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Masta Ace - A Long Hot Summer

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Artist: Masta Ace

Album: A Long Hot Summer

Label: M3

Review date: Nov. 10, 2004

Can it really be 10 years since Mobb Deep penned, "No matter how much loot I get / I'm staying in the projects / forever" on The Infamous, an early-’90s tributary to the African-American urban underclass? How passé that sentiment seems now.

Barely out of their teenage years when they recorded The Infamous, Mobb Deep reveled in the sensationalism of the different ways they could cut up a bag of coke or a rival hustler crowding their market corner. In the decade since, Prodigy and Havoc, the two rappers and producers of Mobb Deep, have certainly made fistfuls of loot – to watch some of their recent, lavish videos, the duo appear more at home jetting over intercontinental airspace than slinging beneath the crumbling facades of Queensbridge's high rises. If their representation of a savagely mercantile Queensbridge holds any water, however, the prospects of long-term asset accumulation and moving out of the projects could not have weighed heavily on Prodigy and Havoc while recording The Infamous. Making it to the end of the day with a short stack in their pockets was good enough.

Though rappers like Prodigy and Havoc still claim a love for the streets, they would be more than misguided to return to subsidized housing after a decade of gold album sales and hip hop's asymptotically increasing commodity value. They would be, by any economic calculus, completely irrational. So what are successful, or semi-successful, rappers to do when they cherish their homes but are too wealthy or worldly to return? The first half of A Long Hot Summer, the new LP by Masta Ace, presents us with something of an answer.

A Brooklyn rapper now in his 30s, Masta Ace cut his teeth on Marley Marl tracks as a part of the Juice Crew in the late 1980s. Fittingly, Summer is a more mature ode to urban America than The Infamous or any of the other pulp hip hop albums of the early ’90s. From the first couplets of Summer, Ace's voice reaches over the backing drums like the worn hands of a seasoned carpenter. Ace's raps, textured by a ripened vocabulary and sense of rhythm, feel leathered like a wood worker's cracked and calloused palms — if one can feel years of experience upon shaking a carpenter's hands, then one can hear years of craftwork in the first enunciation of Ace's words.

Ace, as the experienced timbre of his raps suggest, is a man who has been beyond his borough and seen the plight of the African-American community from within and from without. Ace recites "As I travel through various towns and strange places / I see the same scowls and frowns on the same faces," on the beginning of "H.O.O.D.,” a reflection of the pervasiveness and permanence of urban decay in America and, in its soul-laced chorus, one of Summer's most endearing songs. Eminem, a rapper who has made quite a career walking the line between being a product of localized poverty and a celebrity cosmopolite, has cited Masta Ace as an influence in interviews, and songs on Summer like "Big City" and "Oh My God" show just where the Real Slim Shady copped some of his realness. Unlike Eminem, however, Masta Ace does not assume alter egos nor does he play the game of obsessive self-referencing. Frankly, he lacks the clout of name recognition to pull such a gimmick off. Ace, rather, writes in the first-person such that on Summer, listeners are ostensibly hearing Masta Ace as Masta Ace.

But so what? In a culture where keeping it real is necessary for membership, when have rappers ever claimed to be anything but themselves? 50 Cent roasted Ja Rule and eventually killed his career by revealing that Rule was not the gangster he had claimed to be. Tupac and Biggie have become martyrs, in part, because they died as they claimed to have lived. The difference between Ace and other rappers like, say, Mobb Deep during their Infamous heyday, is that Masta Ace does not write his rhymes as a gangster, hustler, or according to any other assumed identity or occupation. He writes and rhymes as a writer and a speaker — as a rapper.

Which explains why the first half of A Long Hot Summer sizzles. Ace's observations and commentary on contemporary American urban life are not an immature glorification of drug dealing, prostitution, and murder. Ace is too old and too well traveled to simply celebrate the hood for its ills. As a Brooklyn native and resident, however, Ace is still an insider and cannot turn his back on his community. And as an artist, Ace suggests on one of Summer's interludes that he is beholden to representing what he sees and feels. "I'm working on this song about the beautiful things I see," Ace says. When told that there is nothing beautiful before him, Ace asserts, "Yeah, there is. You just gotta look closer."

Summer culminates in "Beautiful," a brooding meditation at the album's midpoint, where Ace comments on the sights and sounds of Brooklyn from his front stoop. Ace, presenting Brooklyn as a rapper – or, more, as a Brooklyn rapper – is not bound to portray his borough as a hoodlum. All that matters is that he remains true to his city, and true to his craft. Whereas the sights and sounds that mattered to the younger Mobb Deep 10 years ago revealed how the streets can be particularly ruthless, the sights and sounds that matter to the older and wiser Ace on Summer only reveal how the streets are to him as an artist.

Of course, there is a downside to Masta Ace's maturity as a rapper: the second half of Summer is mostly a trite condemnation of the rap industry, a laundry list of the same kind of complaints that A Tribe Called Quest put forward on The Low End Theory nearly 15 years ago ("Industry rule number 4,080: / Record company people are shady"). But the first half of Summer, where Ace confirms his identity as a rapper and not as another cash-wielding hustler, more than compensates for his bitterness about the rap biz. Though he may not be entirely original towards the album’s end, at least Ace remains consistent and forthcoming in his self-portrait as an artist getting by in urban America.

By Ben Yaster

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