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Puff Daddy, Leo Kottke, Prince, Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines

Puff Daddy

Forever

(Bad Boy)

By christening his latest opus with a title that boasts about his staying power, the Puffster (Sean Combs) is playing into the hands of those who hope he falls flat on his ass -- and many of his enemies think they smell blood. No Way Out,his 1997 debut, ruled the charts for months, but while Forever started strong, it entered the Billboard album charts behind the not-quite-timeless bow by Christina "Genie in a Bottle" Aguilera. Moreover, Rolling Stone, the publication that sacked a writer who wouldn't rave about perceived hot property Hootie & the Blowfish a few years back, shrugged off the disc with a mediocre two-and-a-half-star rating -- meaning that Jann Wenner and company are betting that Combs will turn out to be more MC Hammer than LL Cool J. But the real kiss of death is this: Forever is actually an improvement over its predecessor.

Granted, that ain't saying much. But Combs still deserves credit for backing away a tad from the hip-hop karaoke on which his commercial rep is based. Sure, he builds "Best Friend [303K aiff]" on a foundation supplied by Christopher Cross's "Sailing" (apparently he felt that "Arthur's Theme" was a little too ballsy), and his production on "Angels With Dirty Faces" could be duplicated by putting a copy of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Fantasy" into your CD player, hitting "start" and leaving the room. But most of the other songs employ comparatively obscure samples (like "Bamboo Child" by Ryo Kawasaki) with a little bit more subtlety, and a few are actually sample-free. That's not always a good thing: " What You Want," which features Combs sans any of the guest stars who regularly pull him out of the fire, is about as funky as Wayne Newton. Yet from a musical standpoint, " I'll Do This for You," with background seducing courtesy of Kelly Price, the hooky "Do You Like It...Do You Want It..." (featuring Jay-Z) and the all-star doomfest "Journey Through Life" provide a helluva lot more satisfaction than "I'll Be Missing You."

Now for the bad news. Rhyme-wise Puffy is still in the fat-cat-sat-on-the-mat stage, and although his rapping isn't quite as lifeless and phony as it was last time around, his delivery sure won't make you forget about Method Man. And he still relies too heavily on his connection with the late Notorious B.I.G., listing him as Forever's executive producer, using a second-rate Biggie rap as the excuse for the thoroughly mediocre "Real Niggas," and name-checking him in an intro that gives him an opportunity to take his persecution complex out for a walk. "What can mere mortals do to me?" he asks at one point, only to declare a moment later, "I will look in triumph at those who hate me." Hope you're right for your sake, Sean, because if you crash and burn, there'll be a lot of people slowing down to watch the carnage. -- Michael Roberts

PrinceThe Vault...Old Friends 4 Sale

(Warner Bros.)

Five years after liberating the once and future Prince from his contract, Warner Bros. dug once again into his legendary hundreds of hours of unreleased material and came up with the ninth full-length CD of vault material to be released since 1994. And like any of the others (The Black Album excepted), it's a mixed bag.

If some new jack on the scene -- say, Usher -- were to come up with forty minutes of music as varied, well-played and occasionally plain weird as what's found here, he'd be heralded as a genius. But we've come to expect more from Prince. On this release, Prince is backed by the New Power Generation, and the band's playing is impressive throughout, from the brief funk-pop blast of the disc's opener, "The Rest of My Life," to the jazzy stroll of "She Spoke to Me." There are just no major songs here. Lacking is Prince's usual slew of phrases and melodies that sink into the mind and refuse to be dislodged. The soulful seven-minute jam "When the Lights Go Down," the mildly horny, horn-driven "Sarah," or maybe even the casually funky "5 Women" might have been treats if released as single B-sides, but even collectibility wouldn't improve "There Is Lonely." The song's snazzy guitar work is ruined by one of Prince's weakest lyrics in recent memory: "There is lonely and there is lonely and then there is how I feel now/Perhaps only Cain when he'd slain his brother could ever come close to knowing how."

Longtime Prince fans won't mind hearing these moderately interesting and pleasantly performed demos and outtakes "written during the period beginning 1/23/85 and ending 6/18/94 and...originally intended 4 private use only." Unfortunately, anyone who thinks Prince has lost his genius will find no evidence to the contrary here. This release makes you wish that he was still making lots of new singles instead of merely assembling his table scraps into full-length CDs. -- Patrick Brown

Leo Kottke

One Guitar, No Vocals

(Private Music)

Lest ye, the hippie-come-lately, forget: Guitars begin their lives as plants. Ancient, wise and mystical plants. Living, breathing and towering plants. Then chop, cut, plane, sand, form, set, shellac. Add simple strings and...voilà! Place one in the proper hands and the tunes write themselves. Some players can even tap into that good, primordial sap with enough warmth and feeling to make the ghost of Sitting Bull smile.

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