NEW YORK -- Behind the glass at Sean "Puffy" Combs' midtown Manhattan recording studio, singer Faith Evans fights back tears as she lays down the plaintive chorus to "I'll Be Missing You," a duet single dedicated to her slain husband, gangsta rap star the Notorious B.I.G.

B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher Wallace, was gunned down March 9 after a Los Angeles music industry party in front of hundreds of people, including Combs and Evans.

Combs, whose Bad Boy Entertainment has for months ruled the nation's pop album and singles charts, coaches a touching performance from B.I.G.'s widow in front of a handful of guests in the studio, including the murdered rapper's 7-month-old son, Christopher. After a few takes, Combs, himself overcome with emotion, exits the room.

"It just kills me that Biggie is gone. I miss him so much," says Combs, who produced and raps on the new single, a homage to his top act and closest ally. The record will be in stores Tuesday.

"You can have all the success and money in the world, but at the end of the day it really doesn't mean a thing. I can't be happy right now because my best friend is dead. I know God doesn't give you anything you can't handle, but I'm really struggling with it, man. I'm having a tough time here."

B.I.G.'s murder was so traumatic for Combs, he says, that it caused him to reevaluate the kind of message his company was putting out on the street. He will donate to a Bad Boy-affiliated charity his portion of the profits from B.I.G.'s posthumous album "Life After Death," a gangsta rap collection laced with violent and sexually explicit imagery.

He also is in the process of rewriting the lyrics to a number of the songs on his own highly anticipated debut album, "No Way Out," to reflect his new outlook. The album will be out in August.

Combs' impact on the record business, however, goes far beyond his association with the slain rapper. Widely recognized in entertainment circles as one of the most potent creative forces on the East Coast, the 26-year-old entrepreneur, whose record productions have generated more than $150 million, is already on his way to making an unprecedented leap from record company CEO to best-selling artist.

His first solo release, "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down," has been at or near the top of the pop singles chart for nearly four months and "I'll Be Missing You," the duet with Evans, aired on 200 radio stations across the nation when it was released to broadcast media two weeks ago--and the video has been in heavy rotation on BET, VH1 and MTV.

In the past, many recording artists have dreamed of becoming moguls, but no one has reversed the process. Imagine Motown founder Berry Gordy putting out his own album and becoming as big a recording star as Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder.

Sound ridiculous?

Not to Combs.

"I know it's a very weird career move, but I take it very serious," Combs says. He predicts his company will become a global entertainment powerhouse, expanding from music to food and fashion and film. "At first I thought nobody would accept me as a rap artist. After all, it's not like I came from the hood. But you know what? It's all in how you market yourself."

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If you believe the rumors circulating in the rap music community, Combs has been in hiding since the night B.I.G. was murdered.

The shooting followed years of tension in which Combs' success was dogged by suspicion in law enforcement circles about his involvement in a bicoastal feud between Bad Boy and Los Angeles-based Death Row Records, former home to slain rap star Tupac Shakur.

Steeped in accusations of robbery, assault and retaliatory executions, the much-hyped rap war is the target of a federal investigation probing both companies for alleged links to street-gang-related criminal activity, sources said. After B.I.G.'s shooting, reports spread that Combs feared for his life and remained holed up in his New Jersey mansion surrounded by an army of security guards.

But one month after B.I.G.'s murder, Combs is walking casually with a reporter down West 24th Street when a fan approaches and asks him for an autograph. Combs obliges and chats briefly with the woman before he continues on his stroll. A lone bodyguard follows at a distance as Combs begins to address accusations regarding his involvement in the so-called rap war.

"I wish people would judge me by my actions, not by these ridiculous rumors," Combs says. "I'm not some evil underworld mobster from the hood. I'm a young, educated, hard-working black man trying to perfect my craft and earn an honest living. I'm building a legacy here. I'm not going to go down in history for some stupid gangster B.S. No way, man. History is going to remember me as one of the greatest entrepreneurs and entertainers the world has ever encountered."