How Puffy's "Last Train to Paris" Paved the Way for So-Called "Alternative" R&B

"Top-shelf rap features notwithstanding, Last Train is a hip-hop mogul’s R&B album."

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Complex Original

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“This is a brand-new sound. This will change your life. All you gotta do is turn the shit up.”

—Swizz Beatz

A black hole of bottle service bravado and throbbing, psychedelic restraint, Puffy’s fifth Bad Boy studio project, Last Train to Paris, is a template for a decade of both hip-hop and R&B to come. Paris is only, oh, four years to the date overdue for a critical reappraisal by which I concede, finally, that The Saga Continues is Puffy’s second-best album of the century.

Top-shelf rap features notwithstanding, Last Train is a hip-hop mogul’s R&B album. With features from Grace Jones, Drake, Lil Wayne, Trey Songz, Skylar Grey, Rick Ross, Paris is a surprisingly restrained flex of Puffy’s European nightclub expertise. Paris’ most brilliant track was “Angels,” a posthumous pairing of Ross and the late Notorious B.I.G. to Puffy’s sung hook, garbled as Auto-Tune gets. It’s Puffy’s project, but he’s hardly the star on all 16 tracks, or even for most of Paris’ runtime.

“Angels” was the first of Paris’ five singles, followed by the throbbing “Hello Good Morning” featuring T.I. and marching, percussive “Ass on the Floor” produced by Swizz Beatz and featuring Dawn Richard as the singer and lead voice. “Hate You Now,” “Yeah Yeah You Would,” and “Someone to Love” are most altogether representative of the album’s quirks and contradictions, with Puffy sometimes rapping, sometimes singing, sometimes not, over beats designed to support simple raps, light, nimble singing, and enchanting repetition. Dirty Money singers Dawn Richard and Kalenna Harper don’t carry the project, but their melodies do define it, even more so than Puffy’s ad-libs and rapping.

Paris resembles much of Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak, which dropped in 2008, two years before Paris. Puffy’s homage to 808s is a bold one considering that, as of 2010, 808s was still Kanye’s most divisive project, and really his only divisive project at that point. (Puffy’s biggest bust is 1999’s Forever, still.) Like 808s, Puffy’s verses on Paris are overwritten, diary-style, befitting his album’s singular narrative obsession with a romance that’s messy, intoxicated, and doomed from the start. He and homegirl are never quite destined for Paris.

Wither whatever assumption that post-Loon Puffy makes albums due to wealth and boredom. That may well have been the case with Press Play, a project that’s more traditionally talkative and overloaded with rap assists and “additional vocals” from all regions. “I wouldn’t want to hear myself on a whole album,” Puffy told Vulture in 2010 during the rollout for Paris. He also clarified that Paris, despite the typical abundance of A-list guests, was his most personal and personalized project to date. “I used to just sit down and have my lyrics given to me,” Puffy confessed to Vulture, “but because this album is so personal I really had to sit down and say what’s on my mind.”

Puffy's shift from Press Play to Paris predicts Drake’s shift from Take Care, a conventionally varied and appealing rap project, to Nothing Was the Same, a crooner’s view from various penthouses. Both Paris and NWTS are R&B projects sung by playboys who so happen to rap. Toronto singer and Drake affiliate PARTYNEXTDOOR is similarly indebted; his second project, PARTYNEXTDOOR TWO (prod. by Brathwaite himself), is descendent of Paris, 808s, and the earliest Kid Cudi records; and I’d argue likewise of iLOVEMAKONNEN and the OVO SoundCloud’s whole R&B steez. Insomuch as FKA twigs is, arguably, R&B, she and Banks and the like are indie kin to the likes of Paris, 808s, and the Weeknd’s Trilogy rather than to the mass-market sensibilities of T-Pain, Ty Dolla $ign, Future, and that particular lineage of rappas ternt sangas. Like modern Kanye, modern Puffy does rap as much and about as well as he sings. Unlike 808s and Kanye’s campfire chanting, the Last Train to Paris rides dirty.

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