Don’t Look Now, the King is Watching
Category 5: Bravado
Rapper, model, and heir to the Bad Boy Records throne, 20-year- old Christian Combs believes he is not unlike one of the most devastating category 5 hurricanes in modern American history.
In the video for his 2017 single “F*ck the Summer Up,” Combs rips donuts on a jet ski in a white robe, blinged out beside a raft of yacht parties on the aqua waters off the coast of Southern Florida, rapping: Flood these streets like Katrina / I’m about to fuck the summer up.
Oy. I’ll admit—I’m teetering before I interview Combs. This, afterall, is a young man who has:
1. Fucked up an entire season (let alone, many people’s favorite season).
2. Compared himself to 140 mile-per-hour winds.
3. Is the son of the second richest man in hip-hop.
Imagine what he could do to a measly writer like me?
When I first encounter Combs, it is not in the swirl of the intertropical convergence zone, but rather in the throes of an excessive heat warning tormenting Los Angeles. He is standing beside a vintage Rolls-Royce, sitting pretty in the Hollywood Palladium’s gooey tar parking lot on a triple-digit day. He is shirtless (and v ripped), sporting a durag and cowboy boots, posing suavely despite the mid-day swelters.
And despite the agony of a five-hour-long photo shoot, Combs does not spout a single complaint. His countenance is business.
Throughout the shoot, Combs is agreeable, poised, and easy- going. Already, after just a short in-person impression from the sidelines, my preconceived convictions drawn from his insensitive similes to the aforementioned $125 billion, 1.8k fatality hurricane are falling away.
I do not see a swirling hyper vortex in the gulfs of his handsome brown eyes, and I am no longer induced by the overdone bravado so familiar to the Bad Boy Records brand. I am seeing through other lines from his recent mixtape, “90s Baby,” that also have me a little shook, like, Drop bombs something like Vietnam.
Despite the bark of this verse, Combs is not a killer.
Combs is a lover.
He is a sensitive, individualistic, gen-z sweetheart who has been marooned by older generations on the oil-slicked beaches of an industry greased with an aggressive, and at times, toxic masculinity.
And whether he realizes it or not, Combs is beginning to change those poisonous coastlines for the better through his artistry in modeling, dancing, and music. In some ways, he is a volunteer taking one for the team, scrubbing Dawn soap on oiled ducklings. He is a part of the new generation of hip-hop, infusing the genre with a new sensitivity.
Category 3: Quintessence
“Girls and love is the number one thing to talk about for me,” Combs says as we sit in the respite of air conditioning at the Flaunt Headquarters, cooling our sweaty brows after the photo shoot. “Whenever I am in the booth rapping, I’m trying to charm the listener. It’s easier to charm a girl.”
If Combs is a storm, he is a dancing, sugar-sweet typhoon of charm. Just outside of the room we chat in, his girlfriend, model Breah Hicks, sits patiently.
The pair have been dating for years and have publically displayed their wide-eyed teenage love—from cute prom proposals (gone viral) to ooey-gooey Instagram posts of the couple: “Held it down, had a thing for the kid since a sophomore <3” Combs, in true gen-z fashion, has even called Hicks “wifey” on multiple Instagram stories.
Combs professes another obsession: “Love songs in the ’90s were definitely at an all-time high,” he says. Born in 1998 in New York (he relocated to Los Angeles eight years ago), Combs has paid homage to both coasts’ breakthrough decade, specifically the movement within hip-hop and R&B in a time that put matters of the heart in the foreground. His debut mixtape is titled “90s Baby.” The cover features him as a toddler, flexing with his father behind him.
“That was the era that I did my research on when I was becoming a rapper at like 15 and 16,” Combs says, pausing to fire off a text on his phone. “I would study people like Nas, Biggie, Tupac, Michael Jackson, just to kind of know where I am coming from.”
After reading strings of YouTube comments on his tracks, his fans appear awestruck by the similarities in his flow to many of the ’90s greats. They compare him to Mase, Fabolous, Loon, and of course his dad, Puff Daddy. In much of Combs’ music, he continually recreates the woof and warp of the decade with a modern flair, his production masterfully capturing the essence and feeling of the ’90s.
In his most recent single, “Love You Better” featuring R&B heavyweight Chris Brown, Combs samples rapper Case’s 1996 hit “Touch Me, Tease Me” while recreating The Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance” music video—all while simultaneously composing looks that allude to his father’s iconic aesthetic; specifically, with the pair of circular, rose-tinted glasses Diddy once wore in his 1997 “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” music video featuring Mase, in which the two mavericks of East Coast hip-hop revved up dust across the desert in a convertible while wearing matching peach-colored jumpsuits.
