Since I have a small collection of fairly new hip-hop records collecting dust on the review backburner, I decided to kick off the new year by making January, whisperscream's Hip-Hop Review Appreciation Month. OK, so I needed an excuse to review all these records, in the ranges between crap and brilliance. Sue me.
The Notorious B.I.G. aside, when it comes to Bad Boy Records and hip-hop, talent isn't a great priority for its artists. Sure, its R&B sector is usually full of talented, or at least capable, acts (Faith, Total, 112, Carl, Mario, etc
) but when it comes to the hip-hop side of things, style over substance wins every time. It's all about the bling with its hip-hop artists, assuring that their lyrical deficiencies will be buried deep underneath beds of smoke and mirrors, derivatively catchy beats, flashing lights, bright colors, wild dancers, new dances, a TV show, and/or incessant Diddy cameos for good measure. No matter how “gritty” the artist might be, rest assured they'd have some sort of gimmick to compensate for their shortcomings. (Black Rob & “Whoa!”). And out of that crop of “talents”, 6 years ago, the most successful one just upped and walked away.
Mason Betha a.k.a. Ma$e was primed to be the next big thing in hip-hop. Coming off a quadruple-platinum debut album, a slew of top-10 smashes, and guest appearances out the ying-yang, Ma$e had nowhere to go but up. Then in 1998, with the impending release of his second project, Double Up, Ma$e abruptly announced that he was leaving his career behind for a higher calling. The man had suddenly found God and felt it his duty to devote his life to Him instead of music. And the man proved to be dead serious. Unlike many who claim to “retire” from the game and then linger for a few years, Ma$e cut all ties with the entertainment industry. Then in 2004, out of virtually nowhere, the familiar theme song to Welcome Back Kotter signaled the return of Ma$e. Many were shocked, many were curious, and many were uninterested. But promising no obscene or vulgar lyrics, everyone wanted to know if Welcome Back would be preachy, spiritually awakening, or at least entertaining. If you ask me, it proves that Ma$e wasn't terribly missed.
Utilizing the theme from Welcome Back Kotter, and even giving it's composer John Sebastian the sole writing credits, Ma$e picked the title track as the lead single and it was the perfect joint to re-enter the game with. Considering it dropped during the summer, The Movement's interpolation of the theme along with the bouncy keyboards, jittery tambourine, and percussion has a nice, laid-back and summery vibe. It matches well with Ma$e's trademark, drowsy/sing-song flow and his whole concept of how he is “living la vida without the loca” actually being somewhat entertaining created a quaint summer jam that actually made some believe Ma$e's return would be worthwhile. Well, this song was worthwhile. $2.00.
Even with his spiritual rebirth, Ma$e still wanted to prove that he could still make people shake their butts on the dance floor. So he produced the cleanest, and one of the catchiest, club joints of the year with Breathe, Stretch, Shake. Rick Rock's production is crazy, using blaring and beeping synths, heavy handclaps, and surging bass pounds to create an infectious beat that yet again complements Ma$e's flow. And Ma$e proved that minus the sex, drugs and girls, he still could find topics to rap about; things such as his wealth, his wealth, himself, and his wealth. That discrepancy and Diddy's annoying cameo (thankfully, his only one) aside, this was still one of the catchiest records of 04 and made Ma$e's return seem even more welcome. $1.85.
Ma$e next tries to prove that he can still bridge the gap between hip-hop and R&B with Keep It On and makes a convincing argument. Tyrice Jones' production is real smooth and laid-back, with staccato percussion and muted synths, sounding tailor-made for Ma$e's flow and would fit right at home on any R&B record. And for once, a rapper who makes an R&B record without taking the liberty of singing upon themselves. Here, Ma$e makes a decent song with a good message; utilizing Jermaine Stewart's “We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off” on the hook, Ma$e makes it clear that fun can be had without the removal of clothing:
I tell those girls in Melrose that love Chanel clothes to keep they legs closed
The way we met, gave you major respect
I move bodies like I wave the Tech
I make all the young girls stomp like a majorette
You need license to engage in sex
And just because you got the best ride don't mean you the best guy
Like the car, you can't let everybody test drive
And I know you like expensive trips, expensive whips and spending chips
The drink you drink is an expensive sip, I just bought a home in an expensive zip
And ever since I met you, it haven't been dark since
Hold your hands by a Central Park bench
20 million just for the apartment, no financing tell me when your heart went
Being remixed to feature Ciara for the next single, hopefully she doesn't totally wreck it because the vocalist here is perfectly capable and the record sounds fine as is. Ma$e proved that he can make good music and include a great message without being preachy and while keeping his values intact. $2.05.
