For nearly three decades, no one has lived larger than Sean Combs—Puffy the world builder, the maximalist style guru, the impeccable spotter of talent. John Jeremiah Sullivan spent some time inside the beautiful bubble created by a hip-hop icon.
Love was getting a haircut, they said, and could talk to me again. I was ushered upstairs. By then I had been inside the Combs compound in Beverly Hills since morning, and it seemed unremarkable that the house would include a home barbershop. He sat in the chair with his back to me. The barber was moving around his head like a big bee, sometimes with scissors, sometimes with little tiny brushes, sometimes with a looking glass. Love’s hair was already quite short and to my eyes perfectly trimmed, but there is perfect in our world and perfect in Love’s, and if the twain meet it will be by chance.
He is called Love now, or Brother Love. Not Diddy or Puffy or Sean or any of those. He will still answer to them, though. He is not a snob about names. But he would prefer now that people call him Love, because that is what matters. “Even people like me?” I asked, meaning God knows what. “Yeah,” he said. “I like re-inventing. That’s probably why I have so many name changes. It’s why I follow David Bowie and Madonna.”
Dictating what others call you is an expression of power, and the control Love exerts over his world helps explain the longevity of his career. Think of how many celebrities start clothing lines. Now think of how many of those are operating five years after they appear, forget about the 20 that Sean John has been around. Love also gets paid every time they play a Bad Boy Entertainment song on the radio or in a commercial. He is making money by the minute. He is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Get this: He was the highest-paid American musician of 2017, and he did not release any original music last year.
Now he is returning to what made him famous in the first place: spotting talent. In the barbershop, Love was watching pre-edited footage from The Four, his new reality show on Fox, which is meant to be a competitor to The Voice. The footage was beautiful. Which was not what a person would necessarily expect if he or she were I and unwholesomely familiar with the genre of televised voice competitions—familiar, too, from early days, with Love’s first venture onto this field of combat, Making the Band 2. No need to get into that. Either you remember Chopper or you never knew him. But the show was how a lot of people, including me, first got an up-close feel (albeit simulated, exaggerated, packaged) of Love’s personality, his style of relating, which I would describe as friendly and sly and quiet—in a way that makes you wonder if he is cocky or shy; the quietness seems to contain both qualities—then sometimes suddenly firm and cold. Mainly, though, he seemed nice. When you are about to spend the day with a famous person, it’s one of the first things you wonder: Will he be nice?
On Love’s barbershop TV was a young man named Vincint Cannady, a 26-year-old self-described “black, gay, weird” singer from Philadelphia. He was doing a sort of torch-song version of Radiohead’s “Creep” and slaying it with a flaming sword. It was undeniable. There were about eight people in the room. Someone said, “He just took that song from Radiohead.” I knew what he meant. You felt like this was now the definitive version, or that it had been, for a moment. To have realized the song would bear this kind of operatic deconstruction had been a stroke of artistry. Now Love’s head turned a tick. “Did you hear that?” he said, referring to the remark about Radiohead, not to Cannady’s performance, though both were swept up in the question. “We gotta do something with that,” he said. “We can put that out special.” We could, or rather he could, and did, and two days later the clip went viral on Facebook, generating some ungodly number of views. The barber, who had been frozen with his hands withdrawn, drawn up like paws, the way barbers do when they’re waiting for you to stop talking, began to move and buzz again.
They placed me directly in front of Love, facing him and maybe 12 feet away, but seated lower—in quite a low chair—whereas his barbershop chair had been pumped up, elevated. It was papal, this whole exchange of postures between us. Love made very direct eye contact. I started asking my questions. Love was supposed to be at a TV studio soon to tape Ellen. He maybe even should have been there already. But he appeared completely calm. Like a person whose body was heavily sedated with a drug designed to have no effect on his mind or even exert a speed-like influence there. But I suppose we all sit very still in barbershop chairs.