Cassie, the singer, model and actress who is suing the music mogul Sean Combs for physical and sexual abuse, was supposed to be the next Britney Spears or Janet Jackson.
Such a high bar for success was set by Combs, who in addition to dating the singer for more than a decade beginning around 2007 was also her label boss at Bad Boy Records until 2019. “Those two great artists have paved the way,” Combs said in 2008, while hyping up the singer’s much-anticipated second album.
But it never came.
After a promising start to her career in pop and R&B — including an infectious debut single, “Me & U,” that peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2006, and a well-reviewed first album — the singer, whose full name is Casandra Ventura, subsequently struggled for years to regain her footing as an artist. In pop music circles, she has long represented a “what if?” of unfulfilled artistic potential, even as she gained cult-favorite status among R&B obsessives and turned to releasing music independently.
Ventura’s lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Thursday, may cast her abbreviated career in a different, darker light. According to Ventura’s claims, Combs, whom she met when she was 19, began a pattern of control and abuse that fused the singer’s personal and professional life as he plied her with drugs, beat her and forced her to have sex with male prostitutes while he watched and recorded. As their relationship was ending in 2018, the suit says, he raped her after pushing his way into her home.
Through a lawyer, Combs, 54, has denied the accusations, calling the lawsuit “riddled with baseless and outrageous lies, aiming to tarnish Mr. Combs’s reputation and seeking a payday.”
When they first became acquainted, Ventura, now 37, was an aspiring singer and sometime model from New London, Conn., while Combs was a larger-than-life hitmaker — known as Puff Daddy or Diddy — who was credited with developing the careers of the Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige and more. In February 2006, according to the lawsuit, Ventura signed a 10-album deal with Bad Boy. That summer, her debut studio album was released, with writing and production from the R&B polymath Ryan Leslie.
“Just what we need: a young singer and a young producer who want to be the next Aaliyah and Timbaland, or maybe the next Ciara and Jazze Pha,” the critic Kelefa Sanneh wrote in The New York Times, praising her minimalist R&B sound. “No, seriously: It is just what we need.”
“Cassie,” released by Bad Boy and Atlantic Records, reached No. 4 on the Billboard chart, selling more than 100,000 copies in its first week. But promotional appearances on shows like MTV’s “Total Request Live” and BET’s “106 & Park” were rocky, with Ventura citing “significant performance anxiety” in her lawsuit.
Combs, at the time, was her public defender, telling MTV, “It made me really appreciate what I really love about her: She’s a regular person.” He added, “You’ve got to understand that success for her is coming out of nowhere.”
In the years that followed, despite singles featuring Lil Wayne (“Official Girl”) and Akon (“Let’s Go Crazy”), Ventura became known as much for her relationship and public appearances with Combs as for her music. A second album was routinely teased in the press — with Combs touting her artistic development: “she’s really cocooned into a butterfly” — but never materialized.
Still, Cassie remained a pop culture presence. In 2008, she appeared as an actress and dancer in the film “Step Up 2: The Streets.” The following year, she signed a record deal with Interscope Records, in association with Bad Boy, but got even more attention for an experimental hairstyle in which she shaved half of her head. “I wanted to go all the way and kind of land in punk,” she said at the time.
By 2012, with the release of the single “King of Hearts,” Ventura was still touting a comeback. “I’m just a laid-back person,” she told GQ of the six-year gap between albums. “Maybe laid-back to a fault.” She added, “It’s been too long, I know, but I got to start over and over again. It would be awesome to stay popular, but if I was only an underground artist, I would be OK with that.”
In 2013, Ventura released a mixtape, “RockaByeBaby,” that was not promoted with the force of an official studio album, but was met with praise nonetheless. With appearances by the rappers Wiz Khalifa, Rick Ross and Meek Mill, the album showcased Ventura as “an on-mic presence that’s the equal to any of the rappers she’s recruited for features here,” a critic for Pitchfork wrote.
It would be years before Ventura released music again. According to the singer’s lawsuit, on at least two occasions in 2009 and 2015, Combs beat her after seeing her speak to music managers at parties. “She had hoped speaking to this manager would allow her to further grow her career, and that Mr. Combs would be happy for her, but instead he became extremely angry,” the suit says of the 2009 incident.
Following the filing of the lawsuit, two former Bad Boy artists expressed support for Ventura online. “Been trynna tell y’all for years,” the singer Aubrey O’Day, formerly of the Combs-backed group Danity Kane, wrote on Instagram. “Prayers up for this queen.” Dawn Richard, another former member of Danity Kane, wrote on X, “praying for Cassie and her family, for peace and healing. you are beautiful and brave.”
In 2019, Ventura married the wellness consultant Alex Fine while pregnant with the couple’s first child; the “intimate backyard wedding,” with just 14 guests, was documented by Vogue. That year, Ventura also began releasing music again, putting singles online via her own Ventura Music label in what she called the Free Fridays Playlist.
“I feel supported so I make decisions based on what’s best for me,” Cassie said in an interview about beginning a new creative phase as a mother. “I used to spend the most time overthinking the smallest things and always worrying about how people felt that I neglected how I really felt and what would make me happy. I wasn’t creating from the heart.”
“The most valuable thing I’ve learned in starting a new chapter,” she added, “is that it’s OK to ask for help.”