instead an out-of-control Puff Daddy who shows up in hallucinations to eat his own head and later demands Aaron have sex with a woman who will eventually rape him with her spare dildo. It’s a whole different flavor of coming-of-age movie.

Judd Apatow produced—can’t you just smell the man-on-man love affair from here? Sooner than later, Aaron’s girlfriend drops out of the picture, which leaves Aaron free to live the rock-and-roll lifestyle with Aldous, who, it turns out, has little stomach left for the decadence, a sentiment that rubs off on Aaron, along with several other stickier substances. Joints and women will be shared; lessons will be learned. Hey, this is an Apatow film, all right: the stoner movie that eventually turns into a just-say-no PSA. Now, group hug!—or threesome, in this movie’s case.

That’s what Get Him to the Greek ultimately has going for it: It’s crude, loud, dumb fun. And, on top of that, it contains the greatest cameo ever by a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.

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Common+the Roots

While 50 and Diddy rake in the Benjamins with their tie-ins, this Chi-town institution’s done pretty well for himself, aligning with Microsoft, Gap, and now Hennessy on a mini-tour. Unlike those peers, he’s got the goods to back up his work, especially on the heels of the Bambaataa-influenced “Universal Mind Control.” And as the Roots have been proving on late night, they’re not just the ultimate backing band now but they’ve still got the goods for their own music 20 years strong.

Wed., Oct. 7, 9 p.m., 2009

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THE TAKEOVER

This year’s lineup suggests that Hot 97’s Summer Jam 2008 won’t be the clearinghouse for hip-hop–related drama that it sometimes has been, but the date remains fixed on the calendar of rappers all across the country, especially those around town. For every billed act, expect one or two (or, in the case of Diddy’s headlining set last year, six) semi-surprise guests—Jay-Z, as always, being the biggest question mark. Kanye, coming off a tour in which he diligently acted out an interstellar travelogue (his character? “The biggest star in the universe”), will merely be looking to have a good time; it’ will be the turn of his former road partner, Rihanna, to suggest that she’s kind of a big deal. Alicia Keys knows she already is one——hence her spot at the top of this year’s card. Summer Jam veterans D-Block and Lil’ Wayne just want to have fun and rap well, two things that Public Enemy aren’t always capable of these days. Hyphen guys The-Dream and T-Pain will be useful to have around for everybody else’s choruses. To everything, I guess, a season.

Sun., June 1, 6:30 p.m., 2008

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Danity Kane and Day 26

P. Diddy, the salesman extraordinaire, Monsieur Band Pimp himself, twice sought futilely to create the perfect pop cluster via his bizarre reality-TV shows: Dream and Da Band weren’t it. Third and fourth time’s the charm. Crafty as he is, Diddy placed his platinum-selling girl quintet Danity Kane (a what?) in the same house with their newly minted, opposite-sex, equally badly named counterparts Day 26 (when?) to record albums simultaneously. Adding to their Svengali’s cunning, the resulting sophomore and debut discs (respectively) dropped a week apart. Always! Be! Marketing!

Cue Danity’s Welcome to the Dollhouse intro, Puffy’s suave voice cutting through twinkling keys: “Once upon a time, there were five little girls . . .” But these gals are older, more cohesive, and more enchanting than before, plus Maxim-approved. Sultry whisper-raps on the Missy Elliott–assisted “Bad Girl” offer a choice of seductive phrases: “I can be your addiction if you wanna get hooked on me” or the Optimus Prime–gone-frisky chant, “When the red light comes on/I transform!” Lead single “Damaged” is all st-st-stutter singing and Pussycat coos, while swagger dominates the Danja-crafted “Pretty Boy” and “Strip Tease,” wherein DK make like Nelly Furtado in “Give It to Me.” This excellence regrettably doesn’t exonerate lines like “You make me hotter than Jamaica.” The made-for-Idol ballads “Poetry” and “Is Anybody Listening” impress, but Danity’s better at cock-teasing over mid-tempo-to-jumpy rhythms. Curiously strong, theirs is more Altoids than bubble-gum pop.

Cruising in the r&b lane, Day 26, when they do slow it down, slow it down nicely. “I know the last time, you said it was the last time,” the quintet sings, “but baby all I need is one more last time.” For “What It Feels Like” or the Runners-produced “Come In,” a simple recurring croon (“Come in, come in, my door’s open”) is beautiful enough. It’s the 112 way. But contrived catchy numbers (“I’m the Reason,” “In My Bed”) leave the vocals sounding more crowded than harmonized. Their tones aren’t quite distinguishable, unlike the ladies’—try telling Brian from Que from Willie from the other two. Here’s something both groups have in common: Both are leaderless. Puff’s enough.