Some folks are saying Sean "Puffy" Combs is played. Done. Over, at 30.

That his jiggy, which helped define this half-decade in popular culture, is up.

When he was spotted in Harlem's Apollo Theatre at a performance of the heavy metal band Korn a couple of weeks ago, some audience members began chanting "Puffy sucks."

And last week, Lateef Gray, 26, browsing a video game store just across the street from the theater on famed 125th Street, pronounced him corny. "He was so high at one time, now people are just tired of his thing."

He's even e-hated in anti-Puffy Web sites, with one featuring a graphic of him being shot, supposedly for exploiting the death of his label's star Christopher Wallace, a k a the Notorious B.I.G.

Yesterday, Puffy's Bad Boy label released "Born Again," the second posthumous CD from Biggie, the double-platinum rap star, and a lot is riding on its success.

In the fast-paced world of hip-hop, success is as much about image as it is about beats and rhymes. These days, Combs has come up a little puffy on each. After a string of well-publicized contretemps, most notably his April arrest after beating down Interscope Records executive Steve Stoute, disappointing sales from this year's CD release, "Forever," and high-profile label defections, some record buyers have already made him a presumptive has-been.

Oh, it's an Achy Breaky, MC Hammer, Spice Girls kinda decade.

Still, here's a guy who parlayed a college internship into his own record label and his own record label into an entertainment empire. If he's fallen off, perhaps it's a referendum on commercialism, the fickle nature of pop culture fame. Or a meditation on the tragic flaw of fiending for the spotlight.

How do you go from being king of the world to hanging over the rails in two short years?

It is the deconstruction of cool.

"I thought I told you that we won't stop."

--Puff Daddy, "Only You" voice-over

In 1997, as either producer or artist, Combs had a hand in a staggering 40 percent of the country's No. 1 pop hits. After Wallace died, Combs launched a solo career with the 1997 release of "No Way Out." A song from the album, "I'll Be Missing You," a duet with Wallace's widow, Faith Evans, won a 1998 Grammy for best rap performance.

Combs became such a dominant figure, conversations about hip-hop often skewed around whether you fell into the love-him or hate-him camp. He launched Justin's restaurants (named after his 5-year-old son) in New York and Atlanta, and the Sean John clothing line. His entertainment empire includes Bad Boy Film and Television; Bad Boy Management, with its hit squad of top producers; a publishing house; a recording studio; a charitable foundation; and plans for an e-commerce venture.

Different from the Silicon Valley noveau riche, or even Black Enterprise types, Combs crafted an image that gave him access to Martha Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld, but featured a " 'round the way" aesthetic. Self-indulgent, sparkly, way over the top. Ghetto fabulous.

If his ascent was a full-out frontal assault, his tumble has been more nebulous. You have to listen closely to detect the tick-tock of the waning of fame.

According to Dave Cook, a San Francisco-based radio host who runs ahip-hop Web site, the decline actually began when Puffy ruled the airwaves in 1997. "Once he was really king of the hill, he had to understand what it meant to be king and how you rule dictates whether you'll stay there or not," Cook says.

Braggadocio and capitalist swagger--floss--are a hip-hop staple. But fans say it is one thing to brag about being super-rich and loving beautiful women when you're still aspiring. It is another to be super-rich, dating Jennifer Lopez and to seem like you're rubbing everybody's face in it.

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

Even in hip-hop, being too much of a show-off carries an element of bad form.

Last year, Combs threw himself a $600,000 birthday party at New York's Cipriani Wall Street restaurant, whose guests included the likes of Donald Trump. Before that, there was the Labor Day party at his East Hampton home, where guests were required to wear all white. It attracted, among other non-hip-hop celebs, Martha Stewart. This year, he shared the March cover of Forbes magazine with Seinfeld.

Tick-tock, tick-tock.

For a musical style whose appeal is based in large part on seeming anti-establishment, too much sanctioning by "establishment" white folks on the A-list is a bad thing.

Then, early this year, Bad Boy's second-best-selling act, Mase, left after finding religion. This summer there was the public split with rap trio the Lox, featuring Brooklyn fans sporting "Free the Lox" T-shirts. Published reports say that Evans, Biggie's widow, is considering a change as well.

Tick-tock, tick-tock. It looks bad when artists seem to be leaving your camp.

In April came the beating of record executive Stoute over differences about Combs's depiction in a video by fellow rapper Nas. In September, Combs pleaded guilty to harassment and was ordered to participate in an anger-management class. Tick-tock, tick-tock. If you're not a thug, don't act like one.

The numbers tell their own story. In August, Combs's CD "Forever" debuted at No. 2. Now it's 83 on Billboard's top 200 album chart, with 990,000 units sold to date. By contrast, his first CD, "No Way Out," sold 3.4 million units in 1997.

On 125th Street in Harlem, the white lights of holiday stars and snowflakes blink above shoppers on a cold afternoon. The music spilling from speakers at the open store fronts is reggae and Foxy Brown, not Puffy Combs.

Lateef Gray and his friend Chevalier Matthews, 20, dismiss "Forever" at the counter of the Game Exchange, a small video game store in the Mart 125 shopping center across from the Apollo Theatre. Listing the flaws, they count "no good beats" on the tracks and "no originality" in Combs.

