Two prolific hip-hop stars. Two big comebacks. One girl, Skylar Gray, singing the suspiciously similar dreamy hooks over the raps. An almost exactly symmetrical structure. So, what’s the difference?
…Well, Diddy is the pretender to the comeback throne here, his entire career having happened in the time since Dre last released an album*. Dre is the master of the extended semi-retirement, using the vast spaces between music in a way that shows up even the most teasing post-rock soundscapes. Chronic 2001 came out, confusingly enough, in 1999. It’s now 2011.
Accordingly, the Doctor cranks it all up to maximum hyperbole. The video – which manages to make Coming Home’s marching across warn-torn deserts look understated – tells you all you need to know. Dre, literally resurrected from the dead. The message is clear: He can rebuild his career. He has the technology.
And form admirably matches content: the song is one long build-up, to our hero finally waking up: “It literally feels like a lifetime ago”. In the depths of the labs of Aftermath, Inc., Dre sits up, to the accompaniment of a hopeful series of bleeeeeeps from the previously flat-lined ECG, to take his rightful place as the recipient of the final verse.
It’s faintly underwhelming when it does come, though. The Good Doctor is far more physically imposing – again, see the video, which answers some of the questions about exactly what Dre has been up to for the last decade by showing off his body’s transformation into a slab of pure Terminator muscle – than his voice ever really manages.
Diddy is much more successful. The central gimmick, essentially Mr. Combs providing his reviews of a few well-know songs could come off as cheap, but it works. “I hear the Tears of A Clown; I hate that song”. It’s a much more distinctive reintroduction to the reawakened superstar. It’s catchier, more aggressive, cuts much more cleanly through the misty chorus, and provides a nice structural finish, where Diddy finally lands on a song he loves and makes him feel strong, to turn everything around.
But for all his successes, Diddy’s company is less strong. The ‘Dirty Money’ suffix** means the addition of two women, whose contribution to the song is indistinct at best. By his side, Dre has got his trusty sidekick:
Eminem plays the desperate Igor of the song, summoning his master. He swore he had Dre’s back, a decade back, in a drug-driven declaration of emotion on What’s The Difference?. So here he is, sitting in the booth, crying, surrounded by candles and pentagrams and stolen medical equipment. It’s a little embarrassing: Eminem has never been his best when being directly emotionally raw. He’s much better as the trickster, making jokes and threats in equal measure, so that the odd earnest moment catches you off guard. (Again, see that bit from What’s The Difference, which is weirdly genuinely sweet, considering it comes wrapped up in a bit of violent misogyny.) Nevertheless, he sets up the turmoil and conflict perfectly, enabling the Doctor’s return to have mythical status.
The stakes are high, both artists strive to convince us. They’ve both lost people, children are invoked, the music industry is against them. The threat has to be there for the comeback to work, even if it that means manufacturing it.
And Dre’s verse cuts off, mid-sentence, just to let you know he’ll be back, again.
*For the purposes of this, I will be ignoring the lives of both figures as producers, choosing instead to mythologise their vocal appearances. We all have our weaknesses, I guess…
**I’m aware that it is technically a group of whom Diddy is only part. But from what I can tell, at least, that seems to be in the way that any rap artist’s handle is an umbrella term for the multi-armed circus of performers than orbit every production.