Hip-hop mogul "Puff Daddy" Combs has had a bad year. In April he was charged with assaulting a recording executive. Sales for his Bad Boy label have dropped significantly, despite the release of three solid albums by R&B acts 112, Faith Evans and the underrated Total. And one of Bad Boy's biggest hip-hop artists, Mase, retired from the music industry to devote himself to God. A year ago, the title of Puffy's latest effort, "Forever," would have seemed confidently brazen. Now it comes across as wishful thinking at best.

The album follows the same formula that was established on the late Notorious B.I.G.'s stellar "Life After Death," which Puffy executive-produced. It features numerous guest spots, comic interludes and infectious hooks swiped from past hits. But as a rapper, Puffy is no B.I.G. Where today's best hip-hop artists create subtly intricate rhyme schemes, Puffy sounds as if he's making a "Rap for Dummies" instructional tape by overly punctuating each simplistic rhyme.

His uninspired lyrics don't help much. "Pain (Remix)" is his laughable attempt at a crime fantasy along the lines of B.I.G.'s "Warning" or Slick Rick's "Children's Story." And "Best Friend," a tribute to his old pal Jesus, is so trite it's almost sacrilegious: "The power of the truth was shooting through my Timberlands/ It was my Lord Jesus Christ, my best friend again."

Instead of primarily sampling pop and R&B hits as on his last album, "No Way Out," here Puffy turns to hip-hop's musical history for samples. The flat "Fake Thugs Dedication" borrows from MC Lyte's "Paper Thin." The album's first single, "P.E. 2000," samples Public Enemy's "Public Enemy No. 1" and features one of hip-hop's best and most unsung voices, female rapper Hurricane G.

Puffy's strength is, perhaps, his proven eye for talent. After all, he helped introduce some of the decade's most significant hip-hop and R&B acts, including B.I.G., Jodeci and Mary J. Blige. So it's not surprising that "Forever" is strongest when it spotlights other artists. Lil' Kim, the album's most frequent guest, enlivens every song she's on, including "Real [Expletive]," which is constructed around an old vocal track by B.I.G. The animated Bizzy Bone helps Puffy turn a sample from Earth, Wind & Fire's "Fantasy" into a rollicking hip-hop celebration. And Jay-Z, the album's most skillful guest star, contributes to the most interesting cut, "Do You Like It . . . Do You Want It," a slick electro-funk groove punctuated with Kraftwerk-like tap beats. While the legacy of this jam is not likely to last forever, it works for now.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8171.)

CAPTION: "Puff Daddy" Combs proves a better producer than performer on his new album.

CAPTION: "Puff Daddy" Combs proves he's better off behind the scenes on his new album, "Forever."