The single is Combs’ most popular song on streaming services. While the lyrics of the hook do a bit more manspreading than romancing—I love you better than yourself, better than you love yourself—it’s the visuals of the video that are a departure from the expected. In the video, everyone is clothed, as if they are at an actual house party and not one of the fantastical bangers filled with scantily clad and objectified women usually seen in such music videos. There are no in-your-face alcohol advertisements for say, CÎROC. The emphasis is on elation, celebration, and dancing.
Here is where the new sensitivity and acceptance commences for Combs. While hip-hop, since its 1970s origins, has swung back and forth between pride, love, and the self, a softer masculinity has begun to emerge in the modern mainstream, particularly with the lovestruck, honest, and vulnerable lyrics of one of the more influential men in modern music—Drake—as well as out rappers like Frank Ocean and Shamir who are spitting verses and singing lovingly about their own sex.
This isn’t to say hypermasculinity and a homo/femmephobia don’t still exist in hip-hop, but it is to say the genre’s machismo boundaries have become more elastic. The norm of male rappers spitting rhymes about power, wealth, sexual prowess, and women’s bodies is mellowing, and this increasing openness in the genre is allowing gen-z rappers like Combs to explore territory that diverges from the stereotypes of the rap star. And with his stated interest in fashion, dancing, and modeling,
Combs (knowingly or not) is helping to disperse the thunderheads of hypermasculinity.
Category 1: Nonchalance
“Dancing and the music go hand in hand,” Combs tells me. “I wouldn’t say dancing is my first love, but music and that came at the same time. I remember when I was young, I would always get to come on stage with my pops on any tours he had and he would give me like 15 seconds to shine. So I would just go on stage and get crazy and dance.”
While it may not have been his first love, Combs’ career has been informed by his moves. Whether he performs solo or with his group CYN, he breaks it down with inventive, fun, and professional choreography during his live performances—something somewhat rare for modern rappers, and as a result, he pops up in viral videos constantly.
Combs’ name started trending across the web in spring 2017, after an event that tabloids dubbed a “dance-off” with one of the most influential icons of modern R&B, hip-hop, and fashion.
“We was at Coachella. It was one of those after parties,” he says. “We were all just vibing and dancing together and Rihanna was in the same section and she just came to vibe with us. For a second we were just chilling, then the Future song “Mask Off” came on.”
The clip is impromptu carpet cutting at its most star-studded—a remarkably casual moment of connection that we’ve all had ourselves at bars, clubs, and music festivals, when you suddenly catch the groove with a stranger, surfing it until the DJ breaks the spell and both parties return to their respective posse.
“It wasn’t really like a battle,” Combs says, smiling at the memory. “We were just looking at each other and then we both just caught the same vibe, and then it went viral.”
Beyond dancing and rapping, Combs has one more trick up his sleeve, and it comes from a lineage of catwalkers. His mother, Kim Porter, was a cover model in the ’90s, and his grandmother (Diddy’s mother), Janice Combs, was also said to have worked part-time as a model.
Over the past year and a half, Combs’ modeling career has taken off—he has scored the cover of four campaigns, two for Tommy Hilfiger and two for Dolce & Gabbana.
The past decade has been an interesting moment for hip-hop, as high-fashion houses like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and many others have aligned with the genre in everything from lyrics and music videos to everyday fashion. The suave demeanor I mentioned during Combs’ torrid Flaunt photo shoot was the result, not only of his heritage, but of experience—since spring of 2017, he’s walked two shows for Dolce & Gabbana. With rap and hip-hop stars becoming walking spokesmen for fashion houses, hip-hop and rap are beginning to enter a softer, more metrosexual space, where spitting fire is just as important as turning a good look.
Dancing in the Rain
The eye is the center of a hurricane; it’s the calmest section of the storm. It can stretch as wide as forty miles. From the inside, you would be able to see the eye’s walls barrelling upwards to the cylindrical sky— terrifying thunderheads and the fastest winds of the storm preparing for their coastal crusade. But in the middle of the eye, especially a clear one, it would be warm, balmy, and perhaps filled with quite a few rainbows. There would be a light drizzle of warm rain falling. I’m even imagining a few lucky ocean birds gliding gracefully above it. The eye, in many ways, is a heavily guarded heart.
If Combs believes he is a hurricane in atmospheric pressures of hip-hop, will he make landfall with palm tree-snapping winds? Or will he downgrade to a soft and welcoming rainstorm for the rest of us to dance in?
Written by Miles W. Griffis
Photographed by Jason Lee Parry
Styled by Lisa Jarvis
Groomed by Andrea Pezzillo for Exclusive Artists using Skyn Iceland
Car by: Heritage Classics
Flaunt Film directed by Derek Milton