It was fun while it lasted but the descent from good to mediocrity begins with My Harlem Lullaby. So what exactly is wrong with this record? Maybe it's the Movement's generic, faux-island production, with all the faux-instruments, butchering an interpolation of Madonna's “La Isla Bonita.” Maybe it's Ma$e's decision to drop the song from his sing-song flow and sing the hook off-key and butcher the hook-melody of “La Isla Bonita.” Or maybe how the hook denotes that the song is a dedication to all those who kept faith in Ma$e while the verses seem to be overran with braggadocio. Up until this point, Ma$e had given us a reason to welcome him back but now he's making me question whether or not his return was warranted. $.00.
Derivativeness continues to propel this album as we sink even further with I Owe. Rick Rock's production is extremely generic and uninspired, with nothing but a bunch of synths and drum loops put together in a sequence that's supposed to sound good. Ma$e continues the trend of trudging through the verses and massacring the hooks with his off-key crooning. Here, Ma$e prides himself on living a clean lifestyle, which amounts to more of the same self-aggrandizing braggadocio and us never finding out exactly what it is Ma$e owes, unless it's a refund to those who actually shelled out cash for this. The worst part is, Ma$e doesn't even sound like he's trying to be awful. It sounds effortless. $.00.
Wasting My Time is an ever-so-small ray of sunshine peeking through the derivative clouds simply for Brass N Blues' production being slightly different and slightly more entertaining than the previous two cuts. Still generic and boring, Ma$e exhibits his fetish for snoring through the verses and crooning the hooks yet again. And the concept is the dullest of the lot. Apparently, Ma$e is rejecting a woman for her gold-digger qualities while boasting about all his wealth and material assets and just how great he truly is. For a preacher, he sure does exhibit many qualities indicative of a hypocrite. Makes you wonder if Ma$e is really the one wasting our time. $.25.
Finally, the eye of the mediocre storm approaches in the form of Gotta Survive. Now more than a few, myself included, have said that if Ma$e wants to regain has fans and push more units, then this is the single to be dropped. Lyrically, conceptually, and sonically, it's the soundest record on the album. Against the Movement's rolling piano loop, surging drum loops and synths, and faux-electric guitar creating a somewhat atmospheric vibe, Ma$e goes into a more introspective state of mind and reflects on how hard his life was and still is and how it's a daily struggle to stay afloat but a struggle worth fighting:
Man, they love you when you up, kick you when you down
Look around, VH1 man, where are they now?
Life is amusing, nobody like to see you cruising but everybody like to see you losing
So I stop despising on top of lies and it been prophesied, I'll be ostracized
One day I lost my roadie nem, the day I hit the podium
Now I'm back on top, salty like sodium
A gift to this world man, rapping with a ribbon
Why do you look for a dead among the living?
Some thought I was crazy, some thought I was b!tching
Some said I was lazy, some said I was different
I was so loaded that everybody floated
But once I got to notice, then I got focused
And then I saw they motive, so everybody voted
So I did the way I wrote it and lived it the way I quote it
Gotta survive in this life that's been given to me
When it seems like the world keeps crashing on me
When I'm down, I get by, just keep it real
Gotta survive, gotta survive
Gotta survive in this life that's been given to me
So I try and I try to be all I can be
When it seems like the world keeps crashing on me
Gotta survive, gotta survive
OK, so Ma$e's lyricism still isn't rocket-science. But for once, the pretentious and materialistic braggadocio takes a backseat to more pensive, honest lyricism which would gain Ma$e more respect than any amount of smugness could ever do. $2.15.
In his heyday, Ma$e was well known for his “ability” to bridge the gap between R&B and hip-hop with his singles and his “ability” to play the role of a smooth lover. So he drops the introspection and resumes that role on The Love You Need. But Ma$e sounds pretty desperate to recreate the magic of his previous hits as the production and concept is about as generic as one can get for an R&B-hip/hop love song; imitative mid-tempo production (which samples Biggies “Fn You Tonight“), complete with acoustic guitars and handclaps, pedestrian lyricism on the verses, an unknown R&B singer (Fo' Reel artist Rashad) on the hook and the recitation of lyrics from a previous Ma$e hit, “What You Want”, for good measure. All of it sounds like it's been done just one too many times before and with Ma$e's project being spotty at best, it's more of an injury to him than it would be for someone more established and, dare I say, talented. He doesn't have enough skills to play this one off. $.00.
