As Ma$e prepares to drop his fourth solo album, one writer can't help but wonder: Why?
Cats max out at nine lives, and Ma$e is sounding mad feline right now.
In the seventeen years since Harlem World, we've seen Ma$e change robes and rap styles once and again, from rapper to reverend, regrettably. First, his underwhelming return via "Welcome Back" in 2004. His flirtation with G-Unit in 2007. His novelty collaboration with G.O.O.D. Music and 2 Chainz in 2012. This week he's "back" with a bottle service single "Nothing," featuring Eric Bellinger, dropping five months after the first single of his upcoming album, Now We Even.
It's impossible to get hype for a new Ma$e project at this point. Since 1999, his own Harlem brethren have clowned his many comeback attempts ever since he ditched Harlem rap for Atlanta televangelism. A dynamic career arc, to be sure, but it bends toward irrelevance. Not that Dipset has fared much better—while Cam'ron has scored a sort of niche, nostalgic popularity, Juelz and Jim Jones have yet to recapture even an ounce of that 2002 Dipset magic. Try as they might, the creative odds are against them. Even current superstars, in brief hiatus or digression, sweat under threat of irrelevance the moment their last hot verse has gone cold.
For every Kanye West, there's a dozen floundering Ma$es; for every Jay Z, there's an entire dynasty that never has a resurgence, despite rappers' best and/or most cynical efforts. It bears remembering that Harlem World was itself a feat of reinvention, from "Murda Ma$e" to shiny suit crooner. He went platinum once, and never again. Even more technically proficient MCs tend to fumble their comebacks. 50 Cent has spent the past decade now trying to reprise Get Rich Or Die Tryin', despite his confession that at this point he's more so an observer and judge of hip-hop than an active combatant.
For all the anticipation of Nicki Minaj's imminent return from pop sainthood to her MC roots, right now there's an even less expected comeback on the horizon—peep T.I., whose recent singles and features suggest that he's once more eagerly competitive with veteran contemporaries Jay, Kanye, Jeezy and Ross. His poll position and sales projections aside, T.I.'s back to rapping his as off, playing to win. After that verse on Lady Gaga's Artpop, the listless attention grab that was Trouble Man, and his shilling for Iggy Azalea, we might have surmised that T.I. was gone for good. But this summer he's dropping his Pharrell-blessed Paperwork, billed as "the perfect blend ... [of] trap music and art house."
As a prominent anomaly, Eminem has juggled his pop and rap cred even-handedly, thriving by proximity to Rihanna. But what Eminem, T.I., Jay, and certainly Kanye have in common is a demonstrated enthusiasm for their craft, rather than desperation for another bump of fame. As a multi-vested capitalist, a celebrity husband, and a father, Jay's perspective has evolved, and his music's kept up with the many triumphs and twists of his ambition. Eminem's chronicled drug addiction from rock bottom to pop zenith. Long before Kanye bedded/wedded Kim K. and beheld baby Nori, he aggressively reformatted his sound and aesthetic to keep twelve paces ahead of trend. These guys have a point, and a point-of-view. Ma$e has . . . what, exactly?
You listen to Ma$e and wonder: Why? After all these years, what's Ma$e's stake in scoring another hit single?
You listen to Ma$e and wonder: Why? After all these years, what's Ma$e's stake in scoring another hit single? Apart from the minor financial incentives for his dropping a fourth album, I'd wager that Ma$e's creative vision is as unclear to him as it is to me. And I'd bet that 50 Cent, competitive as he may be, isn't spoiling for a fight in 2014 with the same energy and focus that yielded Get Rich Or Die Tryin' a decade ago. 50 has already conceded as much, that there's life after rap and much comfort to be found in well-financed retirement. Animal Ambition is a multi-millionaire's side-hustle.
Rap is a young man's game, and so it's little wonder that Ma$e, 36, isn't popping quite like he was at 19. If T.I. succeeds, it'll be due to an intensive recommitment to the craft and the culture, rather than the old guard's unfortunately typical brag that they needn't listen to anyone's music but their own.
Good luck with that. I scratch my eyeballs just remembering a particularly gruesome Rakim/DMX collabo from a year ago—Mason Betha, please, don't let this happen to you.
Justin Charity is a fiction writer and freelance struggle correspondent. He tweets as @BrotherNumpsa.