As far as this ghetto-fabulous thing goes, he's really trying to keep it on the humble tip. Okay, so he flew into town in a private jet emblazoned with the name of his latest album. And yeah, he's got a couple of burly bodyguards, the kind who come equipped with dangling earpieces just like the Secret Service.

But seriously, rapper/producer/mega-mogul/Howard-dropout Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs is not trying to serve up superstar on a platter. Really.

Instead of a stretch limo, Puffy is tooling around his old stomping grounds in a plain old van. And sure, he's got these diamond-infested crosses banging against his chest. But the ice is paired with jeans, sneakers and a baggy "Sean John" tee.

He has work to do.

Puffy's got a new CD to plug. And a new magazine. And a new Web site. And let us not forget Sean John, the clothing line. Which is why he hit the Washington area on Wednesday, pressing the flesh, posing for snapshots and making himself more accessible than he used to be.

"I don't want people to think I'm something I'm not," Puffy said. "I want them to be able to touch me and feel me. I don't like to be treated like I'm a superstar. I don't want to be like, 'Stay away,' know what I'm sayin'? I don't like saying no to people. I like to sign every autograph and take every picture."

Uh, yeah.

Never mind that this is the man who appeared nailed to a cross in a music video. The one who was charged with assault last spring for allegedly beating the record executive who aired the video over his objections. The one who can't make a record without bragging about Benjamins and Bentleys.

It's an hour after Puffy was scheduled to show up at Tower Records on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Which means that desperate measures are in order.

"Yo! Does anybody know the color of Puffy's mother's wig?" bellows WKYS radio personality Antonio, in an attempt to distract the restless crowd.

There are a few halfhearted answers tossed out. (It's platinum.)

"I want to thank everybody for being patient," Antonio continues. "It's raining outside. The weather's a little ugly. But we're going to make it happen."

Still, the 300 or so folks stuffed into the store don't look so patient.

A 12-year-old girl, overcome by the heat, clasps a wet paper towel to her head while assorted hangers-on stalk the room, cell phones clutched to their ears.

There are Muslim girls, head scarves framing pretty faces. Sisters whose ample hindquarters have been stuffed into Lycra-enhanced capris. Fresh-faced preppies from George Washington University. Boys from the hood. Beefy security guards who stand in a line, arms akimbo, keeping the masses from getting too close.

"Puffy's only signing CDs, people," Antonio instructs the crowd. "So don't be pulling out some homemade pictures you took at a Puffy concert. Please buy the CD. It's hot."

A few minutes later, Puffy sweeps into the room, entourage in tow. He waves to his fans, but doesn't say a word as he sits down at the table.

Folks start pulling out fliers and posters and photographs. Puffy, eyes hidden behind the ever-present shades, signs them all, posing for pictures and hugging little kids and pretty girls. Every now and then, a smile slides sideways across his impassive face.

"He makes me want to dance," says Nikko Miyata, an 18-year-old George Washington freshman from Tokyo. "He's a nice guy."


"He said, 'Thanks for the support,' " Miyata continues. "He was going down. . . . Now he's trying to revive. That's why he's so nice."

Time's up.

Assorted publicists, bodyguards and record label reps whisk him out of the store and into the van waiting outside.

Brian Stallings, a slight 29-year-old from Southwest Washington, pushes his way to the van, all manic energy and this-is-my-only-chance . . .

"You got 20 seconds, dog," Puffy tells him.

"Okay, I'm just gonna give you a little a cappella hit," Stallings says.

"You got 20 seconds, dog."

Stallings starts singing--something about how if he gets signed onto Bad Boy Records, he'll be the hottest hot thing ever to hit the East Coast. Puffy listens, his face a blank slate, his foot jiggling up and down, up and down.

Stallings stops.

"I'ma cut to the money," he says, and with that, squeezes out a falsetto.

"Thanks, man, I'm gonna have you get in touch with our A&R exec," Puffy tells him.

Doors slam.

"I try to listen like a consumer," Puffy says as the van heads toward the suburban Maryland offices of WPGC-FM. "He was all right. He needs some work. But if you have the heart to sing, you can get better."

Puffy sprawls out in the front row of the van, cooing softly into his mini cell phone.

"Yo, when are you done with your shoot? I'm tired. I'm coming home soon. And when I do, I'm coming over to your place to take a nap. Yeah. I love you, too."

Who's he talking to? He's not volunteering that information.

He's been touring the country, and he's dog-tired. Hasn't slept in four days. A whisper of a goatee and mustache dust his fine-featured face. Away from the crowd, he's soft-spoken, even sweet.

By some accounts, he's had a rough year: The assault arrest. Record sales at Bad Boy plummeted. Whispers that he's all washed up.

But Puffy doesn't see it that way.

"I have troubles every year, to be honest," he says. "It's been a great year for me. The album's selling well. I just finished producing a new album. I launched a magazine, a clothing line, closed a film deal. Had a child. It don't get no better than this.

"I've had a beautiful year."

Inside WPGC, Puffy springs back to life. A caller is on the line with her 5-year-old granddaughter.

"Tell your grandma to buy that album," he tells the girl.

"Oh, I'ma get the album, trust me," the caller says.

Puffy's skeptical. "Stop playin', Grandma."

"I'm 47 and I get down," she says.

"Okay, then say 'The Benjamins,' " he orders.

She obeys, reciting the lines from his 1997 hit: "I wanna be a baller, a shot caller . . . "

Puffy cracks up.

"I love you, Grandma!" he tells her. "Yo, buy that CD, okay? Buy that CD!"