Now a definite guilty pleasure for this record would have to be the cheesy Money Comes & Goes. I think the summery, feel-good production, equipped with a vibrant horn and surging string section (courtesy of an ingenious sample of “Hows Your Love Life Baby?”), subtle woodwinds and amiable handclaps, is what suckered me in since it's such a jovial piece of ear candy. Seriously, it's sound likes Sesame Street for adults, which is a good thing. Maybe it could possibly be how Ma$e's appallingly braggadocio lyricism about his vast wealth is excusable simply because his laid-back flow was made for this beat. Or maybe it's the irresistibly cheery hook of, “in my life money comes and goes/money comes and goes/even when it's moving slow/I ain't afraid to spend it cause it comes and goes” that keeps me coming back for more. Whatever it is, it works extremely well and if more of this album would've sounded so good, so tolerably good, then I'm sure it would've a much more pleasant project. $2.15.
Although there's a high ratio of married rappers out today, most opt to dedicate their love songs to groupies and video hoes. Well, not minister Ma$e. He makes his dedication and fidelity to Ms. Betha loud and clear on the dreadfully cheesy I Wanna Go. The production is the most cheap and shoddy production I've heard in a while. Everything sounds so cheaply manufactured (and massacres the Mahogany sample). And Ma$e's contradicting lyrical scheme doesn't help matter. The verses and hook seem to indicate that Ma$e is reminiscing about a past love and how he wishes he could go back and do things differently with her. Then for about the last 1:45 of the song, Ma$e croons off-key that, “I'm in love with a girl named Twila/I'm in love with a girl from Mississippi named Twila.” Most women would love it if their husband recorded a love song about them at 5 in the morning. But when it sounds as cheap and cheesy as this, most would probably wish their husband overslept. $.00.
I hope you're well prepared for the horrid reincarnation of “Breathe, Stretch, Shake” because Into What You Say sounds like a cheap imitation when it comes to the production. Shocking that both joints were produced by Rick Rock. Well, evidently Rick applied his A game to “Breathe” and then used the leftover scraps to piece together this joint. But the catchiness is minimal. Now Ma$e does manage to construct a tolerably good and almost catchy hook but the club lyricism on the verses gets lost in the rotation of the other half-a-billion songs similar to it and you quickly lose interest in the song like I lost interest in describing it. This is one club song that deserves to never see the light of day. $.50.
Do You Remember closes the record and has Ma$e asking the listener a very pertinent question; do you remember how he used to be? Yes, we do and sadly, he was better than this. It's more of the same with this track, the only standout being the Movement's intricate and catchy production, with cartoonish keyboards on the hook, sleigh bells, a thumping bass line and a staccato drum loop creating a gritty beat that gave Ma$e an opportunity to shine lyrically. Instead, he opts for his now signature “paint-by-numbers” MO; bragging about the same ol', same ol'. $.99.
Let me make it very clear. This album is a great album simply because of it's play ability. It's the most squeaky clean hip-hop record on the market and makes excellent background noise for any and all occasions, no matter the people or the setting. Now on a more serious tip, the album's biggest flaw is that it's several relatively minor flaws are amplified and made more evident as the album progresses. Ma$e isn't extremely talented and his lyrical repertoire is as deep as a puddle, forcing him to recycle the same cliches and subject matter repeatedly, which makes the album 48:00 playtime run extremely thin. His gimmick has always been his drowsy, laid-back flow and it's ability to gloss over the abundant lyrical deficiencies works okay in small doses. But the bottom line is that Ma$e isn't talented enough and doesn't have enough charisma to play off this album's weak points. Other rappers of his caliber are able to get away with the same musical crimes because they've figured out how to downplay their weaknesses to the masses (i.e. their lyrics) by fine-tuning everything else (i.e. hooks, beats, cameos, etc.). And in his heyday, Ma$e too had perfected that formula. But since Ma$e's 6-year absence left him out of the loop while that memo was being circulated, he's gotten rusty and only works that scheme in small doses, ultimately rendering Welcome Back an album that, most of the time, seems to believe its imperfections are actually its strong points. 6 years and a spiritual rebirth later. . .Mason Betha still has nothing interesting to say.
Worth Hearing: “Welcome Back”:: “Keep It On”:: “Gotta Survive”:: “Money Comes & Goes”
Better Off Without: basically everything else.
Album Worth: $11.94 - Ma$e can go back to fleecing his flock now.