"Look, Lil' Kim has her own style, James Brown has his own style," Matthews says, fiddling with the padded earphones around his neck. "Puffy's just a sampler. And this time, he's one without a beat."

Yesterday, with Bad Boy's release of the new Biggie CD, there was widespread speculation that Combs is milking Biggie's death.

"This is not Biggie's work," says New York-based author and journalist Kevin Powell. "This is regression. [Biggie's] early stuff. Doodles in the margins." The current single "Dead Wrong" seems to suggest sex with prepubescent girls. "I think it's a mistake on Puffy's part to put this joint out," Powell says.


Some of the criticism is best understood in the context of the fluid dynamics of hip-hop.

"It's a culture with a very short attention span," says Adam Mansbach, who teaches a class on hip-hop in Manhattan. In general, popular culture is impatient, overstimulated, easily distracted, largely disloyal. Hip-hop calls that, and raises it one.

Combs's signature sound was lushly produced, sample-based dance tracks. And these days, the nonsampled minimalist style of DMX or Ruff Ryders or Juvenile have found favor with audiences.

"He saturated the market with a certain type of music," Mansbach says, "and now folks are reacting by supporting the polar opposite."

And despite his impressive array of holdings, they are all tied into Combs's personal fame in a very direct way. Essentially, "if Puffy is no longer hip, people are not going to go to Justin's. Who wants to go to a restaurant owned by a played-out rapper? Who wants to wear his clothes if he's whack?"

Combs often draws comparisons with another hip-hop mogul, Percy Miller, a k a Master P., who seems less vulnerable to the vagaries of his personal appeal. Miller was 28th on Fortune magazine's America's Forty Richest Under 40, which estimated his wealth at $361 million, just ahead of Michael Jordan. Miller had a brief career as a rapper and even with his perpetual hoop dreams (he's tried out professionally) he's put most of his energies into his No Limit record label, films, toys, shoes, sports management and real estate empire. There's not much behind-the-scenes about Combs, who didn't make Fortune's list. According to Forbes magazine, he earned $53.5 million in 1998, making him the 16th highest-paid celebrity last year (Miller, 11th on that same list, earned $56.5 million).

"You can hate me now"

--Puff Daddy and Nas, "Hate Me Now"

"Generation X and Generation Y, they'll support you, but if they are not feeling you, they'll let you go, too," says Adimu Colon, host of an afternoon show on WPGC-FM and BET's "Teen Summit" show. Colon's not getting a lot of requests for Puff Daddy these days.

Hip-hop pundits say Puffy would do well to eat a couple of helpings of humble pie. Stay away from the flashy materialism--the long white furs. Let some of his philanthropic works take front and center. Especially, sign some new artists. While no one is suggesting he is about to run out of money, there's no denying that the Puffy Brand has taken a hit and requires Combs to regroup, tone down the flash a bit.

If he can. If he can overcome his lust for the spotlight. (Although he's been famously on the cover of GQ, where he compared his situation to that of Frank Sinatra, and graces this month's cover of Vibe magazine, a spokeswoman says Combs is no longer doing interviews about himself.)

Joan Morgan, a New York-based music journalist, thinks it's premature to count him out. It's probably salt in his wounds that much of his audience isn't feeling him anymore, she says, but "if there's anyone who's been able to be Phoenix-like . . . it's Puffy. If [he's] not number one as an artist, then he'll come back as number one at something else. This album didn't do well, and he'll be next year's star of 'Men in Black.' "

It's a go-for-broke perception of Combs that stretches way back.

Ask people who went to Howard University with Combs in the late 1980s what they remember about the Harlem native who was raised in "Money-earnin' Mount Vernon," and they'll tell you. No doubt, it was the black and white rayon polka dot party shirt. He'd wear it on his way to classes in the business school, listening to lectures on marketing and entrepreneurial fundamentals, impromptu dancing on the yard in a circle of coeds, or driving his black Jetta with the New York tags--window down, bass line pumpin'.

Especially, he'd wear it promoting parties, talking about what he was going to do, how much ice he was going to have, how very, very large he was going to become.

"He just claimed it," says Dana McCurry, who attended Howard with Combs and is now a project coordinator for a Washington trade association. "There were a million guys from New York who could dance and wanted to promote parties," she says, but Combs just pointed his bat at the million-dollar bleachers and started swinging.

The polka dots were replaced by Gianni Versace. The coeds were replaced by double-platinum recording stars, the Jetta became a Bentley, but the bass line still rocked. That was then. This is now.

The question is whether the Puffy Brand can survive Puff Daddy.

Should we ever discount a man who's willing to wear the same shirt all the time? Doesn't that bespeak an ironclad, dress-up self-image that, in a very real way, is not subject to the constraints of public sentiment or his current situation? Isn't that one of the traits that allowed him to climb to the top in the first place, and to change our cultural landscape along the way?


Or maybe it just says he can't recognize when his jiggy is up.

Special correspondent Liz Leyden contributed to this article from New York.

CAPTION: Ready for the old rappers' home at age 30? Sean "Puffy" Combs, taping an upcoming TV appearance, has divided the world of hip-hop into two camps: Love Him and Hate Him.

CAPTION: The album cover for Sean "Puffy" Combs's latest CD, "Forever," whose title may prove ironic in the flavor-of-the-month world of hip-hop.