Whatever happened to the lone rap star? Kanye recently put on an all-night concert showcasing a dozen of his G.O.O.D. Music progeny. Lil Wayne was just in town, chiefly as the drum major in a parade of Young Money artists and friends. Now here's Diddy on the road, not as a star but as the figurehead of a trio, Diddy Dirty Money, flanked by two female singers. Apparently you can't just be a rapper anymore, you have to be a patriarch.
For P-Puffy-Puff Daddy Diddy, this is a good development. A fine businessman but a remarkably substandard rapper (and his Hammer-like dance moves, yeesh), Diddy himself admits he plays better on a team, as he showed Thursday night during Dirty Money's concert at Chicago's House of Blues, only the second performance of their debut tour. Pulling songs from the trio's atmospheric album, "Last Train to Paris," Diddy led the group -- backed by three musicians and three backup singers -- through a 90-minute show that sparkled when the trio seized its few opportunities to shine unencumbered by lights, videos, gimmicks and old hits.
A song like "Strobe Lights" had it all, the good and the bad. It opens with a rap courtesy of Lil Wayne, who we watched deliver his part on a video screen. There was a lot of this, standing and watching video of the guests, from Rick Ross to Chris Brown, who had better things to do than join this tour. But once that was dispensed, there were Diddy and his muses -- Dawn Richard (formerly of Danity Kane) and Kalenna Harper (a songwriter who's worked with Aretha Franklin, Christina Aguilera and more) -- each standing at a microphone, working choreographed movements and singing smartly through the soft, slow New Age disco that infuses most of "Last Train to Paris." They looked like a 21st-century Supremes. They sounded like Prince and the Vanity 6.
They even covered the Purple One, icing the place down with "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)" from "1999." Much of Dirty Money's music is similarly moody and clubby. "Tonight we're going to get into a vibe," Diddy promised, and twice likened the music to what he listens to when he's alone in a dark room. I actually wrote the name Jean Michel Jarre in my notes to describe the dreamy, synth sounds.
Richard and Harper prowled the stage while Diddy weaved between them. They sang and rapped, he rapped and, yes, sang. During "Angels," he busted out his pipes -- yet another move in this show that reeked of playing catch-up with Kanye -- but he sounded great. Again, here was a slow ballad, rhythmically strong, sultry, not bad.
Diddy returned solo for the second half and peeled off a medley of abbreviated, wealth-flaunting hits ("I Get Money," "All About the Benjamins," etc.) plus an intense couple of verses of Kanye's "All of the Lights." "We got hits in this bitch!" he asserted. Then came a 20-minute maudlin tribute to Notorious B.I.G., a lovely gesture for the rapper who died 14 years ago and still haunts Diddy's music (including a sample on "Angels") but a real momentum killer. Sometimes Diddy just sat there while a Biggie record played, occasionally encouraging our "respect." Ticket money well spent!
In the end, Serena and Venus -- er, Richard and Harper -- returned to hold court for "Coming Home" and "Good Morning," wrapping the show up where it began, with a warmer tone on their cool club vibe. If it's not just a one-off vanity project, Dirty Money could become an interesting going concern.